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Old 06-19-2018, 07:34 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 3,231
Default Warsaw Series

We Are Not Made of Sugar

The gulls above the Vistula are saying
we’re near the river’s mouth. I took a walk
at 5 a.m. across the river bridge
to gaze at Warsaw. Warsaw’s waking up;
and in the sky of this new century,
the sun shines down on Poland. Those bright gulls
sweep low over the river as it moves
at speed toward the Baltic and its end.

A tome from 1927 brings
a smile to our librarian – It’s very
, she says, with a proud look at us.
Her university is typical,
she adds; like Warsaw, says another stranger.
But what is typical about this place?
The city has no plaques for those it lost;
the streets don't say a word. And yet, it shows,
out of the blue. At the Adam Mickiewicz
Museum, staff speak Polish and that's it.
In the Old Town, the buildings all are new;
across the Vistula, there stands what little
escaped the Nazis and the Soviets.
A man says Ja, natürlich, as he hands
a map of Warsaw to us, though we speak
nothing but English with him. He is not
unduly friendly, but he has a point.

A bearded man plays the accordion
as we walk home. The sun sets, in the cool
unreal light of the far North. It’s a town
that has its share of churches, but its Jews
are mostly long gone. At the Warsaw skyline -
Baroque when it’s not Stalinist - the eye
can pause a moment; folks have put some work

into rebuilding. This is where the Poles
rose up again, in 1944,
as Stalin waited. In a restaurant,
a German couple sits with their large dog
discussing Warschau. And the bearded man
sings Polish, wearing red and white in pride.

Mickiewicz, born in Lithuania,
ended his days in Paris. Chopin smiles
from a large mural near us; one more Pole
who went to Paris at a time the map
showed Poland intermittently. And by
the Vistula at 10 a.m., a group
of likely lads is drinking beer and laughing –
not floated by the rising tide of trade.

Along the cobbled street, a great Baroque
façade lifts higher than the eye. A brace
of muscled guards is watching Poland lose
to Senegal across the way, and there’s
a small crowd at the window as the game
proceeds toward full time. There’s really no
way Poland can return from this. Each saint
in the façade is busy at the work
of being holy, they are unconcerned
with Poland's travails, with this brace of guards.

Now on the Vistula, there’s nothing doing
beyond the birds. It’s midnight, and the nuns
you see round here might be asleep. But on
the Tamka, traffic roars. I’m at our bare
and lamplit kitchen table. Our apartment
is almost Japanese, it is so spare.
Up from the sidewalk, conversation. Each
and every word escapes me, though I’ve learned
Hello and Thank you; the Ukrainian,
my wife says, is extremely close. I sound,
I guess, a little Russian when I speak.
A Polish dog is barking, and the stars
that thrilled Copernicus are overhead –
so regular, you’d think they cared for us.

Last edited by John Isbell; 06-25-2018 at 02:52 PM.
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Old 06-20-2018, 01:49 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 3,231

Hi folks,

No comments yet, so I allowed myself a little tinkering with this. Notably I moved the librarian to a new section.
I had an exchange with a reader regarding this poem and my aesthetics. In brief, I hope two overarching themes, independently of any music there may be, hold the poem together: the river Vistula, which traverses Warsaw, and the precariousness of Polishness. This is true of any nationhood, of course, but Poland has, among other things, vanished from the map at the hands of Prussia, Russia, and Austria, to begin with. I heard twice in one day that Warsaw was typical. It depends what one means by that.

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Old 06-20-2018, 02:16 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 7,626

John, I find the meter a bit ragged in S1L11 and in S2L6. In both of those lines, I tend to hear just four beats. Variation is fine, but ambiguity is problematic if it makes readers stumble and reread the line. I like the hodgepodge of influences you mention, which makes its own point, though I think more could be done with those locks on the bridge, which are actually a hazard. Some borrowings are a bad thing. Not everyone will have heard of the locks and their significance, so you might want to say a bit more about them. In S1L10 I would recommend a semicolon or period in place of the comma, since the sentence is a comma splice.

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Old 06-20-2018, 03:54 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 3,231

Hi Susan,

Thank you for your visit and your thoughts. I've changed The to Those, in S1L11, to carry a beat; in S2L6, I have two beats in Juliet at all times, it's how I hear it. I've also added the semicolon you suggest.
Don't get me started on Europe's stupid padlock craze. The poor Pont des Arts has suffered the most. Anyway, now as in 1818 or 1618, French fashion has reached Poland. I try to tread lightly here, but will look at an addition.

Thank you,

Update: I've changed it is to they are quite the fashion, which seems clearer.

Last edited by John Isbell; 06-20-2018 at 03:58 PM.
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Old 06-20-2018, 04:35 PM
Jan Iwaszkiewicz's Avatar
Jan Iwaszkiewicz Jan Iwaszkiewicz is offline
Join Date: Oct 2001
Location: Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
Posts: 2,542

Hi John,

I like this travelogue. The form and content marry well.

The Ukranian is definitely not identical “Dobryj den” in Ukranian and "Dzien dobry" in Polish, “D’akuju”in Ukranian and "Dziękuję" in Polish. There is similarity but they are not the same.

Interestingly, at the end you mention the dog barking, in some parts of Poland to hear a lone dog bark presages death.


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Old 06-20-2018, 04:46 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 3,231

Hi Jan,

Thank you for your visit - I was especially interested in your reaction, and am glad of your basic vote of confidence.
Yes, I've got to change the word identical. My wife made her remark about the Polish thank you, quite different of course from the Russian and new to me. But you show the gap between them. Hello is closer to the Russian, and to the Bulgarian for that matter, besides the Ukrainian. Bottom line: it needs fixing.
Thank you for the dog information - it fits the poem well, to my mind.

Thanks again,
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Old 06-20-2018, 06:10 PM
Erik Olson Erik Olson is online now
Join Date: Apr 2015
Location: Portland, OR
Posts: 1,694


This is delightful and arresting, as a well-written travel log is delightful and arresting. To log miscellaneous incidents which gratify curiosity seems to be the driving impulse, determining how the piece unfolds, rather than to seize on the poetic potential in objects. As such, it reads essentially as many a travel digest, except of course with line breaks. Who says you cannot write a travel log in meter? All I know is that it would look mighty similar to this piece if one were to do so, if not identical. It entertains me, yes: In the way prose I have read on traveling has entertained me, if not quite poetry. On the other hand, perhaps it might be urged that I have not read enough prosy poets to get over the difference between how this operates on me and how poetry I know of does, this operating like well-written prose I know of and sounding like it also. Considered in terms of poetry, I wish the focus were more on the poetic potential in the objects and less driven by the impulse to record the interesting tidbits that happened to you that day. But, happily, I think you have in this the workings of a more essentially poetic product, that is, if you make the primary thrust, not to log the tidbits of this and that occasional incident, but rather the poetic pulp to be reaped in the objects uppermost.

Edited-in note excised, since now only an irrelevant distraction from poetry.

Last edited by Erik Olson; 06-21-2018 at 06:51 PM.
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Old 06-20-2018, 07:05 PM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
Join Date: Oct 2001
Location: Plum Island, MA; Santa Fe, NM
Posts: 10,639

Essentially what Eric said about this being a metrical travelogue - but unfortunately, it's not much of a poem. Too much emphasis on "Hey, wow, look - now I'm in Poland", and not enough on saying something in a new and unusual way. It's a perfectly good travelogue - a letter to a friend or a classmate - but only occasionally gets beyond that.

Also - last line of the penultimate stanza - I cannot believe you used "somewhere a dog is barking" with a straight face. I have to believe that if you read it to yourself a few times you'd realize what a literary cliche that is. Slow down!. You have a gift for writing decent poetry very, very quickly. Do you really want to be known as a facile writer of so-so poetry? I suspect not. You can do much better.
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Old 06-20-2018, 07:24 PM
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Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is offline
Join Date: Sep 2016
Location: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Posts: 1,409

I'm with Erik and Michael: this reads like a record drawn straight from life. You haven't yet found the poem. I believe there's one there, buried under the mess of details, but you need to excavate it.
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Old 06-20-2018, 07:42 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 2,738

Hi John,

Reading this, I had a very similar response to Michael and Erik. It reads like it was written quickly and there are a fair number of stock phrases. There are a series of images and impressions, but not much holding them together or organising them -- it doesn't seem to go anywhere. It sounds like you had a great time on your travels, and you convey something of the atmosphere of the place -- it makes me want to go there -- but for me there's no journey to the poem: nothing seems to happen that brings about a change or a realisation in the narrator, and so likewise, the reader. Or me at least. Though as has been said, you do have lots of material for such a poem here.



Last edited by Matt Q; 06-20-2018 at 08:03 PM.
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