Two reviews of Revenants: Poems
By Mark Nowak. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press (27 North Fourth Street, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401), 2000. 128 pages. Paper. $14.95.
Good poetry paints vivid portraits of a culture, but the canvas always ends in ellipsis. Does the poem disclose an otherwise hidden view of a culture, or does it recreate that culture?
Poles and Polish Americans seem unusually drawn to-and exceptionally gifted in-writing poetry. Szymborska and Miłosz are stars in Poland. John Guzlowski’s Language of Mules and Norbert Wiley’s Stockyards Boyhood scout the hyphenated Slavic territory here in the States. But why does poetry fit so well with the Polish spirit? An answer is strongly suggested by Mark Nowak’s brilliant collection, Revenants. Nowak’s poems are liberating. Some poetry, like that of the nineteenth-century transcendentalists Shelley and Thoreau, attempt to elevate the human experience to levels approaching the ineffable. The task for contemporary American Polish poets is more fundamental than that. They use poetry to escape the structured, traditional, ascetic, sometimes irrational but always foreboding old world in which we grew up, but they do not abandon this old world. By acknowledging the truth of the old world in poetry, they are able to master it by celebrating it. Nowak accomplishes this near the beginning of his collection with the poem “Stworzenie” (Creation):
You must not whisper the words in the darkness. These words
These. You must not whisper them.
So began the world. In the darkness
So began the world. The world began this way. It began with these words.
You must not, you mustn’t.
The gods they said do anything, but don’t do that. Said that to kids just born.
They knew they would. Said you must not you mustn’t no and knew they would.
What a way for gods to start the world.
The old world full of prohibitions is Nowak’s Buffalo. The poems in the first section of the book, The Pain-Dance Begins, are populated by the expected things: sausage, vodka, blueberries and radishes, matkas and babas, the Elks Club, the Black Madonna, and gods and goddesses. Yet the very useful “Glossary of Polish Terms” he presents at the end of the book highlights the unexpected places of the heart and mind where he takes the reader. Those of us from the third generation of the 1960s Polonia-to whom the good Felician sisters did not teach Polish because we were to become Americans-know about the usual things that we teach our children. Nevertheless, I never knew there were Polish words for places like border (lamować), echo (odzew), wisdom (rozum), solitary (samotnik), creation (stworzenie), or theory (teoria). The net result is that Nowak helps the reader to identify with the American Polish experience at two levels, the material and historical, as well as the affective and intellectual. The answer to the classic question, “What does it mean to be Polish American?” probably lies somewhere in the liminal world between the two levels. For this linguistic and aesthetics lesson, I thank Mark Nowak.
In the second and third sections of the book, “Zwyczaj” (Custom) and “Back Me Up,” Nowak uses the power of the postmodern lens without actually invoking that term. For some of us, postmodernism suggests fearful visions of Marxism, atheism, and relativity of values. Nowak soberly shows us that postmodernism is essentially a set of analytical tools, ways of seeing and styles of portraying the world. Nowak’s particular postmodernist tool is pastiche, the mixing and matching of otherwise disparate elements, styles, colors, and media to make a point. The topic of the poem in Zwyczaj is the humble pierogi. Nowak cites the City Pages of Minneapolis, circa June 11, 1997, to introduce his poem:
Pierogies remind me of Peter Lorre: they’re plump, compact, and unglamorous; they thrive in the least promising environments; and wherever they are, be it glamorous Hollywood, decadent Berlin, or a big pile of sour cream, they maintain their essential lumpy, foreign, resilient character.
Nowak in fact describes the making of pierogies. He borrows text from ethnographic interviews with women working diligently in the basement carefully crafting these delights; text from a formal, academic, folkloric study of pierogi-making as a folk art; and text from two academic books instructing us on the proper way for ethnographic researchers to describe a people’s way of life. The quality of ethnography is determined by the degree to which the people one is studying can identify themselves in the analysis. How many male, Polish American readers out there recall inviting/dragging your non-Polish American fiancées to your mother’s kitchen/basement to learn how to make pierogies, and discovering that there is no simple recipe available:
In participating as fully and
humanly as possible
in another way of life
. . . .
[My mother] just
and that was it.
. . . .
learns what is required to become
a member of that world,
to experience events and
meanings in ways
. . . .
I think it’s more the people you’re with
than it is the food.
The final section, “Back Me Up,” is a combined textual (ethnographic data and scholarly advice) and photographic essay on the bars in Polonia in Buffalo. Again, the quality of the ethnographic realism is pristine:
My Friend, Hank Lodowski,
Had “avoiding to buy a round”
To a science.
Revenants is good reading. The book invites all to enter the fascinating working class world of Polonia, while portraying that world with all the elegance and insight it deserves. Poles and Polish Americans should celebrate Revenants and works like it for liberating us from our ethnic self-consciousness to a true appreciation for and pride in who we are. ∆
A title that obliges the reviewer to reach for a dictionary does not predispose her well toward the book. Having checked my Webster’s Unabridged, I found that “revenant” means “a person who returns, as after a long absence”; or “a person who returns as a spirit after death; a ghost.” The title is well chosen. The poems in this volume are reflections on time present and time past. Time past is represented by Polish words, Polish work, Polish presence in the Midwest from which traces of Polishness have been all but eliminated.
Or have they? In recent years we have seen a good number of publications dealing with Polish presence in the Midwest. In Mark Nowak’s volume it is the ghosts that clamor for recognition. He writes about wordless people: humble, hard-working, satisfied with little, and totally innocent of self-assertion, of any clamor for recognition or demand for a presence in history. The kind of people, one is tempted to say, of whom a mention was made in the Beatitudes.
No other volume of poetry recently published in America contains so many references to things Polish as this one. Yet the book has an alien quality to a Polish-speaking person in spite of all the Polish words that crop up in each poem. Their Polish semantics seem only vaguely connected with what the poems say, nor is the meaning of the poems clear. The author, a native English speaker, must have assigned meanings to Polish words that are not quite there when one uses them in their original meaning. In Nowak’s poems Polish words are used like words in nursery rhymes, as a kind of meaningless gibberish that rhymes correctly. A bilingual person like myself fails to see the point of these Polish intrusions. How does the phrase “wszyscy na raz” fit into the stanza that follows:
We have now observed that the practice of agriculture
Can explain certain things
the notion that we can transfer guilt and suffering is
familiar to our spirit.
Yet when it arises between the materials: scythes, barley,
stones. . . it is then that the world
acts, from our refinement and theology, to bear upon
the castoffs, we see as falling to Hell, them all. (p. 45)
Bits and pieces of this stanza evoke powerful associations: are we dealing here with the rural Polish population as it shouldered the responsibilities of living and tried to shut off suffering and guilt because it could not bear them any longer? They can be seen as castoffs, but cannot be falling to Hell. So who is falling to Hell? Surely not the miserable castoffs? And what is the role of the world in this? The author seems to compress his thoughts too much, and the result is opaqueness.
This opaqueness makes for heavy reading. I found myself putting this book away several times. It is just too bitter to be swallowed in one gulp. It lacks a way out. It seems to record the wanderings of one solitary mind as it copes with its Polish heritage, which it knows only superficially and only through encounters with semiliterate Polish peasants who came to this country but never managed to become Americans. Their Polish heritage was too frail and weak to be fully Polish to begin with, and their choice seems to have been to cling to its pitiful caricatures. The author seems to write dirges about this. But dirges that do not contain deep wisdom and/ or an indication of a way out cannot satisfy.
The author’s theology is clearly not a Catholic one. When he refers to Our Lady of Częstochowa as “the black goddess” to whom his grandfather whispers, he perpetuates one of the favorite canards about Catholicism. As someone remarked, anti-Catholicism is the only prejudice American intellectuals are allowed to indulge in, and it is hard not to conclude that Professor Nowak follows the trend in this regard. One can make multiple comments about the religiosity of the unlettered and unsaintly peasants, but to flatten it out to mere paganism seems prejudicial.
Altogether, it is a strange book. Professor Nowak did not retain much of his declared Polish background: he did not learn intellectual Polishness, he has not read Polish writers and has not absorbed the history that inspires the best of Polish Americans; nor has he retained a peasant devotion to the few tokens of the “old country” that are sometimes so touchingly preserved by people otherwise untouched by what being Polish is all about. The Polish phrases he inserts into his American monologue sound strange and out of place. The author did not manage to endow his Polish echoes with meaning, yet they stubbornly return. Yes, it is a strange book. ∆
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