Monday, December 10, 2012

Frida Kahlo: Roots

This 1943 painting by Frida Kahlo is one of my favorites. She’s fused with nature. Note the capillaries that extend from her into the soil -- the artist nurtures the very land from which she arose. And that wonderful vine -- Frida feels already “recycled” and at one with the great leaves, which are a part of her. Mexico is a part of her, and she is a part of Mexico. 

I used to slightly sneer at people who undertook pilgrimages to “seek their roots.” Relative to them, I could never get away from my roots. I was always being asked, “Where are you from?” Sometimes I felt crucified on my roots, and sometimes experienced them as a place of return. In the poem “The Lost Name,” I imagine the time “when I sleep / in the cradle of roots” -- definitely both the roots of a tree, one of the great Northern trees -- a linden tree in June, buzzing with a million bees -- as well as the metaphorical “roots” of ancestral homeland.

Yet there was a time when I felt tired of the concept. Aren’t we all of mixed ancestry? And didn’t I leave Poland in part to get away from the Polish nationalism? Never mind the irony of having to get used to a much more megalomaniac nationalism. Didn’t I do it to get away from the spectacle of moronic politicians. Again, never mind the irony . . . No, that was not the surprise. The surprise lay in my own poems.

I don’t believe that we choose what we write about. We can’t avoid our central themes. And one of my central themes, perhaps the dominant central theme, turned out to be the loss of the beloved . . . in the form of loss of homeland, slowly but inevitably transformed into a holy land. It sounds ludicrous, I know; but that’s part of being an immigrant. At seventeen, I never signed up for being an immigrant. Who’d choose that? Sounds insane.

Nor did I sign up for becoming a poet. And I didn’t like what I saw emerge in my poetry, again and again, even after decades of living in California. Let me state right away: I love California. But in poem after poem, I kept writing about Poland in some way. The lilacs, the roosters, the chestnut blossoms. The wheat fields, the hollyhocks.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all my poems are about Poland, no. My poem about Kafka really is about Kafka and writing, and my poem about Freud’s mother really is about a mother’s idolatry of her son, the genius. This list could go on and on, and yet . . . I can’t deny how often I start writing about something, anything, but pretty soon it’s the mist of lilacs, it’s Warsaw, it’s the Warsaw clouds like billowing archangels. It’s the woods and fields and roadside crosses. I simply can’t help it: the landscape within me is not the landscape around me. The roots have pierced me forever, and everything I do in some way originates in that very problematic garden from which I exiled myself, and which was hardly paradise.

Someone said that homeland is not necessarily where you live; homeland is where you want to go to die. This rings true to me.


When God says, I could give you
the whole world, but would you take it?
he’s expecting No, since I am the alleged

immigrant at a feast, but I say Yes.
Go ahead, give me the world.
But that already happened at my birth.

Now I believe only in California,
dressed in flames each scarlet,
smoky year. A paradise cracked

with fault lines. Like my life, split
at seventeen. Like my soul,
a missing infinity sign. Not even

the body remains our native country.
Leaving me only the inaccurate
loss of homeland, a place where you go

to die. By nineteen I had a plan:
word by word I'd dissolve
into the thousand-year old 

town where I was born,
a Viking river port,

the river wide as history – 

wintry fortress-like cathedral,

even during summer heat --

and above the crown of thorns, 
me that shivering lost dove; 

me the bowing of the wind 

in the linden trees;
inside empty granaries,
the blinding dance of dust and light.

Meanwhile I’ll take the world.

~ Oriana © 2012

I realized I couldn't leave out the granaries, and the dance of the dust in beams of light, granaries being like churches that way, and almost the essence of my birth town -- like the width of the Vistula there, and the deaths of foolish young men who in spite of warning signs try to swim across to the other shore. That's in part why the “lethal gleam.” The other part of “lethal” is history, needing no explanation.


Speak softly, God! It could mean to someone
that the trumpets of your kingdom called;
for their sound no depth is deep enough:
then all times rise out of the stones,
and all the long-lost appear
in faded linen, brittle skeletons,
crooked from the weight of soil.
That will be a miraculous return
into a wondrous homeland.

~ Rilke, from “The Last Judgment”

That wondrous homeland is the whole earth. But we should also remember that most people used to get buried in the towns and villages where they were lived; the “wondrous homeland” was the familiar trees and grasses, the same river, the same meadows of clouds in the sky. 

In Wuthering Heights, Catherine didn't want to stay in heaven; she wanted to return to the moors. All readers understand this at the deepest level; the real heaven we want is the place we already love, or used to love in childhood and youth -- our first great love.

A miraculous return into a wondrous homeland . . . Even if I tried to ignore my poems, where was it that I found myself in my dreams? Never at my current home here in California, so dear to me in my waking life. 

Late night. I’m standing at the end of the pier with an infant in my arms (but there is no tactile or other sensation -- I don’t see the face or arms -- it’s a small bundle -- it could be a doll), and drop the infant/doll into the cold, black-gleaming ocean. Then right away I’m in the pine woods near Warsaw. I throw myself to the ground, hug the needles, the dirt, thinking, with immense love, Moje, moje -- mine, mine. I sense that the trees are saying, “We will not let them take you back.” 

Perhaps it was the false American self that I threw into the ocean, but at this point I’m a hybrid, and it would be difficult to separate out any “pure Polish” self versus the acquired hybrid Polish and American self. Perhaps it was an effigy of America, or “my success in America” (that incessant lie of almost all immigrants).

But let me not appear to evade the darkest interpretation: I take a newborn, presumably my own, go at night to the end of the pier, and let the child drop into the shiny darkness of the Pacific. I hand the newborn back to Mother Night. Would I be capable of such a thing?

The first answer I hear in my mind is Yes, absolutely. Give me liberty or give me death. A fraction of a second later I hear the rational response: the reminder that I am intelligent and resourceful, and would never allow the situation to become this desperate. Surely even my dreaming brain must know that . . .

All I can say for sure is that I’m getting rid of something unwanted that represents enslavement. The second part of the dream is much more clear: I return to a place I love, I hug the ground, and the very trees love me and protect me.

I’m reminded here of Cecilia Woloch’s poem about arriving in Carpathia, walking out into a meadow, and the ground calling out to her: Beloved, Beloved, Beloved. And Cecilia didn’t even grow up in Poland; her ancestors once lived in Carpathia, and she has traced back the village. The trees began speaking to her, I could tell.


If dreams are returns . . . It was about being loved, but it was self-love too. “Motherhood changes you,” said the women who knew, and I didn’t want to  lose who I was. I’d miss me. Like Emperor Hadrian mourning himself in advance, I’d miss my playful animula.

But becoming an immigrant changes you tremendously. Where is this young girl at the Warsaw airport, trying not to tremble, afraid to turn around and look back, as if the very sight of the poplars would draw me back to them, never to be separated? Within minutes of landing in Frankfurt-am-Mein, my first airport in the West, I felt I was already a different person. And somehow there was no going back. And that was only the beginning.

At first you are so bludgeoned by the new, you can’t reject anything. Then you gain some balance and -- huge surprise -- you are homesick. And you were determined to be the only immigrant in the history of the world who would not get homesick! You were not supposed to cry. Not night after night for two years, and then at unpredictable intervals.

My crying fits began with a strange thought that drifted through my mind a few weeks after the arrival: There is nothing real here. The plastic grass was only one icon, a minor symptom.


I had this dream in mid-August, after two computer crashes and a switch to a Mac. One friend commented, “It’s called going over to the Dark Side.” I had to learn a huge number of new things all at once. But it’s possible that it was already after I read the account of a near-death experience by a Polish woman who lived in the United States for a long time -- was it in Baltimore or Pittsburgh? She had the NDE while still living in an American city.

She did not go to heaven. She was back in the countryside near Warsaw, hovering above it. Every blade of grass, every tiniest leaf was lit by transcendent radiance. Birds were singing, and she found herself envious of the birds because they did not have to leave Poland. She envied the trees because they were rooted and would be staying in Poland, while she knew she’d soon have to go back.

If you think that maybe I am an extreme case of nostalgia, please remember  this woman’s NDE. By the way, the NDE was indeed changed her life. She moved back to Poland, and now lives in the countryside near Warsaw. 

(Here I simply have to tell you, startled reader, that the countryside near Warsaw is far from spectacular: it’s totally flat, mostly fields, some average woods and streams.)

Maybe it’s mainly the question of familiarity. Changing countries causes acute emotional distress because it’s what the psychologists call the “loss of the familiar.” And there is of course the loss of the sense of belonging to a particular place, and owning it. I used to own Warsaw. I owned the river and all the bridges; I owned the royal gardens and all the swans. I even half-owned even the American embassy, and, reluctantly, the Soviet embassy. It wasn’t even a question of beauty, but of ownership. It was all mine.

In the end, the most astonishing thing about the dream is my attachment to the land itself, after so many years. Any lost homeland becomes the “holy land.” It will always be with me, that cradle of roots.

But if you live somewhere else long enough, then the actual homeland (unlike the homeland you carry with you in memory) is no longer yours. Still, after my second trip to Poland, I wrote this poem: 


For a moment I had it again:
greenest fields and wildest clouds,
horse manes and cathedral domes.
I could live in Warsaw, I thought –
but only if on Sundays someone
took me to the fields and woods,
swampy streams with forget-me-nots.

I remember, when I was twelve,
an older cousin sermonizing
on the blessedness of giving.
Standing on the cliffs, still safe,
my joy just looking at the river,
I exclaimed, I don’t want to give.
I want to take and take and take.

There’s no memorial to the honey hue
of that lavish July
when I pronounced my heresy.
Nor to the desert
noon when I knew
I had to live on because
I had not given enough.

The European countryside
is a prayer you don’t profane
with regrets about your life.
Maybe it’s the millennia
of manure-fed humus
when people gave and gave,
and the nourished earth

gave back. For a moment,
looking at the fields,
so ancient yet each spring so new,
I had to live on because
I needed to be given to.

To be loved.
To be seated before
a big bowl of barley soup.
To be driven to concerts
and meadows, naive bridges,
sentimental willows.

To breathe in the scent
of moist woods. To squish
on the slippery muck of leaves
returning to the roots.
To hear no one ask,
“Where are you from?”
From this earth, underfoot.

~ Oriana © 2012

At the same time, if I were asked, “What’s your country?” -- assuming a context that does not involve a passport -- I’d reply, “I have two countries: Poland, where I was born and grew up, and the United States, where I’ve lived all my adult life and where I became a writer.” And it feels rich, to have two countries, two interesting cultures, two fluent languages. I am happy to have had the excitement of Warsaw and, in summer, the beauty of the Polish countryside; and I am happy to have the beauty of California when I look out the window. Ich grolle nicht -- I don’t complain (I have a bit of German too, thanks to Warsaw). No life is perfect, but it would be ungracious to complain. There are worse fates.

Recently I had this exchange with an accomplished Polish poet, Ewa Parma, who lives in Katowice, Poland. 


I don’t know if I could write poems in Polish because the language is so intimate, and the secret of poetry, as Milosz said, is distance. English gave me that distance. 


I'm sure you could write poems in Polish, but as a totally different person, lovely schizophrenia, you know.


Yes, as a totally different person. I’ve tried to imagine that other self countless times, and know it’s fruitless. In terms of personal happiness, I might be happier. When my cousin wrote me that each summer she visits a different Greek Island, I thought, oh, maybe I’d have a similar project. And I’m sure I’d have more people in my life, and be more “communitarian.” I didn’t exactly choose my current reclusiveness. Like practically all the important things in life, it “just happened.”

If I’d stayed, I might have become a language poet. As a child I loved playing with words. Polish words can be morphed in wonderful ways -- I can imagine a kind of Finnegans Wake (not as long -- that would be boring), but not polyglot, strictly Slavic (of course we need to acknowledge German borrowings, like durszlak (the word for a colander)

But then, assuming writing in Polish -- if sufficient suffering hit me, who knows . . . I might swerve into meaning. But my poems would probably not be the lyrical narratives they typically are, influenced as I was by one of the main currents of contemporary American poetry. And, given that I write for the lost beloved, and my most important lost beloved was Poland, I’d have to acquire a different lost beloved -- or a different “motive for metaphor.” 

The schizophrenia of being Polish in Poland is nothing, I think, next to the immigrant schizophrenia, a true pathology in some immigrants who become terminally bitter to the point of delusional thinking.


I can imagine the immigrant schizophrenia, that's what I wanted to avoid and came back.


I was close to succumbing to the immigrant schizophrenia and entering the delusional terrain of totally rejecting the adoptive country. Then I managed to achieve a balanced view: there are things I like about America, and there are things I don’t like -- just as I could list things I don’t like about Poland, and the things I like. And that would be true of any country; no country is all good or all bad. All countries are holy places to those who were born there and grew up there -- this is what some would find out only by leaving their country of origin.

Every Polish child memorizes this simile, the most famous one in Polish literature: “my fatherland, you are like health. / Only he knows your worth, who has lost you.” I never thought I’d experience the truth of those lines.

At this point, I feel “sane” -- balanced in my feelings toward both Poland and America. What has remained unchanged is the sense of non-belonging and isolation. The people around me were molded by the American popular culture; I can’t begin to “relate” to the Howdy-Doody show.

There’s also the isolated feeling of being an atheist here, while in Warsaw after the break with the church (still, I repeat for the twentieth time, the most courageous act of my life), I felt finally at home, leaving the darkness and stench of the Middle Ages for the light of reason, poised to enter the ranks of the intellectual elite. That was my manifest destiny -- in either country, I thought. But life rarely works out the way we imagine in our teens. Actually, I have to admit that life is a lot more unpredictable and interesting than we could possibly imagine at fifteen or seventeen. As I also keep saying, I live in continual astonishment. 

Later Ewa remarked that it’s “easier to be an immigrant because you know what you miss.”


I never thought of it before: the specificity of missing something. I miss Aleje Ujazdowskie. I miss being on a train that's going through Koluszki. I miss pierogi. To people who haven't lost Koluszki there is nothing transcendent about that station; it's vaguely comic, that sweet name. But no, it's not easier, because you miss Koluszki on top of the universal problems with love and work. You miss what was familiar in the early years of your life in addition to having to deal with the universal human dilemmas.

I miss the little front yards with sweet-peas and peonies, and not the Warsaw Botanical Garden (though I can understand why some people adore the Botanical Garden). It’s not that I’m indifferent to the splendor of the Tatras, but I miss the gentle hills of Pomerania. It’s all about the familiar.

Do you know how I imagine heaven? As the ultimate country of immigrants. They say things like, “This is a wonderful place, the weather’s perfect. But what I’m thinking of is that bar in Pittsburgh . . . “ and “off they go again,” missing the familiar.

In a different vein: Poland has a warm culture, comparatively speaking, and people aren't as isolated. But things are changing, I noticed: traveling by car rather than by train, where you can have fascinating conversations with total strangers; streets seemed emptier to me, more people indoors watching TV rather than enjoying the city).


If you had stayed in Poland, do you think you’d write about Poland?


Thank you for assuming that I’d write at all. I have a vague feeling that one way or another I would indeed have become a writer. A poet? That’s a bigger maybe. I still see poetry as basically trauma-driven -- or, in less drastic terms, as written out of “wrongness,” as Christian Wiman puts it in Poetry and Ambition. 

But back to your question: no, I wouldn’t write about Poland, unless peripherally. I might mention a street, a river. Just mention them, without that holy hush. If I’d stayed, I suspect I’d write about Italy, Greece, France; I might in fact be a travel writer, as I sometimes imagined my future when I first even dared to think of becoming a writer. I’d also probably write about culture in general, about literature and theater. About history, and I mean world history, which always interested me more than Polish history per se.

I might write about motherhood. Or about forests and animals. Who knows? Anything is possible, but the one thing that seems impossible is that I’d have written about Poland the way it happened when I started writing in Los Angeles. I became a poet in Los Angeles. And I was quite fond of many places in Los Angeles, but I found myself writing about Carpathia and the Baltic. It was not a choice; all of a sudden, it seems, I was writing about the chestnut trees in bloom and the wooden bridges over the Raba, or the Prince Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw. I was writing about the streetcars. If I continued to live in Warsaw, I doubt it would ever enter my head to write a poem about streetcars.

But then, as Ewa pointed out, I would now be a completely different person, and there would be no oriana-poetry blog. Would there be a different blog? Maybe. About what? I don’t know and I can never know.

That’s one of the strange things about being an immigrant: you try to imagine the person you’d have become if you’d stayed, you desperately try to imagine her daily life, her apartment, her mornings, her nights -- and you can’t. You want to call to this invisible twin sister, talk to her, cry and laugh with her. And you can’t. In spite of what the poems want, she doesn’t exist. 


I don’t remember seeing this painting by Frida and it's by far the best in my opinion. The way she is entwined with the earth in a prone position looks as if she is putting down roots. Speaking of details: those roots and vines!

The concept of: if god gave you the whole world would you take it? -- that would be  overwhelming and too mind-boggling  to get your thinking around.

Liked the soul wearing an infinity sign. Considering all the "souls"  in poetry I've been writing about--hardly a poem that doesn't contain"soul."

Favorite lines: the river wide as history and about barley soup. Details.

I think your youth saved you coming to a strange country. You eventually adapted but all the older immigrants I've know including my great grandparents found it almost impossible to assimilate to get over mourning the old country. Some I remember never learned English and the women never left the house.

About reclusiveness -- I read recently that Emily was not always a recluse but fell into the well of poetry deeper and deeper until the outside world  didn't exist except in what she made of it in her poems. I find the older I get the less I want to be anywhere but writing or reading poetry -- an occupational hazard?


This painting is certainly one of Frida’s masterpieces. I’m surprised that it’s not more famous. I can’t think of any other painter who paints so metaphorically. Dali’s surrealism seems pretty shallow next to this.

By “I could give you the whole world” I meant “anything you might want is yours.”

Age is definitely a factor, and I’d likewise not advise anyone, well, “older,” to even try to change countries, especially if acquiring a new language is a must. The first years can be extremely stressful. And America is extremely complex: the many kinds of insurance you have to have, the weird tax system, having to have a car, with all the complexities and responsibilities that involves . . .  If you didn’t grow up with these complexities, they are truly overwhelming.

At the same time, the “happy immigrant” myth also makes it more difficult to make a realistic adjustment and not feel like a failure. You go to America in order to be a success . . . “started by cleaning restrooms and ended up a millionaire.” That’s true of maybe one person in the history of the world. Maybe. Usually it’s rather “you can’t get there from here.”

In Europe at least the fate of the Russian aristocrats after the October Revolution set a prince-to-pauper pattern that seems unknown in America. But here too you encounter the prince-to-pauper stories. And becoming declassé is a special kind of emotional disaster: the sorrow when you know you can’t give your children what you yourself had.

Poets and writers have to have the gift for staying alone in one room for hours and hours. Without that solitude, no great work can be done. But there is a need for experience as well, so it’s always a difficult balance. Poets need to do a lot of “gazing at the world,” as Larry Levis called it. They are naturally reclusive and introspective, so they need to remind themselves to “gaze at the world.” That leads to prose more so than poetry, I know. There is no perfect solution. 

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