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Polonaise: Stories

Reviewer: Sally Boss

Polonaise: Stories

By Anthony Bukoski. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1999. 181 pages. Hardcover. $19.95.

Bukoski has been compared to Faulkner: indeed, in some ways Yoknapatawpha county is similar to Bukoski's Superior. It is there that the action of most of his tales takes place, and he teaches at the University of Wisconsin Superior extension. Bukoski stands out as one who depicts most fully the miseries and triumphs, daily drudgery and dreams of Polish Americans in the Great Lakes region. The Polonias of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota can find themselves in Bukoski's books: in the Dabrowski family's remembrances of two of America's wars, in poor Mr. Truzynski's impotent attachment to his no-exit job, in Casimir Stasiak's schlemiel-like life, in Hedda Borski's miserable secrets and most of all, in Private Tomaszewski's nightmares which so many Polish youth in this country know in one form or another, and which account for the low rate of participation of said youth in Polish American organizations.

Another American Polonia, that of Massachusetts, seems to be well integrated into American society, but at the cost of losing much of what constitutes the essence of Polishness (have I committed a cardinal sin by speaking of the ‘essence' of cultural identity?). It took a Strempek Shea to discover Polish identity in those self-satisfied Massachusetts Americans whose remote ancestors came from Poland (remember Ed Muskie, who was about as Polish as he was Navaho?). The third Polonia, that of Texas and of the Southwest, originated in Silesia, and is something else again: tough and intensely Polish, it is massively given to genealogical research. Then there is the Florida Polonia consisting mostly of retirees, not a few of them of recent vintage (first-generation Polish Americans, usually of the intelligentsia class). Thanks to Bukoski and Strempek Shea., two of these Polonias have been depicted in literature. The four Polonias live their own separate lives, displaying scant interest in public relations, political action and what is usually termed ‘the big picture.' Paraphrasing Bukoski, one can say that only cemeteries connect the "children of strangers" in the Great Lakes area to the great story of Poland. Mr. Polaski in Bukoski's "A Concert of Minor Pieces" whispers "a prayer to Poland and one to the priest, who'd been dead twenty years, and to the nuns, who were all gone, and to Stanislawa Rozowska, his niece." Behind the intentionally funny exterior of Bukoski's magical realism lies the drama of many Casimir Tureks (a character in Geraldine Glodek's Nine Bells at a Breaker). His stories ask, what happened to all those dreams, histories, traditions? Where are the monuments to Polish life in the Great Lakes region?

There is a sense of defiance and despair in these stories, just as there is in Geraldine Glodek's work. There is toughness that challenges the rumors of speedy demise of Polish small-town life (there isn't in Glodek). Both writers make their heroes perform low-prestige work: their heroes are janitors, waitresses and lathe operators. Is the defiance related to the realization that Americans of Polish background are presented in mainstream media, if at all, only as dischargers of such duties? As for despair, it is not related to personal vanity. On the subconscious level, there is in Bukoski a sense of great loss, of being far away from that heroic reality of Polish identity exemplified by Henryk Sienkiewicz's mythical heroes, by the Warsaw Uprising's self-sacrificing youth, by the pathos of Juliusz Slowacki's poetry. A sense of loss is also generated by an awareness of the failure of many Polish Americans to get their story told. But there also is a great love there, and great persistence: Bukoski is clearly fond of his characters. And for good reasons. In spite of its imperfections, Bukoski's Superior overflows with the "milk of human kindness" which has dried up in areas where the big power battles have been fought.

While Suzanne Strempek Shea's Polishness is that of a polka party: cheerful, easy, a good fit to the "Tuesday Morning" realities of the lower and middle middle class America, Bukoski's has altogether different overtones. He likewise writes about the lower middle class ‘Polacks,' but he imbues his stories with the amazingly accurate echoes of Old Country, with tidbits of the Polish language and the Oginski Polonaise. As long as this Polonaise matters, the link between the old peasant Polonia and the new post-Solidarity Polonia is preserved.

I would characterize Bukoski's style as magical realism. This technique seems particularly well suited to the telling of ethnic tales. Gabriel Garcia Marquez created it in The Hundred Years of Solitude, and English-language writers who depict local cultures have used it abundantly. What is magical realism? A critic described it as a style that weaves elements of the fantastic into the story with a deadpan sense of realism. The fantastic can be dreams, stream-of-consciousness, internal monologue, or elements of history. In Bukoski's case, the dreamweaver is the narrator or the characters or both.

In this and other volumes of stories, Bukowski has created a space where Polish Americans can breathe.

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