Worn shoes in the days of my youth
now have hung the bear.
The boys I knew
(Kujowski, Michalski, Czechowski ...
follow the sledge
lamenting the Shrovetide Bear.
And later: ‘for the magnificent years of our youth/gone through more than our share.’ The lament embodies loss, struggle and hardship in youth, the price of (resonance intended) bearing up under tremendous loads, of how we can survive the hundred little cuts we experience each day, of how we can bear the full beauty of life.
This may be the only volume of poetry that comes with a glossary of Polish terms as Nowak recovers heritage word by word. I learned new words and read familiar ones given the mere handful of words I received from my mother’s side of the family in the mixed marriage of my parents. Mine include words for numbers up to ten, a few swear words, salutations, toasts, the terms for mother and father, the names for some food items such as milk and eggs, and the lyrics of a three-hanky wedding song on the transience of time.
The revenants flicker with linguistic texture and neighborhood: dworec (rail station), obliczac czas (time), rozum (reason), stworzenie (creation), and zdarzenie (incident).
As many other writers on bilingualism note, often there is linguistic confusion, interesting hybridization, a folk location or identity made possible through combined vocabularies of lived neighborhoods. For most of my childhood, cemeteries and death seemed especially beyond comprehension — it was not until I was somewhat older that I realized all the tombstones in Buffalo’s East Side cemetery are in Polish not in some kind of universal language of death only adults can read.
Nowak’s ‘Stworzenie, ’ Polish for creation, begins with the spoken word as taboo, the breaking of darkness (15):
You must not whisper these 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 no.
and later on the presiding gods:
Would think they could do better than that. Would think they could forgive.
But they didn’t, and these words these
nobody wants you to know.
The urge to preserve something from obliteration may require an institution, the loaded, non-neutral discourse of the printed text, the museum, the ethnographic collection, the curated art object. But as James Clifford writes in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art the meaning of objects become changed as they are plucked from time, placed within the museum collection. That the
...ethnic neighborhoods, the provincial reminders, the Chinese Opera Company, the feathered Indian in the library, the works of art from other continents and eras that turn up in dealers’ closets: all are survivals, remnants of threatened or vanished traditions. The world’s cultures appear in the chronotope as shreds of humanity, degraded commodities, or elevated great art but always functioning as vanishing ‘loopholes’ or ‘escapes’ from a one-dimensional fate. (244)
And that ‘fate’ or practice that Clifford critiques is, in part, collectors’ tendency toward the construal of extinction rather than continued existence.
But Nowak’s neighborhoods continue and the people are not extinct despite the decline, the de-industrialization, the subordination of language and ethnicity.
Suppressed language (‘these words these/nobody wants you to know’) for a subordinated group can become a stigma, a mark of shame, a degrading secret; in a poem on ethnic origins, Nowak writes (18):
But then that’s
a relative darkness when you’re
speaking of a Pole.
‘A Polack in school?’ they used to say.
As recently as four years ago, I heard a television newscaster announce a meeting between US diplomats and ‘Polish intellectuals’ and looked up at the screen expecting an ethnic deprecation — so deeply goes the socialized message of inferiority.
Unlike Nowak’s, my family lived on the South Side in a mixed Irish, Italian, Polish neighborhood; we visited my mother’s ‘old neighborhood’ on holidays. The difference between Nowak’s St. Casmir’s parish and St. Martin’s parish where I went to school is played out on the level of competing, and sometimes hostile, identities despite the era’s drive toward total assimilation we inhabited. While most days passed in peace, there were fistfights and hurled insults, or, on occasion, a heavy presence, a charged atmosphere that violent feelings were barely contained beneath the surface.
The term Anglo may make sense as a designate in California, but in western New York, it would identify recent immigrants from the British Isles if used at all.
The other side of language secrets is their magical, musical, incantatory properties of life and enchantment. In Nowak’s powerfully beautiful poem around the Polish word for song, piosenka, he writes (32):
Either way, it suggests a center, a place to return. And you
return, piosenka, as the vertical self returns.
As the forsythia do, as
asparagus does, early.
But we’re too busy for you, or, if we do
notice, we get caught up in defining you as birth, as re-birth,
or that the early bird gets the worm.
To this tired polis you have returned, piosenka, and if you
come in, come inside.
But who am I asking, you? You who have
returned, again, again, on and on to this city.
As is proper for such people, piosenka, I have spoke little,
and heard even less. Certainly I greet you, I ask you
The powerful beauty here in the repetition of plain sound that holds down the tendency toward romantic flight creating praise greater for its sublimation. Nowak manages a healthy suspicion of institution-building in the name of ‘authenticity’ and stays rooted in and respectful of the specifics of everyday life locatable by place and time, by social relations.
On one occasion in the late 1980s when I returned to Buffalo and looked for the factory where I worked and the railroad viaduct where I stood so many times waiting for the Seneca Street bus after work, I saw a cinder paved crater where that huge, self-contained world once stood. Both railbridge and factory leveled, neither a site of new building in a collapsed economy.
Shortly before that visit came the 1983 closure of the Bethlehem Steel plant followed by many other closures of small factories as well as the Republic Steel shutdown: a few stores sold t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Buffalo: a city with no illusions’ like the ethos of Nowak’s poetry that avoids grandiosity, avoids the possibility for pretension while pursuing the mythic and deeply human experience of life, of dignified struggle, and ordinary lived experience. This is especially difficult to accomplish in a moment of self-discovery, yet here Nowak finds his way as a poet in a poem that circles around the word, obliczac czas, Polish for time (35):
What is this place we consider decisive, obliczac czas,
that question dips behind and rises from.
that carries us through.
I became for the first my house inside of this,
not knowing tied a string to the rest of the world.
As an entrance to desire, ‘not knowing,’ the hunger impelling us forward, from the immigrant experience of not knowing English such as in Nowak’s poem (86) to have ‘no English’ can be an impoverishing plight to a circumstance flickering between knowing and not-knowing: Nowak includes two ‘experimental’ ethnographic sections one on the making of pierogies (perhaps the women’s section) and the other on Stan’s Tavern (perhaps the men’s section). At Stan’s, men marked segments of time such as the end of the work day, obliterated time through alcohol, and gathered there socially as the extended living room of the neighborhood.
Nowak’s use of the idiom of experimental poetry rather than the conventional lyric with a unified monologic ‘voice’ allows play of multiple language: the discourse of Malinowski (in italicized type), a Pole noted for ethnographic approaches in his Trobriand fieldwork excerpted downward by Nowak, a Polish-American who studies deindustrialized Polish-Americans, photographs a series of closed bars on Broadway, and writes by excerpting emails (in bold face type) from a male relative on the legendary topic of Stan’s Tavern.
Here is another calendar wherein the shift in anthropological practice is illustrated, a shift from exotic, ‘otherizing’ subject-constitution to a self-consciously respectful study of local subjects, the familiar industrial context seen through the social relations of anthropology: Nowak has thinned the excerpts from Malinowski’s revealing and controversial A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term so the ‘dates in the journals themselves that material is taken from, December 26-31, 1917, correspond to the exact dates (in 1997) I shot the accompanying photographs and did fieldwork in Buffalo, NY’.
The experience is one of shifting planes of narrative, shifting planes of time. For example, segment 4 in its entirety (103):
December 27, 1917:
‘I made it a point of honor
‘to think about ‘what I am
‘here to do.
of the bar
across the street from this one
asks, ‘You the guy
pictures here yesterday?’
My friend, Hank Lodowski,
had ‘avoiding to buy a round’
to a science.
I try to explain
my project ‘About the need
‘to collect many documents.
& he starts remembering
‘the old neighborhood.’
As a whole experience, the poem sequence, like Malinowski’s work, becomes a highly-charged, polyphonic allegory — a moral movement of human dignity and worth. Honor, purpose, curiosity, cunning, the well-delivered story: how each memorialize and evoke further remembering. The poem hints at the vitality of how people self-identify, at what they give you.
As Michael Frisch writes in the introduction to his book Portraits in Steel, a collection of the photographs taken by Milton Rogovin of Buffalo steel- and ironworkers in 1975 and 1978 who then re-photographed his subjects in the mid-1980s as his subjects inadvertently became ex-steel and ironworkers (3):
To speak of self-presentation is not to deny to complexity of the relationship between the portrait subject and the painter, sculptor, photographer, or oral historian whom that subject is addressing. Nor is it to deny that artifice, interpretation, and even manipulation are necessarily involved in arranging the portrait session, rendering the images presented, and conveying them to others in some form or another... But portraits do represent and express a collaboration of their own between subject and artist/historian, a collaboration in which the subject is anything but mute or powerless, a mere object of study. This presentation is compellingly true of Rogovin’s work: he is the sort of photographer who does not ‘take’ photographs; rather, his subjects ‘give’ them to him.
Like Portraits in Steel with its extensive interviews of the portrait subjects, another kind of fieldwork, Nowak is participatory and respectful of his subject: he blurs the line as a ‘participant observer,’ a poet-participant. Like other dialogic ‘texts,’ Nowak the poet-ethnographer shapes by selection, deletion, location, pairings, etc. as his subjects themselves do.
In the other sequence, ‘Zwyczaj’ (Polish for custom), Nowak again uses several registers of language, reference, and sound selected from: his ethnographic interview (in boldface type) with a relative of Nowak who ‘speaks for herself’ on how to make pierogies, an ethnographic publication (in non-boldface type) of someone else who interviewed someone else on how to make pierogies, and ethnographic instruction (in non-boldface type) on how to conduct field interviews. This pursuit of knowledge becomes a set of dolls nested within other dolls, the desire to fit and the desire to contrast plays into a choral performance on the theme of instability of all categories of life and knowing. Here is segment 11 in its entirety (93):
‘Perhaps ‘the family is gone
‘but their energy
‘and ‘sense of responsibility
‘Through participation, the field researcher
sees first-hand and up-close
how people grapple with uncertainty
‘I never really copied any recipe down.’
‘how meanings emerge through talk
and collective action...’
because I don’t think
I was interested in it at that time
‘how understandings and interpretations
change over time.’
thinking, well, gram
always made ‘em and ...not thinking ahead.
Thinking ahead points toward irrevocable loss, ‘the family is gone,’ the end of an era or toward the collection and preservation mediated by institutions, or originally: what does it mean to preserve through poetry? Nowak preserves how the family ‘sense of responsibility’ endures, how to participate and observe his subjects’ uncertainty, how the creation of meaning is communal, how time changes our perceptions of what is held as valuable or interesting, changes how we understand our practices and meanings, how people can come to hold the belief in a grandmother as keeper of culture. A new calendar where an image of various stages of pierogi construction displaces an eternal, phantom woman weaving without completion: use value implies this making and re-making.
These poems allow for exploration of working class socio-political themes in contrast to typical romantic or realist representations wherein working class people are reduced to one of two extremes: the insensitive oaf who displays the crack in his behind and is incapable of appreciating-the-finer-things-in-life, or the self-sacrificing hero in a jean jacket and tool belt shaking his fist at the owners — the tool belt, of course, carries American sockets suitable for Chevys, none of that suspect, metric stuff.
The lack of variety and spectrum of possible selves might not be experienced in quite the same way by middle class people whose representations of selfhood and lives are everywhere multiple and various — with variety one can endure a few condescending or unflattering representations, in situations of dearth, one cannot.
As mediator of candidate selves, Nowak offers: ethnographer, college-educated participant-observer, writer of publishable poetry not assimilated to the dominant class, maker and consumer of pierogies, reclaimer of language, recorder of a neighborhood ethos. These possible selves greatly appeal to me: as a woman, there were few possibilities, even factory work sectioned women from men reserving the better paying jobs for men. One day a classmate who worked in the same factory talked me into applying for work with her at the Bethlehem Steel plant reasoning that we might as well make ‘real money’ given we were already dirty and exhausted at the end of the day from factory work. We were not only refused job applications but were laughed out of the front office. Later I read that same year marked court-ordered entrance to those jobs for women and minorities. Michael Frisch writes in his introduction to Portraits in Steel:
... [Rogovin] did take a number of portraits in the Bethlehem and Republic mills, where his main interest was women and minority workers hired there under programs responding to a 1973 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission consent decree requiring that documented discrimination at the plants be addressed by affirmative action hiring... (15)
Indeed, Rogovin’s fascinating gallery of admirable women steelworkers preserves a world that did not exist for me. I began to learn the strength of union activity open to women quite a bit later ultimately serving as a labor representative where I currently teach.
Parallel to typical definitions of tragedy, ‘traditions’ are of our composition and tend to edify our favorite expressions, are historically contingent, and deliver ‘truths’ into complex social relations that have no stable truths. I first discovered Nowak as the editor of Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics, a literary biannual that has developed a lively, international readership for experimental poetry, reviews, and graphic arts. I was able to exchange a few emails and learned of his background in Buffalo, that like me, he is also first-generation college graduate, that Nowak’s relatives’ house is within view of the now-deserted Buffalo train station.
For my group of friends in high school, the large public parks, museums, libraries, as well as the train tracks were our extended living room, our Stan’s Tavern where we could congregate, make conversation, smoke and drink, dream of the outbound road. In a study of the tension between time as structure and time as event, Nowak writes the beautiful lines (68):
An order that distinguishes the apple from the light
in which the apple appears.
and, around dworzec, Polish for rail station, as another expression of counting time, of place quoted here in full (69):
Here, where the circle meets the square, are you, dworzec,
the very cut of you, like the four sides of a sonata.
Here, where the teasel reaches the driveway is you, even
if you were to deny it, dworzec, broken-glass one.
For years, from the birth to death of children in years,
the way we as a people count them and keep counting
them is you. Here, where our inquiries are stopped by
fence and chain, where even our eyes have shut themselves
to your leaving is you, dworzec, sow-carrier and coal-
hearted-stoker, gone-out. Like the four sides of a sonata,
some wrought with pastiche, others with boundless
energy or melodrama, like these four inalienable sides,
dworzec, you come into the world, my world, into
the heart of it, you, cleft-leaver and time signature.
Having lived in an era of big public spending and big private philanthropy meant we had free access to the zoo, the Albright-Knox Art gallery, and great libraries. As a structure of art, Nowak selects a neighborhood and terrific themes, but life is messy, and mine a mishmosh of class references. Starting at age thirteen, I left my little neighborhood each morning for an academically elite high school on the North Side requiring me to take two city buses, Niagara Frontier Transit, with a transfer between.
The cumulative result of my high school years, both in and out of the factory and elite school, went beyond advanced academic training to a full and varied experience of life and people outside my neighborhood, an access to art, and, most importantly, an access to a way of being involved with art that did not require becoming someone else by denouncing my working class context. I like to believe I carry that through my life. I suspect Nowak does, too. But in Buffalo at that time, as in other northeastern cities, art was abundant, available, and, in my then-limited view, unthreatened. Unlike friends from western states, we had great access to the canonical, but also celebrated the avant-garde re-interpretations and sought new directions for art with high energy and brusque determination.
But so many of my generation left Buffalo: even by the mid to late 1970s (before the newsworthy plant closures) there were few opportunities for work. I fully expected to have a college degree and still work in a factory from what I experienced as common practice in Buffalo. Although most of the women on my factory floor were older and began work as kids themselves as part of ‘the war effort,’ my youngish partner at the ‘pit’ had a freshly posted MA in history; thus my expectations were set that what ‘I do’ would be entirely separate from how ‘I make a living.’ To find meaningful work, even at low pay, became a premium that drove many of us to seek futures elsewhere. The grief of a de-populated city where the current majority is aged expressed by Nowak, in part, here (67):
I have no children or turnips to return to, and what home
now means is not worth the fare.
The kitchen is an interrogative sentence, is empty.
and on the de-populated neighborhoods, reminiscent of Paul Celan’s grave tones around nie nazwany, Polish for anonymous or not named (65):
Nearly gone nearly everyone from the neighborhood.
Almost as if, or if, an edict had been drawn.
Had been or about to have been handed down.
The trespasser, nie nazwany, the trespasser.
Yards where tomatoes rot, and cabbage rots.
Each nearly empty, or as if to be silenced.
Nie nazwany, the interpreter or interpreted.
Naming each that has vacated the premises...
To pass into anonymity is more than an interesting epistemological problem, it’s obliteration that no one selects or works toward, it’s a fall from grace that creates the division between all that can possibly be divided, interpreter and interpreted, self and other. Later, Nowak poses the difficulty of interpretation at all (66):
A crow caws in the tree, and not only is the speech of the crow
inscrutable: so is the tree
This and other ‘truths’ remained suspect to an age that believed
all things were decipherable...
Grieving for the loss of an age, for the possibility of certainty, here we are left with contingent truths and tentative order (71):
...believe it or not, we cannot
of all things
and make them theorems.
Although tragically limited, these very limits of theoretical insights do not impinge in any way on the full beauty of experience: experience can outstrip mere information because it always plays through our complete sensorium. Like an incantatory chant to praise the beauty of yellow, Nowak’s poem on ranek, Polish for morning, is quoted here in full (75):
You are yellow, ranek, in your backyard behind vines. You
are yellow as squash is, or beans.
It is the color of importance, yellow, you can see it in
a house, when the window frames are black.
You are yellow, you are, ranek, and
nothing you can grow denies it. Nothing you can plant
behind a row of sunflower, or to the rear in the back of corn.
A mother in a dress, ranek, and you are in her eyes.
You are yellow, you, your shape is, without understanding it
even your gestures are.
And it is the color of a hand, ranek, this yellow is,
at the very end of the harvest.
Nowak’s poetry has provided a music, a record toward an unknown future, a book for all of us to experience, to breathe through. On recording what has ended (zakonczenie, Polish for ending or termination) and making a published record/ poem of that (80):
This is a sentence if this
is the way of the world. The line turned as the world does, and to speak
what’s here on this page the reader has to breathe. Is that enough?
Someone looks here to the book to find what the world has not held
long enough for him or her to experience.
And so one is here,
zakonczenie, writing, so that another day might read.
This is a sentence.
I say it out loud, I breathe it into the world against the horizon line.