Karen Kovacik directs the creative writing program at IUPUI. Her books of poetry include Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, and Nixon and I.
About the poem: This poem was inspired by my Polish aunt banishing me from the family village in 2007. She did not explain why. I had known her for 25 years and visited somewhat frequently during that long acquaintance.
for my aunt, Józefa Bierzało
In the beginning
Carpathian cake slid
from the wood stove
awaiting its chocolate frost.
Beets hibernated in silt
near the Vistula,
hot honey turned vodka into gold,
and stencilled snowflakes shimmered
over your only daughter’s bed.
That day in December,
despite martial law,
geese zigzagged freely
in the snow, and steam rose
from the muzzles of horses,
their log carts piled with hay.
Back then, your daughter
didn’t dream of London:
England still floated
off the far coast of Europe,
remote as Atlantis.
You welcomed us, your first Americans,
past the pigs and rabbits burrowed
in straw, to a room you called izba,
and spooned black tea into glasses
with rationed sugar. You beamed at me,
touched my cold cheek. I answered
in English, half-mute with ignorant love.
Then the mysteries of verb and noun
were revealed to me. Then came free elections
and border guards waved us through.
Satellite dishes bloomed on balconies, water sloshed
through new pipes, roads swallowed poplars, tractors
outpaced horses, ads for internet access fluttered
along country lanes. Then your daughter learned English
and hoarded duty-free perfumes. And though no angels
ravaged the land with swords of fire,
the apocalypse swept through your village store,
filling its shelves with Windex and Snickers.
You once marked your days by birth and slaughter.
Like an almanac, you knew July meant gooseberries
and August sugar beets. Checkered rabbits once spilled
from your vinyl purse in September,
and threaded mushrooms hung in your pantry
like spongy brown thumbs.
Now, like a border guard, you dismiss me:
Bez powrotu, “without return.”
it’s a phrase to be stamped in a passport
when the holder is banished.
Is my sin so original it can’t be named?
Is it the peanut butter I once brought you,
the wedding years ago where I lost a shoe,
dancing with drunks? Maybe
it’s the thank you and please
your daughter repeated after me.
Or is it my love of Warsaw, city
of pizza and billboards, where garlands
of neon blossom each night?
Ciociu, you know I can’t narrow the roads again.
Nor can I ban imported Chinese beets.
It would take forever to demolish all satellite dishes
or unlearn the Polish I’ve acquired.
I can’t play our lives in reverse, make
the borders slam shut again
and your daughter reappear in her room upstairs,
bored, counting snowflakes stamped in silver.
The Indiana Humanities Council is posting poems on Think.Read.Talk. by Hoosier poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Other Indiana celebrations include poetry readings at the Artsgarden (above the intersection of Illinois and Washington Streets, Indianapolis), performed each Monday at 12:15 p.m. For a schedule of events, click here.