By Linda Nemec Foster. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 72 pages. Paper. $16.95 on Amazon.com.
Let me say this plainly. Every book written by a Polish American poet is an essential book. The primary reason is that there are not very many Polish American poets. Dr. Janusz Zalewski of Florida Gulf Coast University is currently working on a project to identify and translate into Polish the works of Polish American poets; he has identified about fifty poets whose works he has translated and written about for the Polish journal Nowa Okolica Poetów. Given the nearly ten million Poles and descendants of Poles who have cast their fortunes upon this shore and now reside here, not that many poets have arisen from this number. The second important reason has to do with the nature of poetry. One of poetry’s elemental functions is to discover and preserve national and/or group identity. If you want to find out about the Greeks, you read Homer. If you want to find out about the English, you read Chaucer or Shakespeare. If you want to find out about the Americans, you read Whitman or William Carlos Williams. If you want to find out about the Poles, you read Miłosz or Szymborska.
And if you want to find out about Polish Americans? I would suggest that you read Linda Nemec Foster’s Amber Necklace of Gdansk. This book is a specimen of the best kind of poetry written by Polish Americans poets like Phil Boiarski, John Minczeski, or Gary Gildner. Like those fine poets, Foster turns her skills to the task of understanding Polish American identity.
At the heart of Amber Necklace of Gdansk is Foster’s desire to discover what it means to be Polish American at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the difficulties in this discovery. From the book’s first moving poem “The Awkward Young Girl Approaching You,” Foster signals her intent. She wants to discuss what brought Polish Americans here to America, what we have gained from this journey, what we have lost, and why we need to reconnect with what we left behind in Poland. In this poem she describes the dispossessed, the displaced, the Poles who came to America seeking safety or security but in the process lost something essential; the nature of this essential element is hinted at toward the end of this first poem. There Foster describes a momentary encounter with a girl in Katowice, “the grayest city/in the grayest part of the world,” that opens up into a moment of epiphany:
And the way her golden feet attempt
to walk on Katowice’s gray and broken
cobblestones stirs a memory that only
your dead grandfather could understand:
wildflowers overrunning the garden, cicadas
drowning out the factory’s nightly lament.
So much grace in her graceless yellow feet.
So much of the miraculous in her thin silhouette.
What Ms. Foster momentarily senses, I believe, is her own essential Polishness. She becomes aware in that moment that her American self is built on a self that is Polish to the core. But this awareness is, of course, problematic. The strength and power of her book is the way Foster analyzes this problematic nature of her identity as a Polish American.
She asks all of the questions that the best Polish American writers and thinkers have asked: What did the immigrants lose and gain by coming here, what was Poland like then, what is Poland like now, what is America like, can we understand our immigrant forebears’ motives for coming to America, can we understand what they left behind, can we ever find the Poland they left behind, is the Poland of the present even remotely like the Poland they left behind? And finally, she addresses the hardest question: Can any of these questions be answered?
Ms. Foster is relentless in pursuing her answers. She is like an archeologist with a deep understanding of psychology and cultural studies, searching for the essential bones of her Polish American identity. Like a scientist, she brings tremendous coherence to the search. Her book has an internal order that makes it seem almost like a memoir or a diary. Each of the book’s four sections moves us closer to her conclusions with directness and urgency: the first section deals with her growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in the United States, the second describes her journey to Poland, the third talks of what she found in Poland, and the last centers on how her quest effected her.
What she comes to discover, as all Polish Americans who have made the journey back to Poland discover, is how little and yet how much she is connected with her Polish past. I think this is the final lesson of the poem in the collection that moved me the most, “After the War: Purple Flowers Spilling from the Window”:
In Poland, the land takes over everything,
unrelenting in its mission to regenerate
after the war. Fields overrun sidewalks,
train stations, street corners. Purple
flowers spill from the open windows of houses.
Queen Anne’s lace reigns supreme in parking
lots. Even the dead in cemeteries are affected:
no neatly trimmed grass here but waves upon
waves of wild flowers. Blue lupine, saffron,
black-eyed Susan, chicory. The dead love
this wildness growing above their bones.
“Tak, Tak,” they whisper in the hush of the wind
that scatters the soft gossamer of dandelions
into the waiting air. Yes, yes, take over this place
that was once lost. Cover it in so much color
even the clouds, who’ve seen everything,
won’t know where death lived for so long.”
And who can argue with the dead?
Not theirthin ghosts or unborn progeny. Not their
exile who returns after the war, stands
bewildered at their graves, hip-deep
in blue-eyed grass, trying to decipher names
that already belong to the earth.
Foster seems to be saying that, as Polish Americans, we stand eternally on this side of the border between America and Poland, and we can only cross it in our dreams. This may not be enough, but it is all we can hope for.
to the January 2007 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 1/9/07