Lois P. Jones, an amazing, spiritual, insightful, and incredibly talented poet (I forgot sensuous and erudite), is a fantastic hostess at the Poets' Cafe, airing on Wednesday evenings at 8:30 p.m. She prepares well for her interviews, reading poetry, talking to her prospective guests, asking them to bring a lot of poems. She is warm and lovely and then... ambushes her guests with completely unexpected questions. Thrown off their planned path, guests have to reveal more about themselves than they knew they would, or would have planned to. The hosts laughs with them, shares her favorite lines of their poems, and leads them into a deeper self-understanding and, might I say, enlightenment. Well done, Lois!
After my hour in the studio, that was to be about the "Chopin with Cherries" anthology, but turned out to be all about the poetic me: Who am I? Why am I here, in Los Angeles? Writing in English? What and who do I love? How do I capture the ineffable in words?
Interview: Maja Trochimczyk on Poets Cafe, hosted by Lois P. Jones and broadcast on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, on March 30, 2011.
Our lovely friend, Kathabela Wilson organized a listening party for the broadcast date of the interview, on March 30, 2011, which she did not know for I did not tell her, nor shared it with Lois, was the 25th anniversary of my baptism during the Easter Vigil at St. Martin's Church in Warsaw, Poland. That miraculous night opened the way across the ocean for me, a Californian by choice. Ultimately, it led to a level of illumination that only now I'm slowly beginning to grasp.
I read one poem from the "Chopin with Cherries" anthology - the title poem, a memory from my Polish childhood, spent in the villages where my grandparents lived. That one is dedicated to my maternal grandparents, Stanislaw and Marianna Wajszczuk who settled in his ancestral village of Trzebieszow in the Lublin region after escaping from the area taken over by the Soviets during World War II. My mother was born in Baranowicze, now in Belarus. Each house in the village was surrounded by gardens, neatly divided by fences into sections where children were allowed into (orchard) and those they were not (flower and vegetable gardens). Children were like pets, or like livestock, in their capacity for destruction. My grandmother took no chances with her crop of tomatoes and strawberries...
We were not allowed to climb the cherry trees, either - the branches were too fragile, cracked easily. But the ancient Italian Walnut tree, with a smooth broad trunk and a perfect spot to sit in, with a book and a cup of cherries, that was something else.
The walnuts, first covered in smooth green skin, and completely white (if you peeled off the yellowish skin off each bitter-sweet nut), were scattered to dry in the attic. Full of old clothes, spinning wheels, weird instruments, and bunches of herbs hanging from the rafters, the attic was my refuge on rainy days. I'd read the old weeklies or books, and eat the walnuts or cherries, or whatever other edibles could be found, scattered on old newsprint. Who said, children had to watch TV or play video games to have fun? All you need is the rain, and a little bit of Chopin.
A Study with Cherries
After Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1 and the cherry orchard
of my grandparents, Stanisław and Marianna Wajszczuk
I want a cherry,
a rich, sweet cherry
to sprinkle its dark notes
on my skin, like rainy preludes
drizzling through the air.
Followed by the echoes
of the piano, I climb
a cherry tree to find rest
between fragile branches
and relish the red perfection –
morning cherry music.
I hide in the dusty attic.
I crack open the shell
of a walnut to peel
the bitter skin off,
revealing white flesh –
a study in C Major.
Tasted in reverie,
the harmonies seep
through light-filled cracks
between weathered beams
in Grandma’s daily ritual
of Chopin at noon.
I was ready to read two other poems from the Chopin anthology, but Lois moved on, first to my "Ode of the Lost" - about the pain of emigration, dedicated to Adam Mickiewicz of the Great Emigration generation of Poles who settled in France after the fall of the November Uprising of 1830. An Ode of the Lost was published in The Cosmopolitan Review, in a special issue about immigrant experience in poetry that I edited, based on materials from a session at the Polish American Historical Association meeting held in San Diego in January 2010. Since that version (The Cosmopolitan Review) did not include any line breaks, I think it will be nice to see the poem with its stanza divisions.
An Ode of the Lost
~ to Adam Mickiewicz and all Polish exiles
Tired exiles in rainy Paris listen to Mickiewicz
reciting praises of woodsy hills, green meadows —
distant Lithuania, their home painted in Polish verse,
each word thickly spread with meaning,
like a slice of rye bread with buckwheat honey.
“Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie.
Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie,
Kto cię stracił” — he says, and we, homeless Poles
without ground under our feet, concur,
sharing the blame for our departure.
There’s no return.
Are not all journeys one way? Forward,
forward, go on, “call that going, call that on.”
The speed of light, merciless angel with a flaming sword,
moves the arrow forward. Seconds, minutes
stretch into years. Onwards. Go.
The time-space cone limits the realm of possibility.
If you stay, you can go on. If you leave—
Can you find blessing in the blur of a moment?
In a glimpse of soft, grassy slopes shining
like burnished gold before the sun turns purple?
Can you learn to love the sweet-fluted songs
of the mockingbird, forget the nightingale?
How far is too far for the lost country
to become but a dream of ancient kings—
where children never cry, wildflowers bloom,
and autumn flutter of brown, drying leaves
whispers of the comforts of winter?
Sleep, sleep, eternal sleep,
in the spring you will awaken…
Note: Quotation from Adam Mickiewicz’s Invocation to Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania (“My country! You are as good health: /How much one should prize you, he only can tell who has /lost you”), from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, and from the author.
Quickly moving through time in an interview that became my best portrait, I then came to my California inspirations. I read one poem from that strange novella in verse, "Rose Always - A Court Love Story" that preoccupied me from 2005 to 2008 (and still echoes in various love poems I write from time to time, they are all related!). Published just with a number (76), but often entitled just "The Music Box," this poem is the most miraculous, I feel, of the whole interview.
The magic comes from an actual music box, the one you see in my portrait above. I bought it for five dollars at a garage sale from a neighbor on my street. A white porcelain box with a pink rose in a gold frame on the lid, it plays a lovely song. I found it and then the poem just wrote itself, as I put this and that into the box. I do have a weakness for music boxes: my collection is not large, maybe ten or twenty boxes, mostly carved from wood with decorative inlays and carvings. The white china box, delicate and elegant, was a perfect expression of the nostalgic tone of the poem.
The Music Box
What the world needs now
is love, sweet love…
My china music box plays a song
from your childhood.
Under the lid with one pink rose
I keep my sentimental treasures –
the miniature portrait
in a grey enamel frame echoing
the color of your tank top
worn in defiance
of my sophistication.
The white tulle ribbon – a memento
from my wedding gown?
It held the ornament up
on the bough of the Christmas tree
after that second, numinous summer.
My broken ring, bent not to be worn again,
with a deep scar from your blunt saw,
a shape marked by the strength of your fingers.
It was a moment of liberation –
I don’t have to – anything – any more.
The three little diamonds –
faith, hope and love – embedded
in the scratched gold, still shine,