Tuesday, July 13, 2010



Driving against the margin of smog,
past the sign: LAWNDALE
I saw a scattered junk yard
of a driveway garage sale. 
Soon I was to survey
old lamps and vases, pink piggie-banks, 

porcelain cats, boxes of books: 
trash science fiction and pulp romance,

decaying hardbacks, one in faded gray – 

I almost shrieked: Goethe: Faust,
a Polish translation, Łodź, 1968 –


In Lawndale, in my native tongue, 

Faust spoke to me again:

Two souls in eternal strife

live within my breast.

One craves immortal heights;
the other, things of the world.

Mephisto reveals his name:

I am the spirit that says No
“How much?” I asked the seller.
She squinted at the worthless tome:

“A dime will be fine,” she chimed,
turning to someone who craved a giant 

purple fruit-punch bowl. I fished out 
a dime. Wondered, what were the chances? 
One in a million? Less? Mephisto flying

thousands of miles over land and wave,
leaving footprints of flame in the air –
waiting for me for years

amid the do-dads and delusions.
I thought: an act of grace –
I who once argued against grace,

an adolescent enraged that salvation
had to be a gift, unearned –
like the great poem I held in my had

while the sun beat on my head
as I stood on the cracked driveway
in the City of Tomorrow, Today.

~ Oriana



(Faust in Las Vegas -- now that would be quite appropriate. Faust in Lawndale would be like Hamlet in Newark or King Lear in Detroit -- though that perhaps the latter would have some promise of hip-hop transformation.)

I continue to be astonished at my having found that old Polish translation of Faust in a most unlikely setting, toward the end of the most wretched years of my life (just after The Howling Years; during The Years of Tears, Part II). My finding the book (an excellent translation, by the way; still my best Mephisto) seems a miracle. The book came to me just at the right time, as if to show that miracles can happen.

It would be terribly unfair to compare this strange but tiny vignette to Primo Levi’s reciting the Ulysses Canto from Dante’s Inferno in Auschwitz: that was a once-per-universe situation of extreme contrast. But whenever I recall my “Faust in Lawndale” incident, I can’t help thinking of my own craving for “immortal heights” colliding with the shabby reality of not just that neighborhood, but my jobs and relationships – my whole life back then.

And yet, and yet – there I stood in the cracked driveway, browsing through one of the masterpieces of world literature. As I say in “Connections,” I was rich beyond compare. And my real homeland was the country of the mind. 

The image below shows a driveway similar to the one I remember.

No penthouse up in the sky with floor-to-ceiling windows for me!

That, in my teens, was my dream of America. In Warsaw I lived on the fourth floor, with tall windows, and that already was a feast: all I needed to be happy was look out the window and see the city. I imagined that in America I wd live on a much higher floor and the view would be grander, out into the distance. Imagine how I felt when I saw the little one-story suburban houses. 

Your poem about Faust in Lawndale goes back to our discussion of Neruda and his affection for found objects, gifts from the universe, small miracles. Once walking in the drizzling rain on a dreary beach in Homer Spit, Alaska I came upon a tropical shell – in all that dark ugly sand – a bright pink murex. When I picked it up thinking to take it home I realized the creature was still alive. I put it back in the water. Does it count as found if I couldn't keep it? and what meaning comes from this experience – the pleasure of the memory?

I think it’s the unlikelihood of finding things where least expected that is the gift: the juxtaposition of Faust in a yard sale and a murex in the dingy sand of Alaska. It reminded me of the “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens. 

Yes, I think “finders keepers” applies here, since we get to keep those miracles, big or small, in our amazingly capacious (if inaccurate) memory. These are the gift from the universe, as you wonderfully put it.

One of the main principles of statistics is: “rare events do not happen.” But in life rare events seem to happen surprisingly often! Or perhaps the frequency is an illusion, since those are the events that we tend to remember, and not the daily drip of the expected.

(I wish to thank Michael Peterson for inspiring this post.)


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