Monday, July 24, 2017

THE DAY I ALMOST KILLED SAUL BELLOW

My wife Linda and I were showing Chicago to her brother Bruce who was visiting from the east. We were driving around the University of Chicago area on the southside of Chicago, and Bruce was saying, "Say this is a pretty campus, what kind of people teach her?"

I was driving and started in, "Well, this is one of the great universities in the world. There are probably more Nobel Laureates teachng here than in any other school in the midwest."

Bruce is a scoffer and he said, "Yeah, like who, any names an average guy would recognize?"

I'm driving around these narrow streets around the school and trying to avoid hitting anybody because it's a Saturday and people are walking to and from shopping.

Bruce thinks I'm ignoring him and he says again, "So name some of these Nobel guys!"

I say, "Well, one of my favorite writers is Saul Bellow and he won the Nobel prize and he teaches here."

And Bruce says, "Yeah? What's he like."

And I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a guy with two bulging grocery bags who just stepped into the intersection, and I say to Bruce, "That's him. The guy I almost hit. Saul Bellow!"

And Bellow must've heard me call his name because he looked up at me and smiled, and nodded his head.

I felt a blessing descend on me, a connection I'd never forget.

I was the man who did not kill Saul Bellow.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Polish Mushrooms


Polish Mushrooms
I remember my mom once opening a plastic bag with dried mushrooms that came all the way from Poland. She put them in a broth, and while it was heating she talked about how Polish mushrooms were like no other food on earth.
I was a kid, maybe 7 years old, and I expected them to taste like the greatest chocolate cake in the world.
You can imagine I was disappointed.
But when my mother finally poured the mushrooms and broth into our bowls, she smiled first and then she started to cry.
_____________
Years later, when she was in her 70s and I was in my 40s, she told me about what her home in Poland was like before the war, the woods around the house, and the things she loved about those woods.

I wrote a poem about it.

Like any poem, it doesn't capture the truth of what she remembers, but now that my mom is gone, it's all I have.

My Mother Before the War

She loved picking mushrooms in the spring
and even when she was little she could tell
the ones that were safe from the ones that weren’t.

She loved climbing the tall white birch trees
in the summer when her chores in the garden
and the kitchen were done. She loved to ride
her pet pig Caroline in the woods too
or sit with her and watch the leaves fall
in the autumn. She felt that Caroline
was smarter than her brothers Wladyu and Jan,
but not as smart as Genja, her sister
who was married and had a beautiful baby girl.

My mother also loved to sing.
There was a song about a chimney sweep
that she would sing over and over;
and when her father heard it, he sometimes
laughed and said, “Tekla, you’re going to grow up
to marry a chimney sweep, and your cheeks
will always be dusty from his dusty kisses.”
But she didn’t care if he teased her so.

She loved that song and another one,
about a deep well. She loved to sing
about the young girl who stood by the well
waiting for her lover, a young soldier,
to come back from the wars far away.

She had never had a boy friend, and her mom
said she was too young to think of boys,
but Tekla didn’t care. She loved the song
and imagined she was the girl waiting
for the soldier to come back from the war.

________
The poem is from my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My Mother and Her Neighbors



Tens of thousands of Poles in Eastern Poland were killed between 1943 and 1944 by Ukrainian Nationalists working with their German colleagues.  July 11 was the day of the worst killing, a day when the Nationalists attacked 100 or so villages.  That was seventy-four years ago.

My mother's family was killing during this period by her Ukrainian neighbors.  Her mother was murdered, her sister was raped and killed, her sister's baby kicked to death.  My mother, a girl of 19 at the time, was able to survive by breaking through a window and running into a forest to hide.  She was found a couple days later and taken to a slave labor camp in Germany.  She spent the next 2 years in those camps.

My mom and my dad went back to her village in 1988 to see if she could find the graves of her mom and sister and the sister's baby.  There were no graves.  The men who did the killing didn't take the time to dig graves and put up crosses or markers.

During that trip, my mom made it to her old house, the one where the killing took place.  She knocked on the door and when someone answered her knocking, she introduced herself and told them that she had lived in this house when she was a girl, before the killings.

The person who answered the door, a Ukrainian fellow about my mom's age, said that he had been living in the house all his life and he didn't know her and didn't know what she was talking about.

My mom left and never went back.

I haven't written a lot about my mom and her Ukrainian neighbors, but I have written two poems.

The first is called "My Mother was 19," and it's about the day the Nazis and her neighbors came to her house and did their killing.

The second poem is "My Mother's Neighbors." It's a poem of mine that has never been published.  It tells about what the killers did after they left my mom's house.

My Mother was 19

Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mom’s farm
killed her sister Genja’s baby
with their heels
shot her momma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times

They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers

They raped her
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
couldn’t talk

They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the blue dress
in her mouth

If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her

That’s the kind they were

Let me tell you:
God doesn’t give
you any favors

He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
and tomorrow you’ll see
this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling

That’s bullshit

_____________________

My Mother’s Neighbors

Their clothes are wet and cold with the blood
of the baby and the women they helped the Germans
kill in the barn.  But they won’t remember that.

They’ll only remember this walk home, the snow
falling fast around them, muting the clicking trees
and silencing the birds.  They will remember

their slow talk, the old men going on about
how the potatoes they gathered this year
could never match the weight of last year’s harvest

the young men trying to hide their joy 
by whispering about the village girls
and what they have seen beneath their dresses.

Later they will all be home.  Already their wives
And mothers watch for them at the windows,

Afraid the snow will catch them far from home.

___________________________________

I've posted a lot of blogs about my mom over the years.  This is a recent one about remembering her on the anniversary of her death: Remembering My Mom.

If you want to read more about the massacre, here is a wikipedia piece.

If you want to read more about my mom and dad, my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues is available from Amazon.  Just click here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Dreams of Warsaw, 1939


The First Poem I Wrote about My Parents

I've been writing poems for about 37 years now.  I started when I was in grad school at Purdue working on my Ph.D.  It was a hot, humid August afternoon, and I was sitting at a desk thinking about Faulkner, trying to make sense of a line of imagery that seemed to thread through all of his novels.  I wasn't having any luck.

Out of nowhere, I had this sense of my parents and where they were and what they were doing.

It came as a shock this sense.  I hadn't  lived at home in almost a decade, seldom saw my parents, tried in fact not to think about them and their lives.  I didn't want to know about their worries, their memories of WWII and the slave labor camps and the mess those memories were making of their lives.   But suddenly there they were in my head, and for some reason I started writing about them.

I hadn't written a poem in at least a decade either, but there suddenly I was writing a poem.  And it wasn't the last.  This poem about my parents started me writing poems again, and I've never stopped.

Here's the poem:

Dreams of Poland, September l939

Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
and dream

Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl's breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
"Where are the horses
where are the horses?"

Death in Poland
like death nowhere else‑‑

cool, gray, breathless

__________________

The poem appears in Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

The illustration above is by the Polish artist Voytek Luka.  It was done as an illustration for my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Me and Whitman



Me and Whitman
Today is the anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass back in 1855.
This book was my bible, my pal, my diary when I was in my late teens and early 20s.
I carried a copy with me wherever I went.  I would sneak it open in the classroom when the biology professor wasn't looking, and I would read it on the L trains as they criss-crossed the skies of Chicago.


And he never left me!
Here's a poem about me and Walt and that time and this time.
It appeared recently in the Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

AN OLD MAN LISTENING TO A YOUNG MAN
LISTENING TO WHITMAN

He spoke to me in the desert
Outside of Elko, Nevada,
Back forty-some years ago.
Maybe I was asleep
Or maybe I was dreaming.
I don’t remember now.
I was lying on the hard sand,
The billion names of God shining
Above me in the darkest sky.
I was alone there. Not even
A book of poems with me,
When Whitman whispered,
“Arise and sing naked
And dance naked
And visit your mother naked
“And be funny and tragic
and plugged in, and embrace
the silent and scream for them
“And look for me beneath
the concrete streets beneath
your shoeless feet in Chicago
“And ask somebody to dance
The bossa nova and hear him or her say
Sorry I left my carrots at home
“And be a mind-blistered astronaut
With nothing to say to the sun
But—Honey I’m yours.”
That’s the kind of stuff
Whitman was always whispering,
On and on, stuff like that.
And I got up and searched
In my backpack for a candy bar,
Chewed it ‘til there was nothing left
And then I hitched up the road
Out of that silence
Back to the city I grew up in,
Its blocks of blocks of bricks
And its old people in their factories
Who went to Church and got drunk
Who hurt the ones they loved,
Who wondered who made them,
Who lived and died in due time
Who taught me the world is sand
And drifting dreams and clouds
That speak no English.






Monday, July 3, 2017

Coming to America

Coming to America

When I asked my mother what we had when we came from the refugee camps in Germany, she shrugged and started the list: some plates, a wooden comb, some barley bread, a crucifix, two pillows and a frying pan, letters from a friend in America.

We were as poor as mud, she said, and prayed for so little: to find her sister, to work,
to not think about the dead, to live without anger or fear.

J

Sunday, July 2, 2017

What Elie Wiesel Knew



Today is the first anniversary of the death of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author.

Here is a poem I wrote last year when I heard he had died.  It was published in the journal  New Verse News. 

WHAT ELIE WIESEL KNEW

Death is the air we breathe.
The bread we chew.
The brother and sister
who stand by us always.

Elie Wiesel knew this
And taught us this
Everyday.

Don't be afraid.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Memory

Memory


I once had the immigration cops come to my family's apartment in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago.  This was when I was like 13.

I answered the door and two of the cops stood there with their guns drawn shouting "Romerez, get down on the floor!"

I was a kid.  I didn't say anything.  I just dropped to the kitchen tile as fast as I could, and then I shouted back, "I'm not Romerez.  He's in the other 2nd floor apartment."

They looked at me for a moment and turned around and kicked in the door across the hall.

This was in 1961.

Romerez was a Mexican guy who lived with his family across the hall.  I used to play with his kids, hide and go seek, and tag.

I never saw any of them again.