Articulating the Polish American Experience
Reviewer: Lillian Vallee
Time Between Trains, by Anthony Bukoski. Dallas, Texas. Southern Methodist University Press. 2003. 200 pages. Hardcover. ISBN 0-870-74479-8. $15.75 on Amazon.com.
Anthony Bukoski, who was born and raised in East End in Superior, Wisconsin, has written a bouquet of stories with a subtle, sorrowful fragrance.
Time Between Trains is marked by the resignation and melancholy of a displaced Polish working class, but also by an innocent aspiration and tenderness that ring true to my own experience growing up in a postwar Polish neighborhood in Detroit. There is the fractured bilingual texture, the drinking and fistfights, the unrealized dreams, dubious future, and frail gentility. There are children-named after Polish heroes-whose reality is anything but mythic. These are difficult qualities to capture in the right proportions. Bukoski’s stories are respectful, often even affectionate and humorous, without idealization, and they are a welcome relief from the thoughtless and reductive depiction of Polish Americans in a movie like The Polish Wedding.
In the delicate portrayal of often indelicate types, in a complex but inobtrusive tracework of multiple ironies, Bukoski achieves a level of authenticity that one rarely encounters in depictions of Polish American life.
Bukoski, who served as a marine in the Vietnam era, opens his volume with a story about a soldier home on leave. In the carefully calibrated narrative of “A Geography of Snow,” Thaddeus Milszewski (“Tad”)- a character rooted in his place, his identity, and the club to which he belongs-does not want to return to Vietnam (“I don’t want to go. I made a mistake.”), yet he must steel himself for the inevitable. There is no inflation of Thaddeus. He is a cook who has been wounded in the leg and has received a Purple Heart. “The guys like my cooking. They ask for pierogi when they come back from search-and-destroy operations near An Ho. Pierogi, of all things.” Tad also appears in other stories in the volume, “The Value of Numbers” and “The Bird That Sings in the Bamboo.” In the first of these, while recuperating from his wounds in Japan and remembering his sister’s daily struggle with polio, Tad comes to the conclusion that she was the more valiant of the siblings.
Thaddeus Milszewski tries to draw succor from the neighborhood in which he grew up. “If I kiss the place . . . then I’m okay. But how do you kiss a neighborhood? I’ve never done nothing brave. At least lemme study this map a little and get some strength.” In Vietnam he carries around a map of home and memories of the people who live there, a “simple people who want to be heroes, want to be good.”
Normal existence was always suspect, a temporary armistice. . . these fears bleed into successive generations, so that a war or defeat or forced labor or internment are not over when they are over but are carried around as the inchoate melancholy the reader recognizes as the backdrop of Bukoski’s work.
In many ways, the lives of Bukoski’s characters are shaped by what he does not write about, historical upheaval, disruption, displacement. His characters’ helplessness in the face of historical forces, their defeat, humility, inertia, and aspiration to goodness are perhaps their defining features. Some critics mistake these stories for “stories in which nothing happens,” but it is precisely in the delicate portrayal of often indelicate types, in a complex but inobtrusive tracework of multiple ironies, that Bukoski achieves a level of authenticity that one rarely encounters in depictions of Polish American life. And perhaps such depictions are rare because they are painful, even heartbreaking.
What are the components of that identity, that life? A certain disconnection and the burden of an inarticulate grief as in the withering Polish and Jewish communities in the title story, “Time Between Trains.” Let the reader consider for a moment this tale of a lonely Jewish track checker who is attracted to the beautiful garden of an equally isolated Polish schoolteacher, effecting a symbolic reconciliation of a tragically thorny history of two peoples. Is it possible to disassociate trains from their role as medium of displacement, imprisonment, annihilation, and resettlement in the last century? “More often than one might imagine, track inspectors have time between trains.”
And here again Bukoski touches on another authentic note even though the East End reality is far removed from the historical conflagrations that brought some of its residents there: the fear that the present reality is mere respite from historical or economic forces toying with the lives of individuals and nations. For almost two decades after the war, my mother stockpiled soap and other dry goods in our pantry in case war broke out again. Thunderstorms and ambulance sirens sent her into a panic. Normal existence was always suspect, a temporary armistice, and the truth was children could be separated from parents at any time, you could be evicted, your house, entire neighborhoods, peoples, could disappear. Normal life was tentative, fragile; it was not to be trusted, not be taken for granted. And these fears bleed into successive generations, so that a war or defeat or forced labor or internment are not over when they are over but are carried around as the inchoate melancholy the reader recognizes as the backdrop of Bukoski’s work.
The loneliness of train track inspector and third grade teacher, however, are mitigated by nature’s intricate beauty and human powers of observation. Some of Bukoski’s most lyrical passages are in the title story:
With his windows rolled down, what things he saw on mild winter days as he waited dreamily for the through freight: a spider made its way over the snow by his front tire; an ermine popped its head from the white earth; a snowy owl perched atop a paper birch, looking at the curious world. The delicate, beautiful bird and animal tracks he saw after a fresh snow reminded him of his own work on the tracks.
And Sofia found solace in her garden:
Except for this garden, she in no other way indulged herself. . . . There she grew aster, yarrow, phlox, black-eyed Susan, hollyhock, butterfly bush. . . . From flower to flower fluttered cabbage butterflies, mourning cloaks, monarchs, swallowtails. One afternoon she counted sixty-five butterflies. Sofia thought the butterflies could impart something of their beautiful delicacy to you in proportion to how much peace and strength you needed after a decade of disappointments.
Loss and suffering are made more bearable by family and community or by surrogate family/community relations. In “Leaves that Shimmer in the Slightest Breeze,” a fatherless boy finds a model of moral authority in the barn-wrecker who comes to dismantle the family barn; in “The Moon of the Grass Fires” Joe Leszczyk brings home an outdated confessional only to have it trigger painful memories of a mother’s addiction (“Memory was his retirement problem-not health concerns, not financial worries”); and in “Leokadia and Fireflies” a girl begins to understand her hardworking father’s slowness and gentleness as gifts, and his stories (which no one wants to listen to) as the only self-expression he can allow himself in an atmosphere of steady denigration of his identity.
In one of my favorite stories, “A Philosophy of Dust,” a powerful narrative of love and malice, the narrator Michael Ziminski, a philosopher, states, “the entire city of Superior, my neighborhood included, is a classroom for the study of failure”:
When you can’t find work and need to get yourself more depressed, listen in the hallway of your run-down flat for the neighbor guy to strike his wife or she him. Add gray skies. Add fog, and in winter and into late spring, throw in bitter cold, and that’s how it is in Superior, Wisconsin, at the Head of the Lakes. Every day I take a refresher course in how to be a loser.
In the course of the story Ziminski’s hunger to possess rather than love destroys four lives and leaves him, aging and unkempt, awaiting eviction from his apartment.
A reviewer can only begin to discern the richness of Bukowski’s stories. They deserve reading and rereading and some serious discussion in Polish American, immigrant, and academic communities. Time Between Trains, as well as Bukoski’s earlier volumes of stories, are a serious collection of the materials of a specific identity. As with any good writing, those materials are transmuted into testimony of the human condition, of human striving for love and tenderness, and of perennial human temptations and shortcomings. ∆
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The Sarmatian Review
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