Thursday, September 22, 2011


Return to Koluszki

If there is an afterlife, there will be no
angels. Winged desire will return
to Koluszki, Skierniewice,

towns I never knew
except as train stations —
yet it seems I stood forever

in the Market Square at noon
on brick pavement smooth as bones
turned into an alphabet.

Meanwhile scattered in space-time,
memory’s mass grave,
it’s my sweet abusive lover

speaking his last words:
To succeed, you must be willing
to wear uncomfortable clothes

but before he pulls the trigger,
turns to me and says:
Remember only the beauty. 

We few, we happy few
who’ve danced on the floor of hell
in the arms of crematorium smoke.

Let us build Socialism,
he dead sing from cathedral clouds,
and Kafka has beautiful hands

when he gestures like rain.
Let us ring all the bells,
let us hold a grand ball

at the railway station.
But for now or eternity I stand
a few steps beyond the known,

feeding crumbs of my soul
to the insatiable angels.

~ Oriana © 2011


Recently I heard this on the radio: “It’s OK if there is no heaven. I can live with that. What I can’t endure is the thought that there is no hell – because then what about Hitler and the other bad guys? Where is the payback?”

I was completely amazed that anyone was so concerned with “payback.” Apparently the god of vengeance is not dead. To me the notion of never-ending "payback" has no appeal. Even if Hitler deserves eternal torture, punishing him in this manner would not restore a single life. It would not make a grieving mother glow with happiness again.

But let me address the opening statement: “It’s OK if there is no heaven. I can live with that.” Personally, I’ve lived with that since the age of fourteen. In any case, heaven has always been too high an aspiration. It astonishes me that so many people assume that they deserve eternal bliss (and in old-style Catholicism you really had to deserve it – Christ’s merit was not enough. If you didn’t deserve it, and the nun strongly implied that you didn’t, you would have to be purified by centuries -- centuries! -- of punishment in Purgatory).

There is also the problem of location. As Milosz observed in one of his late poems, “Second Space,” Western culture has essentially lost the idea of heaven in the clouds and hell blazing inside the earth. It is hot deep within, but the furnace is not stoked with sinners. What we have come to know, and it's no joke, is "hell on earth." And only half-joking, we’ve begun to speak of heaven as returning to a place we loved. When one of our San Diego poets suddenly died, eulogies and memorial poems mentioned that “Linda is now in Paris.” I imagined her in a different paradise, the Meditation Gardens at the edge of the world, on the cliffs over the Pacific.

But it’s OK if there is no heaven. I too can live with that. What I’d settle for is simply continued conscious existence, not in paradise, but in a much more modest place. That’s why I chose Koluszki, a small town in Poland that, because of its central location, had a huge train station – and still does, but now it’s been modernized. To return to something similar to the legendary railroad palace of my childhood, I’d need to get off at the station in nearby Skierniewice.

All the quotations I use in the poem are literal. You may well wonder about what kind of people I attract as friends and lovers. Certainly not what is glibly described as “normal” or “average,” even if no one has ever been able to define those terms as they apply to our complicated species. Still, I admit that a lover who says, “To succeed, you must be willing to wear uncomfortable clothes” (I think he did hit on something there, especially if we metaphorically extend “clothes”), or a friend who shouts at landing jets – I admit that I’ve been particularly blessed or cursed to be a magnet for the unusual.

I used to say, with Bukowski, “The insane have always loved me,” but that’s too strong, no matter how many of my friends and acquaintances have been on a psychiatric ward. Rather, I have been blessed to have known some colorful people. How did a couple of them (not counting Kafka) get into my Koluszki poem? “It’s all grace.”

It’s only after writing this poem that I realized that the task of my life as a writer and teacher and friend has been to feed the crumbs of my soul to hungry minds/souls out there. I haven’t fed meals to orphans or the homeless, but I have seen satisfied smiles on the faces of my students and audiences. That is reward enough. And it would be lovely to be able to continue this work in the afterlife . . . but I don’t insist. To have experienced it even once makes me happy.

But if I let my imagination roam free, then heaven would be a return to Warsaw, and especially to my favorite part of it: Aleje Ujazdowskie and Lazienki Park, with its statue of Chopin and the classical-style royal palace of the last Polish king – exquisite compared to the restored royal palace in Old Town. And of course the statue of Daphne changing into laurel, and the weeping willows and the swans. But I’d be happy just to walk under the huge shade trees, even in spring drizzle, when lilacs are in bloom, and later, the chestnut trees. Or in autumn, with maple leaves performing their ballet of falling.

Here is an excerpt from Cecilia Woloch’s marvelous piece set in Lazienki:

(For the Man Who Speaks with Trees)

Thin moon over Warsaw tonight. A haggardly golden half moon in a milky haze, slipping behind a cloud. “This tree saw the last Polish king,” he said of the giant oak in Lazienki Park. It was still early evening then, the deepening blue of summer dusk. The old palace shimmered over the lake and he walked right up to that tree, as if to kiss it, his nose to the bark. I stood next to him, face to the bark. “It doesn't speak Polish or English,” he said, “but the language of trees.” I heard it, too. His breath or my breath through the wood, or both; the breath of something else . . . When we kissed goodnight in the street, my lips were sticky, as if with sap.

~ Cecilia Woloch, © 2011


And let me quote the opening of a short story I once wrote, in the form of a letter from my double – that ghost woman, my Penelope, my divergent twin who’d stayed behind in Warsaw


Leaving creates an undertow resplendent with abyss.
                                       ~ C. Eshleman

Dear Sister, My Dearest Twin,

Yesterday I walked down your favorite street, on the side opposite the American embassy, with the huge trees and the long wrought iron fence. I sat on a bench – perhaps the same bench where a man once sat down next to you, tall, silver-haired, neatly dressed and crazy, and sweetly asked you to help him write a letter to the Prime Minister to complain about a mistake he found in a newspaper: the name of a certain town in the Soviet Union was incorrect. “I know because I was born there,” he wanted to assure the Prime Minister. I didn’t yet exist, not in that simpler geography of time. You think only you attract the bizarre; I sit on the bench and watch the leaves fall. You and I like it best when a leaf falls slowly, rocked by the wind back and forth, back and forth. It's a long way to fall, across twenty-five years.

See, you forgot it’s autumn. I know your mouth has just twitched slightly, your teeth clicked with irritation – you are forbidding me to use that worn-out phrase, “the golden Polish autumn.” You loved the passion of red: old walls scarlet with ivy, the red burning along the veins of maple leaves. Yet I remember what you thought during the trip to West Virginia that astonishing October when you were seventeen: a fabulous blaze, but those were not real trees.

~ Oriana, © 2011


I don’t believe in any traditional afterlife, but I do believe in leaving behind us something of value to others. It’s not necessarily anything we leave intentionally. It can be something we said that lent itself to a soul-nourishing interpretation someone else needed at the time.


past the blind mirrors of downtown,
I see you again: you and I
by the side of your car, our last goodbye
the bellies of incoming jets

swooping over us,
your head in a halo of drizzle,
tilted as you shout,
Keep your nose up!

You show me how a plane
descends, its nose pointing
up – it mustn’t nosedive.
Your arm goes down and

down, precise, horizontal,
landing in the most dangerous
airport in the country.
No one foresaw, everyone was blind

about the coming wreckage, 
your body found
alone in your condo.
But I always see you

as you stood back then,
mantled in fine rain,
shouting, Keep your nose up!
The jets' shark shadows cross

the mirror drizzle of time.
It’s to me you gesture,
it's to me you shout –
showing me how to land,

how softly to arrive.

~ Oriana © 2011

in memory of Linda Brown, a San Diego poet, December 14,1941- February 14, 2006

Linda Brown, her high school graduation photo, 1959

Ewa Parma (in Poland):

Fantastic. So, you miss even Koluszki, Oriana. And Lazienki Park is your personal heaven. Immigration must be Inferno then. I couldn't stop smiling when I read: "The insane have always loved me." True. And about feeding the angels with crumbs of your soul. That's what poets are for. Thank you.


I miss the old Koluszki train station. It was part of every summer. Lazienki and Aleje Ujazdowskie are indeed my heaven, starting at the Square of Three Crosses. I could walk there for eternity, especially when lilacs are in bloom . . .

Immigration was definitely Inferno at first. The Untermensch feeling is unavoidable, I think.  And if the milieu you grew up in was radically different from where you end up – and I went from an intensely intellectual milieu to an anti-intellectual one, or at least one where it was difficult to find intellectual peers – alienation is unavoidable. Even without that, I’ve met so many bitter, unhappy immigrants, it seems an endemic condition. As Danusha Goska said, Don’t ever be an immigrant. I second that. Not unless your life is in danger.

Having said all this, I’ve been inclining to the view that, past the Inferno stage, immigration is a Purgatory. It would take another blog post to explain.

I’m thrilled that you understand the part about the poet feeding the world with crumbs of her soul.


Thank you for "Return to Koluszki." I was very moved by it – on a number of levels. And, as in all really excellent poems, I was moved more deeply each time I re-read it. The opening lines involve me at once: 

If there is an afterlife,
there will be no angels.
Winged desire will return

to Koluszki, Skierniewice,
towns I never knew
except as train stations –

I love the image of a "winged desire" rather than angels in the afterlife--although I'm intrigued that at the end of the poem you are feeding crumbs of your soul to "insatiable angels"--an ending image, by the way, that is stunning in its accuracy. Don't we all do that as we create art? The angels are insatiable, just as our own inner vaults are endless. There are beauty and terror in those lines, as is true of all spiritual encounters, I believe.

And the music of standing in the market place in the "sway of the Angelus" is gorgeous, especially followed, as it is, with the haunting reminder of what humans can do to humans in "pavement smooth as bones" and the evocative "memory's mass grave." Given the location of the poem, these lines carry some precious and powerful freight.

And then the appearance of your "abusive lover" and Linda add a drama and presence in the poem that work very well. "Remember only the beauty" is truly a haunting line, especially from someone about to pull the trigger (in a suicide, it seems?). Such amazing combinations of beauty and terror!

I really can't tell you how moved I was by this poem. It is so beautiful. What a wonderful statement of the artist's condition:

But for now or eternity I stand

a few steps beyond the known,
feeding crumbs of my soul
to the insatiable angels. 



All I can say is thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It’s wonderful to see that a reader understands a poem of mine so well, finding a layer of meaning that actually escaped me. Coming from Poland, I can easily think of mass graves (I even have a poem about seeing them as a child in a Pomeranian forest) – but as so often happens during the creative process, the line with “mass grave” came on automatic. Thanks for pointing out that the location of the poem adds a historical dimension to that. 


[Oriana wrote: One obvious Q is where you'd like to go/return for your "heaven." Would it be Berkeley? Oregon? Egypt? Or maybe more than one place.]

Definitely not Egypt, but the others are appealing.  But everything one imagines about heaven is something one knows from this life.

"Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."


I agree: Everything one imagines about heaven is something one knows from this life. Even science fiction can’t seem to get that far away from earthly reality. When it comes to heaven in particular, the Christian variety has been dreadfully colorless and unappealing because what we really want is a wonderful cup of coffee, great food, and, why not, finally finding that soulmate or missing half. And pets, absolutely. And friends – some of whom may have wound up in the other place, which wouldn't make us happy. 

Actually I startled myself with both my Warsaw as heaven and Koluszki as “modest afterlife” fantasies, since in both places I remain solitary. In Warsaw, just the city was fascinating enough and I can imagine myself blissed out on my favorite avenue. In Koluszki I’d miss friends, I suspect.

And yes, we already live in paradise. Without denying suffering, this is still paradise, nor have we been exiled from it. It also strikes me that the synonym of heaven is “life everlasting,” while hell is occasionally called “death eternal.” As I say in one of my poems, “We don’t want heaven, we want life.”


I can't recall a single blog posting when I have not found something of interest; from religion, Greek myth or philosophy your musings and reflections are great to ponder over a good cup of coffee. What a great question. I could easily spend my afterlife in a small house by the beach in Hawaii, specifically the North Shore of Oahu. It would be nice to have an eternity to explore the other islands or all of Polynesia for that matter, much like Robert Louis Stevenson, Melville and Jack London did. Of all the places I have travelled to, Hawaii meets all my expectations and then some: mountains, beaches, warm weather with plenty of interesting plant and animal life.

As for Melville, pondering the next world was a lifelong obsession as Hawthorne noted in a famous journal entry. I would bet he too would have chosen somewhere in Polynesia to spend eternity, or if not there his home in the Berkshire Mountains where he penned his classic Moby Dick; I hope to visit it one day.

I was going through some of your older blog entries and as I mentioned earlier it's just amazing how your postings are full of some of the deepest thoughts yet I never feel it's over my head or too lofty; it hits just the right mix of scholarly and 'neighborly'. I was looking over your post on the Odyssey and it brought to mind Kazantzakis' epic; he and Melville were kindred spirits indeed. If ever you get a chance, Melville's novel 'Mardi' is time well spent, a grand sweeping journey through the mind; a dress rehearsal for 'Moby Dick.' Thanks again for posing such a thoughtful question and rest assured, your thoughts and poems have indeed brought many a smile and appreciation to me and all who follow your blog; if a poet’s mission is to bring enjoyment and thoughtful reflection you have met that and more.


Your comments certainly bring me a smile every time. I was just reading, on another blog, of a restaurant menu listing “harpoon-caught swordfish,” and immediately thought of Melville, Moby Dick, and you. And when I opened my email, there you were, with Melville not far behind.

Do you by any chance have a link to that journal entry you mentioned, Hawthorne’s commenting on Melville’s obsession with the afterlife?

Thanks for recommending Mardi. I now remember that an English professor highly recommended it. Needless to say, I love the sermon on Jonah in Moby Dick and Melville’s courage to philosophize rather than be a shallow entertainer.


This can be found at, from a journal entry Hawthorne made after a visit from Melville;

"Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.... [W]e soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence. Melville has not been well, of late; ... and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.... Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us."


Oh, thank you, this is wonderful! This is so much like Milosz's struggle to believe. Milosz was an atheist in his youth: I guess he too “pretty much made up [his] mind to be annihilated.” And later he was too intellectually honest to accept the Catholic doctrine without questioning, which he knew would lead to heresy. But then each person’s belief or unbelief is personal. I agree with what Michael said once, that one’s religion is autobiographical.

Hawthorne's prose here sounds somewhat like Melville's – I guess it's the period, the interesting roll of those long sentences, before the era of sound bytes.

“Better worth immortality than most of us” – and this he achieved, in the sense of a literary afterlife.  


Hawthorne was right on the mark as Melville truly never got free of the struggle he had regarding these matters. He read widely on Buddhism late in life and while he found much to admire in its lack of an uncompromising creed, he did not adhere to its total resignation of self and quest for Nirvana.


Milosz too could not really embrace Buddhism. He knew he wasn’t really able or willing to renounce desire, especially the desire that things wouldn't perish totally. He kept hoping that everything, absolutely everything is preserved somewhere in another realm.

Re: finding some peace in the face of all this vanishing. It took me a long while to “rest in that anticipation [of annihilation],” i.e. to feel how the world becomes enlivened once we look around and say, “This is it. Let’s make the best of it while it lasts.” Heaven, according to the new Catholic definition, is not a place but a state of mind, and hell likewise, and both can be experienced on earth. Am I ever completely separated from beauty, from great books, great music, human affection, and all the other things I love? If not, then I am in heaven. Thank you, John-Paul II, for pointing out that I am already in heaven! Sometimes to a greater degree, of course, but I find variety desirable, even in heaven. Even an occasional dose of hell is refreshing in its own way, to make us love the heavenly state all the more.

John Guzlowski:

“Koluszki” is a great poem, Oriana.


Thank you. I was worried if the reader needed to have grown up with the meaning of Koluszki, simultaneously “nowhere” and a legendary train station. In Poland, all trains go to Koluszki.

John G:

I didn't know that but sensed something of it in the poem--the impossibleness of the place mixed with its reality – a sort of magical realistic moment in the poem.


This is probably the most "magical realistic" poem of mine -- thanks for pointing it out. Koluszki figures in popular songs and in the legend (it's probably a legend) of a grand New Year's Eve ball at the station when a blizzard stopped a train headed for Warsaw. Thus everyone knows the name of the town because it's such an important railway station, but nobody I knew had ever been to the town itself. The station could as well have been a portal to nowhere. Ewa Parma inspired my post with her poem "The Last Station," which warns against getting stuck in Koluszki.


This latest blog is particularly good. I like the poetry — yours and Cecilia’s both. Re: the attraction of bizarre people, paranoiacs are attracted to me, and I to them. That was a worry until I found out that on a Rorschach Test they will see in the blots not only the many disparate objects intelligent people see but will put all of these together in a coherent story. It’s obviously that quality of imagination in paranoiacs that make them appealing. Poets and paranoiacs both find resemblances in basically unlike things. The difference is that poets (provided they’re not mad) know that they’re making metaphors, while paranoiacs mistake their metaphors for reality.


Joseph Campbell said that “essential schizophrenics” (but not paranoiacs) were on a hero’s journey – note, he said, the elements of withdrawal from society, initiation, and return as a more aware, self-confident person with a gift for the community (the question of return is not entirely clear, though perhaps near-death experiences are a new model). As the saying goes, the typical distinction between “artists and madmen” is that both dive into the waters of the unconscious, but the artists “know how to swim.”

Sink or swim, humans with their immensely complex, pattern and meaning-seeking brain, risk reading too much into everything that happens. Schizophrenics, creative people, and Jungians can easily find meaning in practically everything. Also, people in these three categories are drawn to more cosmic meanings rather than the mundane. I suppose we need to add religious mystics and New Age “psychics” to the category of people who can read a larger meaning in what others would see as quite ordinary. 


What a surprise to see Linda Brown on your blog!  But that does fit with your talk of immortality, she who put her book together just in time before her death.


Yes, if not literary immortality, then some measure of a literary afterlife – even just a decade or so – even that is an amazing thing to contemplate. And just the endurance of books as books, not necessarily one’s own, brings us certain emotional comfort. This is also in line with Milosz’s poem about books having their own life, “And Yet the Books.” Let me quote the ending:

I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.


I think this is also a chance to give the reader a tiny taste of Linda’s own poetry. Beset with many problems, a spiritual seeker drawn to Eastern traditions, Linda saw meaning and comfort in what others might find ordinary. Here is the first stanza of “One Leaf”

A leaf from a liquidambar tree fell
out of a blue November sky
toward the ground below. It caught
in a series of oak leaves, did not
make it to the canyon floor. The sound
of one leaf falling, like a circus acrobat
into a safety net, is what I came here for.

~ Linda Brown, Journey with Beast


Finally, Gloria Hajduk, a visual artist who resides in New Mexico, sends us this gem:

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