Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Landscape with Dead Horses, 1945

Landscape with Dead Horses, 1945

In the end Hitler sat
in his cold bunker
and asked his soldiers
about his horses,

“Where are they?
Where are my horses?”

And no one dared
to tell him,

“They are dead
in the fields
with the Poles
and their horses,

bloated with death
and burning
with our corpses.”


This poem is part of a sequence of three poems called "Landscape with Dead Horses" that were published in War, Literature, and the Arts: A Journal.  If you click here, you will be taken to the poem. http://www.wlajournal.com/poetry.html

Sunday, November 23, 2014

6 Short Poems about the Monk Ikkyū

Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun), Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun) poetry, Buddhist, Buddhist poetry, Zen / Chan poetry,  poetry,  poetry

Ikkyū was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet (1394-1481).  A couple years ago, I wrote a sequence of poems about him.  The poems appeared in the Buddhist Poetry Review.

6 Short Poems about the Monk Ikkyū 


Ikkyū stands
at the edge
of the great sea—

there are waves
in his eyes
so he shuts them.


If Ikkyū falls asleep,
his dreams don’t. 

They live
in the river country
of trees and sunshine.


Ikkyū sits
in the marketplace
and tries to explain

Here’s what he says
to a soldier:

A tree is
the palm of my hand
and the face
of all there is
in the universe
to wonder about

It is the tree to heaven
and its roots start
in my heart and yours.


Ikkyū knows
Buddha can’t tell him 
why the rain falls
or why sin is a wide road
with many curves

or why he grows old 
when he has struggled 
so much to know 
so little of life.


Ikkyū watches
the snow fall
at night

He’s happy
it’s warm
and that others
sleep in the shadows
with him.


Ikkyū  eats
a black cherry
and remembers
a dead friend

how much he loved
their dark
early in the morning

the harvest
never lasted
long enough

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Family Photographs -- Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk

My friend Anglo-Polish artist Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk posted some of his family photographs on Facebook recently and wrote some remarks about them.  Originally, he planned only to post 5 photos and his commentary, but the project has expanded.  At this point, he has written about more than 20 photos.

I find both the remarks and the photos moving.  It makes me want to go back to my old family photos and write their stories.  

Here are the first 5 of his family photos along with his comments.  

Day 1

One of the few photographs my mother carried with her through the chaos of her life. It is a picture of her and her fellow "inmates" in the orphanage in Dubno (now in the Ukraine) where she spent her life (having been orphaned as a baby) upto her teens when she set out to rediscover her home and history. This photo is only about 80 years old yet it could be from some ancient past, even an alien world... and indeed, it is.

Day 2

The funeral of my Uncle Mieczyslaw, 1959 (I think).

This is a very important photo for me because it was the first time I saw what many of my father's family looked like. In the centre are my grandparent (in their 70s at the time, by my grandmother is my aunt Stacia and, by my grandfather, is my aunt Maricia. I think, next to Stacia, is my aunt Joska and the grieving uncle is Josek. My uncle committed suicide. Miecio was very young when the war broke out and, of course, that changed the whole of his future. He drank heavily, apparently. One night he actually fell asleep, drunk, in the winter frost and awoke with his head stuck to the ground. He caught Tuberculosis and tried to keep it quiet (God knows why). In the end he shot himself in a very beautiful spot. The double tragedy is the loss of a young man (he was in his early twenties) and (in a Catholic, peasant community) being a suicide, he could not be buried in consecrated ground.
I wrote about his death:


The crickets are mournful, wailing in the afternoon heat in a baleful monotony. Bright yellow sunflowers, their heads bowed towards the ground under the weight of the seeds, fade into the dusty yellow of wheat and heat. Dryly, weeds struggle to reach the sunlight, spindly, leggy. A sickly dust-covered green, the blue-purple splash of cornflower or the orange-yellow of Ox-eye, sprinkled liberally, hardly visible in the straw yellow. The unified ranks of wheat break up, almost in a straight line; rich ears at the head of a stalk grow out of long dry pointed papery leaves broken and bent , an occasional plant where a seed sprouted, then grass. Miecio is sat here, on the semicircular slope of the field, on the dry grass at the boundaries... At the boundary...

The plainful song of the crickets is loud and continuous. A wailing song, a mournful cacophony. The song almost merges into a single voice, a multicoloured song... The sun burns down on his head and his neck. Between his fingers he crumbles the dry yellowy-grey soil into dust... Into dust.

The monotonous wail gives weight to the air. He breathes it in with the dust of the fields and the heat of the air. Looks down the slope, across the dry stream bed towards the dark green leaves of the impenetrable thicket. The dark shapes suggest silent openings and cool spaces into which he may wander... Its coolness and mystery beckons.

In Zalesiany field he hears the dull sound of his mother talking into the ground as she bends to her work. Other voices answer, distant, clear. He recognises his sisters. Their conversation is a harness. They are a team. They shuffle through the field almost in unison, not seeing each other yet physically bound by the labour. Mentally he can picture them stretching their backs as they stand... the energy flows through their spines and into their necks and arms. For a moment they speak clearly, animated, then bend down again... to the earth.

Cough... blood... rich red on white cotton...

The crickets wail, the flies buzz. The heat weighs down on his back. He smells dust, crumbles earth, coughs blood. An ant races in its purposefully chaotic way as it runs, almost flows over the grains of dry, yellowy soil. He watches it with mindless fascination, watches the trail it follows, an invisible scent, unseen markers. Activity.

How pointlessly we run, blind to the dooms we create, following trails we cannot see.

Weddings are happy events, everyone drinks, everyone dances. Miecio drinks more fully, dances more lively...songs and cameraderie... eyes gleam with the joy of alcohol. But going home in the frozen night he is alone... he stumbles, drunk. He stumbles again. Comes to, head almost frozen to the ground, bent over, kneeling... a confused stupor, amazed... what’s happened ... and in his mind he recreates it all... he’s fallen onto his knees and then his head has fallen forward onto the frozen earth and in his drunkenness he senses the dizziness, all spins for a moment, all goes blank.. then he shakes out of it, cold, frozen. His eyes see the sparkling crystals of frost glimmer as stars on the dark road... on his hands...

And later the coughing... the blood... and he is afraid, afraid of telling anyone but he knows what blind path he has run down... and death is not far away...

The gun is cool in his hand. Hard, metal, cold.

(Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk is a painter.  In writing about Day2, he includes an image he created that was originally used in his series of painting based on Dante's Inferno.  The above was inspired by the secion of the poem devoted to those who commit suicide in Inferno XII.)

This was a very easy piece to produce - the picture was there in my head from the very beginning, all I had to do was find suitable images that I could play with. There are three suicides that have been with me over the years and their "counterparts" appear here. The first suicide that I was ever aware of was one of our neighbours who lived at the corner of Horsedge Street and Rock Street. His wife had left him and he gassed himself. In my teens my uncle, Mieczyslaw, contracted tuberculosis and, seeing no future, shot himself. More recently, my cousin's young son, only seventeen and with no apparent cause, hanged himself. 

When I was a schoolboy I was told that suicide was a mortal sin not because of the taking of one's own life but because it is a sin of despair, a loss of faith in God's mercy. I wanted to create that image of despair. The suicides despair in Hell, wedded to the items they used to killed themselves for eternity. I wanted to use a colour of despair and chose the sickly greens of a gas cooker of the 50s and 60s.

Dante's suicides had been changed into withered trees, symbolising the destruction of all hope. Broken accidentally by passers-by, they would weep blood. I think this imagery works better in a written work but I did want to maintain some link with the original therefore I decided to have the image of withered trees as a backdrop. I found a suitable picture of trees damaged in World War One, that great suicide of the nations, which I manipulated, drew out and stained with watered-down blacks and then stained again with a coating of red (for the blood). This forced me to work over the top with stencils and then paint into as I had done with earlier works.
I know there will be people who will not like the clash of colours but I feel the disturbing quality of the image adds to that sense of eternal despair that I wanted to capture.

Day 3

My brother Waj stood outside what used to be our home on Rock Street. 1972.

It is hardly surprising how places work into your soul. We lived here for twenty years and my dad worked hard on it to keep it in super condition. The powers that be decided they wanted to make Oldham a modern town and demolished the "slums" of St Mary's Ward, tearing the heart of the town out at the same time and forever destroying it - we're still seeing the after-effects of that idiotic decision today!

I'm an Oldham Pole, not an Anglo-Pole or a British-Pole. I'm an Oldham Pole because of this place, on the hill, in the heart of the town. It wasn't a beautiful town but it was a friendly town with character. I miss it very much.
I know it's accidental, the way we associate black and white photos with the past, but we do and they somehow manage to capture the soul of those days. Sepia for way back, grainy black and white for the war years, a crisp black and white for more recent times.

I remember when Oldham really WAS black and white (or near enough); the red-brick houses were blackened by soot, all the clothes were demob greys and khaki. I remember when I saw my first blue coat (I was about seven years old and we were waiting for the coach to take us to the mill, in the dark early morning, and a young girl (around 16 or 17) arrived wearing a new, very blue duvet. All that colour amidst all that black and white! It was what we would nowadays call a Spielberg moment.

Day 4

Wallshaw Street 1968 (Montage of film clips)

I have no pictures of St Mary's ward at all. I plunder the internet but, in fact, I have never found any photographs of "home". I have found an old photo of the Theatre Royal (Buffalo Bill's Wild West show played there!) which I actually watched being demolished one morning in 1971, and Wallshaw Street appears in "A Kind of Loving" (as do other parts of old Oldham), but nothing in the immediate vicinity of home.

When I was at Leeds my first project was a film (1968). It was, initially, about the cotton mills and I filmed some bits around my home (but strangely none on Rock Street) as part of the complete "story". It was an art film, not a documentary. I was learning the craft as I went along (I had unlimited supplies of film - Leeds were fantastic like that). I shot the film on very course grain 400ASA with a windup Bolex. Course grain 400ASA is brilliant at capturing that gritty, earthy character of the North (cliche, I know) but it doesn't travel well. Recently I transferred it to DVD (not brilliant) and "captured" some stills. This "montage" is a joiner of some of those stills.

I wrote a number of poems about Oldham, my most famous (in that I read it in Oldham and Liverpool on a number of occasions) being "Rhapsody on a Midnight" (1966) - this is an extract:


The pigeons flutter and rise in a wide
Spiral; one was white, one was cream, the others
Black or greyish. Up and round, out of sight
Behind the half-demolished slum. They’re gone.

These are the empty places...empty as
My heart. Cold, desolate, depressing.
These are the sparks of life within my soul,
Streets I knew and loved...The demolished slum.

Rhapsody on a midnight hour, how do you
Describe the fall of raindrops? The heavy
Breathing in the still sterile silence, the
Flutter of thoughts in this white-washed lavatory.

There goes a tipler as the water trickles
Into the sewerage. In the faint distance
A howl, a scream, a screech, a wail; a goods
Train pulls out from Mumps Station.

The mosquito flutters, hovers, almost
Motionless. The soft kitchen light casts the
Shadow of dad’s ladder, leant against the
Wall, onto the white-washed brickwork inside.

Day 5

Me and my godfather, Witold Warchalowski. c1950.

It was inevitable wasn't it? A photo of me. But the truth is that each of the photos I've posted in this series are about me. I actually posted this photo for a number of reasons:

One, the little boy, me. It could be any little boy. It could be Einstein, it could be Hitler. We tend to think of children as innocent, as vessels that will be filled with knowledge and experience which will then become the man who... does what? Invent the atomic bomb? Walk on the Moon? Kill millions? That little boy is not a tabula rasa, not if what current scientific belief tells us is true; apparently we are not only born with skills that our ancestors developed, skills that are recorded in our genes - the ability to learn language is the most obvious one - but, so it is claimed, we are born with "memories". The emotions of our ancestors are encoded in our genes, especially those of our parents. The traumas and shocks they experienced are also our traumas, our shocks.
Look into that little boy's eyes and ask yourself what he's "seen".

Two, the photograph. It isn't dated. I don't know how old it is. I once wrote;

I suppose, in the end, everything must lose its meaning. A few numbers, a calculation, once jotted down carefully working out what must be a sum of money has lost all significance because there is no Rosetta Stone, no explanation.

And so it goes with all our worldly goods, our souvenirs, even our jottings. The significance of what I write here would only become apparent if I put it in context - what it means to me. Those books, these stones, the snake skin in a jar - all mean something to me. To you they become... what? Relics? Curiosities?
Nothing stays the same, all is change, all is transient.

All that is left is dust and memories....
Our dreams have faded away in the dark
oh so long ago...
And what of those ghosts?
they are not ours but belong to someone else
for we are not asleep...
we do not dream...
no thoughts persist...
the breeze has come and blown away...

Three, the sailor suit. My dad bought it. He saw it in a shop window and knew he had to have it for me. It cost him a great deal of money. He lived on bread and butter for ages after.

Four, my godfather, Witold.

Everyone should have two types of men, "father figures", in their lives; one, steady and reliable with feet planted on solid ground; the other adventurous, a bit of a rebel, a pirate... even a villain. My father was the steady one and Witold... well he was the "adventurous" one. 

During the war Witold had been a partisan in the forests in the east of Poland (I even think I may have located a photo of him on the internet but there's no way of knowing for sure). He fought not just the Germans but also the Soviets. Life expectancy was very short yet he somehow survived. Some of that wildness and danger of those years stuck with him for the rest of his life (like the smell of cigarettes that hang around someone when they come in from outside). 

I believe he and my dad became friends in the displaced persons' camp in Osnabrucke (there was talk of some amazing escape, a stolen plane, something like that). Certainly they were together in Full Sutton, near York, when they came over to England (both in pursuit of the women they loved) and travelled together into Lancashire - my father ending up in the dark streets amidst the mills of Farnworth where he found the woman who became my mother. Witold went to find Nina. There was a rumour that Nina was his mistress in the forests and that Witold had left his wife and child in Poland when he had fled the Communists (apparently that wasn't all that uncommon in those quicksand years). I don't know the truth; it fitted the wild and uncertain times he lived through (perhaps a little too much, if you know what I mean) but a rather beautiful grown-up daughter did turn up at some stage, so who knows? People who have never lived through the slaughter and chaos of a brutal war can never really grasp how easy it is to lose touch with family and friends and loved ones, or how much it changes your own life. 

Things always got interesting when Witold was about. I have a very vague, very early childhood memory of seeing my dad, Witold, Nina and some other Poles sat round a table playing cards and drinking vodka, clouds of cigarette smoke in the air whilst my mum busied herself cooking for them. It was the year the Christmas tree caught fire. Witold hated rabbit (again, a hangover from his years in the forest) and my mum used to laugh and tell the story of how she once served up her glorious rabbit stew, with its lovely mushrooms and thick sauce. Witold ate it like a starving man and asked for seconds, complimenting her on the way she had cooked up the chicken....

Nina and Witold lived on the hills overlooking Bacup and, once a year, we would all travel up to visit them. It was an adventure; we had to catch at least two buses and travelled into wild and foreign parts (Rochdale and beyond!). Witold kept racing pigeons... the strangest hobby for a pirate or a bandit but quite common in the North (there were even men who kept them in purpose-built sheds in their backyards among the dingy courtyards and ginnels of Oldham). For a town boy who rarely saw a tree or grass (I would get excited at the sight of camomile growing between the paving stones), those visits to the green hills and open skies were unforgettable.
Witold also drove a motorcycle (I told you he was a pirate!).

I heard that in his later years Witold ran a business that was very much on the shady side. If it was true I'm not surprised... if it wasn't... it should have been. Many Polish partisans and ex-RAF pilots found life after the war difficult. They had no homeland to return to and, certainly as far as the partisans were concerned, had lived a life that in peaceful times would be considered criminal. A number of the ex-RAF pilots found themselves running smuggling businesses in Africa and South America, or flying as mercenaries for some of those "armies" that rose up in the fight for independence in an Africa crawling out of the Colonial era. A number of partisans also became mercenaries (fighting in Algeria for example) or criminals. A bit of this stuck with Witold and I thank God for having had a character like him in my life - it gives me something to talk about.

Friday, November 14, 2014


I just finished watching the Polish film Ida.  The film focuses on a woman and her aunt trying to find out what happened to their family during the war.

The film is excellent.  The narrative is structured like a perfect short story.

The lives the film talks about seem real in ways that few movies capture.

The film is also beautiful.  Like a Vermeer painting in black and white.  Every shot leaves you wanting it to last and last.

It's also inspiring.  It made me think about things that happened long ago in Poland in ways that made those memories immediate and vital.

The film is available for streaming at Netflix and Amazon.  The DVD is also available at Amazon.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My Mother Tells Me How She Met My Father

I first saw him in front of the barracks. He was walking with six other prisoners, a German soldier behind them pushing at them with some kind of rifle. Your father wasn’t how he is now. He was skinny then, like two shoelaces tied together.

I was not such a prize after three years in the camps either. When the Americans came, they weighed me and found I was less than a 100 pounds—and what was I wearing? You want to know? Woolens on my legs, a grey rag to hide my hair, a stripped dress. 

And him? Your father? Like I said, skinny with a bleeding towel across his face from where he lost his eye. 

Still, he walked up to me, took my hand, and said in Polish, “Prosza, pani.” 

Yes, he said, “Please, miss,” and like a proper gentleman, he clicked his heels. I thought he was at least a count, maybe a prince. 

Then just before your dad had a chance to kiss my hand, the German behind him kicked him in the pants and said, “Dumbkopf raus.” Get moving, dummy.

Your father was like that. Always putting on airs, even there in the camps talking of Polish honor as if he and Poland shared a soul.

Really, he was worthless. I wish he had left me there in the camp. He couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t fix a leaky roof.

When I asked him in the refugee camp to help me pack to come to America, he took a little drink and bundled all the clothes together in a bed spread like America was across the street.

The fool, I should have kicked him like the German soldier did when I met him.

Instead, I kissed him and wept.


historic photo of women in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp