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North of the Port


Mary Ann Furno

By Anthony Bukoski. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist Univ. Press (, or PO Box 750415 Dallas, TX 75275-0415), 2008. 176 pages. ISBN 978-0-97074-521-8. $22.50. Hardcover.

“This collection of stories is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” These words are written in fine print on the reverse side of the title page of Bukoski’s collection of stories. Curiously, on reading each of the twelve stories, one wonders wherein lies the fiction.

Summer, 1950. Is fiction found in the East End of Superior, Wisconsin, with Magda Podgorak who “was always looking for [the suffering, wounded] Jesus. . . . His image in mirrors” (2), and who as a “victim soul” (8), a “noble soul” (4) makes the “sacrificial flight for Poland” (8) leaving a love-stricken nineteen-year-old Andrzej Iwanowski “coming to understand mysteries hinting at a larger mystery inhabited by the people here”(12)? Does fiction lie with eighteen-year-old Lesczyk Iwanowski, “displaced after the war. . . a good writer. . . strange for drawing pictures of flowers and birds” (17), whose self-identity precariously coalesces as a self-declared “out of place. . . the displaced person,” (17) and who “will ride through East End with a Polish count who is coming to America” (28). Do we recognize it between father and son-Al Dziedzic, “frozen in time” (41), and twenty-two-year-old Pete, embattled in an unarticulated past that reappears as “shadows” (46-51)? Do we find it in St. Adalbert’s substitute priest, Father Hemerling, whose belly hunger foreshadows “more” dislocation, “who’s so big he blocks the view of the tabernacle” (58). Is it with Božena Iwanowski-“one of them that arrived from Poland” (62); a family outcast, reappearing at different intervals and places, and in different guises, a “lost nature” (73) in liaison with marginalized figures? “No one in any country has cried so hard. . . . Božena with no Poland” (68, 69).

It is 1954. Is fiction realized inside the adolescent Tadek Ostrowski, who “write(s) and write(s) about it all. . . all the time of his observations” (89) living in the East End, where the “wand of youth” (87) mobilizes his coming-of-age as a “noble Pole” (96). It is 1998; is fiction closer to an aging Antoni Kosmatka, “Guardian of the Sick,” in search of “recovering vitality” (120) and restoring order to The Kosciuszko Lodge whose breakdown is a “shame” (117)? A “vitality” of a noble order is awakened in lieu of instinct, an illusory adventure of “never loving the old country so much” (125), and “a knight of King Bolesław if there ever was one” (132) emerges instead “when wrestling with his demons” (131). Is it written in Ed Cieslicki’s (stage name: Wally Na Zdrowie) letter to his son, Tadeusz, “living far away” (134)? Sentiments unfettered, he writes about “everything closing, not much opening” (139); and “I can’t go on without of laboring at a hardboard plant” (138); and the accordion-for sale (maybe)-“with acid . . the keys will get clean of the discoloration caused by the fingertips” (138). Would fiction even touch the Kalinowski family in the person of seventeen-year-old daughter Catherine, and Grandfather whose “dreams would vanish without me to share them” and who like “this ancient sailor hid in [their] house from the seas of disappointment”(144)? And her Polish sailor, Stanislaus Piotrowski-“almost as old as my parents. . . he had blond hair. Tall, handsome. . . I think he must have been a nobleman in Poland” (154); a phantasm presenting himself in “whispers” (151), “unraveling [an old] seaman’s life” (160) with a young girl’s dreams.

Curiously, on the last page of this story a transparent, rectangular box with its lid opened and raised is drawn-the “box of ancestry” (175)-along with the question: “How many ways does the box open?” I find four ways, no, “four thousand or more” (175). North of the Port concludes with this title story, leaving us with “the best thing was for me to tell the story in writing. You look at this story. . . . I wrote these pages . . . for love, though [anyone] might not believe that this could happen in the East End of Superior, Wisconsin --signed Catherine Kalinowski” (176). It seems the author reveals his hand in this final note. What is the incredulous “this” that writing as fiction affixes as true?

To claim Polish émigrés within the genre of fiction is to admit them to the theater of living expression. “You don’t read about them much like you do about the others. No one cares about the Poles” (175). North of the Port seems to draw its impetus from this truth that, finally, is released from “the box of ancestry” into characters whom Bukoski has “compete with life”-to borrow an expression from Henry James’s The Art of Fiction.

The larger story that is Poland’s history pervades North of the Port. It “slips through” mirrors; reflections of glass and windows, whispers, shadows, hunger, wounds, and breathing by characters who speak ambiguously in non-sequiturs, exhibit word slippage, and engage in fantasy and illusion. These émigrés realize their experience in a language inclusive of Poland’s history of subjugation. Bukoski distinguishes a “language of dislocation” as one that admits reality. It is a language that “extends” the boundaries of time, and place, facilitating “flight” to Poland, and reincorporation of its noble heritage. The attempts of these émigrés to “salvage” (11) ethos and nobility in environs that reflect degradation and shame, produce a parody of dislocation, vividly portrayed in “foolish” (132) Antoni Kosmatka. Parody runs deep in North of the Port. A “mind is funny” (49), “something in [Magda Podgorak’s] mind” (2), Al Dziedzic’s “mental problems” (30), and strange adolescents underscore the aberration of dislocation. The “lung troubles”(10), the iron ore docks, coal yards, flour mills, and cement plants preoccupy these émigrés less than “what they remember from Poland” (57): “breathing as a bird getting loose” (10), hunger of ancestors’ “holy bread” (59), the Eucharist (57), “bread and sausage” (56), wounds with “IHS-I Have Suffered” (11), the “scarred Madonna” (49, 94). With suffering in identification with Jesus hovering over these men and women, we ponder that, perhaps, the language of displaced persons in North of the Port points to their spirit that hungers, is wounded, and cannot breathe. The character Božena lives this out most dramatically.

As the demise of Polish institutions and establishments hastens displacement-“everything sacred and holy has been moved out” (135)-the inevitable rise of mechanization and bureaucratization drives to the hearth: “‘H for Hot Dish’ features Mrs. Agnes Cieslicki cooking “Baked Noodle Ring” (135) in the television studio, and the supermarket is “Home to Award Winning Sausage” (134).

“How many ways does the box open?” Countless ways for the characters in North of the Port where these “displaced ones” find a home in fiction. Each of the stories is abundant with allusions and associations that take the reader in too many directions-but, then again, anything can happen when “writing. . . on nights of heavy seas and lightning” (176). To “compete with life” is to believe that all this could happen in the East End of Superior, Wisconsin.

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