Sunday, February 26, 2012

Poems Written in San Francisco and California

 BETWEEN    1982-1991 by Adam Lizakowski
All poems are translated from Polish  by Adrian Wisnicki.

Adrian S. Wisnicki is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth-Century British Literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and directs The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project, an international effort to use spectral imaging technology to make available faded, illegible texts produced by the Victorian explorer of Africa. Specialties are nineteenth-century British literature, colonial and postcolonial literature, and the digital humanities. Wisnicki’s publications include a monograph, Conspiracy, Revolution, and Terrorism from Victorian Fiction to the Modern Novel (2008), published by Routledge, and articles in Victorian Studies, Victorian Literature and Culture, Studies in Travel Writing, History in Africa, and the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. Research projects have been funded by grants from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities and the British Academy. The poems here were translated by Wisnicki in 2000 and come from an unpublished collection titled “Adam Lizakowski, Selected Poems 1982-1999.”


Table of contents
1.      My Poems
2.      San Francisco
3.      Who Wake Me Up this Morning
4.      American Poets
5.      Z Pieszyc do San Francisco
6.      Elegy for a Car
7.      Arriving in San Francisco
8.      Baja California
9.      Tijuana
10.    Charles Bukowski
11.    Milosz
12.    Joseph Brodsky

My Poems

My poems are born
inside of me,
beneath my liver, heart, lungs.

I let strangers peek
beneath the skin of my thoughts, dreams,
poetic integrity and pride.

It is neither comfortable nor ethical,
but shameful and embarrassing; I yell, Look!
It hurts right here, give me medicine!

My poems are a suicide
cyanide tablet,
formula for perfect tragedy,

I hate them because they’re so close to me
inside me, I can’t pounce on them,
break their neck.

San Francisco

San Francisco, sly fox
hidden behind the corner of the bay
with its extended paw of the peninsula.

Had there been a cherry orchard here
surrounded by the biggest fence, patrolled by dogs
the aroma of ripening cherry trees
would fill the air
a bumblebee weaving among them with its
bzz . . . bzz . . . bzz. . . .

But there is no cherry orchard, just hills, foothills
overgrown with wooden houses,
streets arranged both parallel and perpendicular
to the horizon’s line, to the ocean’s edge.

The dome of the Civic Center recalls
an elegant pastry, cherry-topped
the Modern Museum, the Public Library
Roman baths,
the Symphony and Opera halls
take the shape of cosmic pigeon cages.

Neither the cliffs nor the water,
neither the Pacific-pounded shores
nor the beautiful Victorian houses,
not even the Golden Gate Park
where now a hummingbird flits among the flowers,
the unemployed cricket gives free concerts-
neither the grass chanting ancient Indian songs
like a chorus,
nothing here reminds me of the aroma
of cherry trees in bloom.

The tourists pass by oblivious
(along Powell Street and Market Street or Union Square)
as their eyes count their vanishing dollars;
the dozing vagrants take little interest.

Five black men with cubist faces
as in a Picasso painting
strain over exotic drums and congas
(whose names I never learned) and sing the blues. . . .
To love you, baby, is like smoking two packs a day,
That is to say, I hate myself because I love you, baby,
It’s the end of November, I’m off to New Orleans, baby
I’m gonna find another baby, baby . . . O baby!

How did I ever get here?
There, in just a few weeks, the cherry trees will bloom,
April and May quickly pass, June’s coming to an end
and the sun blackens the cherries, spills their violet juice
as the best and sweetest cherries drop to the earth
where pale, swollen bugs assail them, drain them-

ideal vision of the universe
armies of ants attacking the sweet pulp
discarding only the pits-the spirits of the cherries
which just next spring will plunge, unravel their roots-
a machinery so precise
that no wire can melt,
no system malfunction or short-circuit.

Who Woke Me Up This Morning?

not the idea of revolution or anarchy
not an earthquake or fire
not a nightmare or return to the old country
not my drunken roommate from Warsaw
but the garbage men
three young Italians shouting to each other
in their sonorous tongue
three boys (arrows in the girls heart)
from Palermo, Naples or Venice
who came to San Francisco to earn a few dollars
born in the Republic of Dreams
imagined by poets and painters
architects and sculptors
opera singers
clamorously they drag the shiny dumpsters
full of garbage
towards the dump truck
which awaits them with the patience of a mother
here by the curb
the whole street awakes
the Irish brothers cursing because they were up till two
drinking beer in a bar
the Asians furious because they work two jobs
and need their sleep
and I promise myself
never again to rent a room with windows
facing the street-
in short, we all envy those Italians
their well-paying job
American Poets

The American poets I know
remind me of a giant
prehistoric bird
who still has claws and scales
is too heavy to get off the ground
or perch on a branch
but stubbornly gazes into the sky
and studies his reflection in the stars.

The American poets I know
like music from the 60s and 70s
Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Joplin
Hendrix, Led Zeppelin,
smoke marijuana, drink beer
write poems about Vietnam
use titles like “‘67,” “‘68”
despise politicians
and can’t stand New-Age music.

The American poets I know
read French poetry
nineteenth-century poets, Whitman
Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus
Poe, Ginsberg
letters to the young Rilke
Blake, Eliot, etc.

The American poets I know
can’t tell me
why there’s no poetry, any poetry
in Newsweek, Time, People, the New York Times
Washington Post, Playboy, San Francisco Examiner
USA today, Penthouse, etc.

The American poets I know
won’t tell me
why their pictures aren’t
on the front pages, or any of the pages
of the above-named newspapers
though there’s pictures of the Pope
politicians, presidents, naked women
sports stars, spies, astronauts
rock and movie stars
communists, murderers
Pepsi cola and hamburgers.

The American poets I know
live in San Francisco
a city where there’s 4.5 poets per square yard,
when these poets write
they paint their faces in bright colors
wear leather, carry mace
and charge out for the hunt:
the poetry they hunt is a wild animal
which you never feed or even touch
but which has lived in America
since the end of the third ice-age.
From Pieszyc to San Francisco

The rhyme “quite close” jumps to my lips.
The rhyme and the truth.
It depends on what end of the bed I’m sitting on.
>From the left end (near the window)
            I see the tree-tops in the park
and the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the right end  (near the closet)
            I keep my personal belongings:
I’m in Pieszyce-
it takes no imagination or great effort,
I just need to remember which end of the bed it is.
When I sleep my feet are in San Francisco (reality),
my head in Pieszyce (dreams).

I never write home (I’ve nothing to write about),
I don’t send money (I don’t have any)
for tractors, cars, houses, building materials, etc.
I can’t imagine what it’s like
to have a video tape of your family,
or to call them on the phone twice a month-
what kind of immigration is that, what kind of immigrant?

I take little interest in my family, i.e.
who died, who was born, who’s sleeping with whom,
is there a child, etc.
who’s arguing with whom, who likes whom, etc.

I’m an old-fashioned immigrant. I suffer alone,
I don’t complain, sometimes the old country’s my “beloved,”
sometimes a ”slut.” I prefer books over other immigrants,
I love poetry more than myself.

My room is small, if I have company they sit
on the 21 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
7 volumes per behind (I never have over three guests)
and besides, you learn the most
when you’re sitting down.

But I never let anyone sit on my bed-
my bed’s the meeting place of two Caesars,
two ideas, two continents, two cultures,
two religions, two borders, two civilizations,
water and earth, reality and dreams.

Elegy for a Car

You’ve passed away!
you who were my friend for so long.
You’ve passed away!
and the thought that you’re not among the living
draws my tears.
Once more I repeat-you’ve passed away,
as if I didn’t believe it.
I knew so little about you,
about your heart, your desires.
Men created the pain of the soul, of the body-
            but what pain did you feel?

Now, when I think of how you coughed, how you strained
just to bring me happiness,
I imagine the love you must have had;
I, of course, fell in love with you at first sight,
you were the source of my wild ideas of freedom,
in you I placed my hopes as I drove to work late at night,
you alone knew my thoughts,
remembered our talks in San Francisco
so marked by fervor and love,
and to me you were the last token of those
California days filled with pride and promise.

With you I slept beneath the dark sky of Nevada
in the desert thinking of Jesus,
you were the companion of my meditations
on the meaning of man’s life here on Earth
at the shores of Utah’s salt lake,
you were the witness at my wedding,
and I loved you with my purest and deepest self,
believe me, I loved you,
on vacation in Poland
I thought of you, I needed you
my beloved car, dearest friend.
Today is your funeral. . . .
I valued your intelligence,
your knack for silence, for filling your mouth with water,
for leading me to hiding places known only to you
and me, your unique attachment to me.

I never gave you flowers
though I loved you-what do these words mean now
in the face of death? Those were carefree years
of laughter, of breakneck speeds
down Highway 101 to Santa Cruz;
inside your hull I felt safe
though I myself was formed of bones and flimsy skin,
of eyes blue like the sky-
I put two fingers on the steering wheel
and the aroma of blooming eucalyptus flowers filled our bodies . . .
You’ve passed away!
May the vultures hands of men-of mechanics
ripping your body to pieces, be gentle with you.
Believe me, I regret
that I didn’t spend more time with you.
Sleep well-some day we’ll meet again
in a better world, only you and I
on the celestial highway
in a kingdom of God free from traffic fines.

Arriving in San Francisco
for the author of “Sailing to Byzantium”

This is the country for the young. Immigrants from the world over
crammed into small rooms, surviving only on what is still to come
like a bird set upon a bough, they chant songs of the sunrise
praising what has already begun, but hasn’t yet become.

San Francisco needs hands for labor, the hands need work
the stomachs food, the capitalists capital, the banks money,
the thirsty water, the unlucky luck, the singers songs-
every hour California yearns to grant your wishes.

Through the Rocky Mountains, across the oceans
            of grass and water it hears
the heartbeats, the sighs of lovers, of the brave,
it sees shriveled hands reaching for what is most in abundance,
it hears the sad, needy voices that call its name.

Arriving in San Francisco is a glimpse (easy on the eyes)
of hills, of the fragrant ocean of women’s hair, sweet bodies-
in your mouth another taste, in your eyes another view,
but your heart isn’t fooled: this country is for the beautiful, the young.

Like dreams near the morning, the echo among the hills repeats
the words of your predecessors, they greet you vigorously,
you’re convinced that you too deserve something, of course,
an empty apartment, a shield from the blows of a life all too eager . . .

In four colors: green for hope, red for love,
black for the chance to hide in solitude from the world,
gold for gold, as well as envy for everyone
that reads the future in seaweed, in ocean waves.

Baja California

The long-awaited trip south to Mexico
to Ensenada through Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana
came true like a long-awaited prophesy
the color of the sky merged with the color of the ocean,
the wind with desert sand, English with Spanish
the granite cliffs of the shore broke
the foaming manes of ocean waves, the water nestling
on the rocky shelves like delicacies saved for winter
giant gulls soared across the azure plunging
their wings into my imagination,
nature, swaying in the sighs of the wind
restored a dream long-ago forgotten
we scaled the cliffs like fish
discarded by the ocean’s powerful fantasies
walked the flat open spaces like proud dancers
along sumptuously adorned tables,
the ocean whispered, the wind chanted, we ate sandwiches,
I dreamed of vanished Indian civilizations, saw that nothing
had changed since the Spanish invasions,
            not even the color of the grass . . .

my muses yet live in the heights of Helikon,
Parnassus, Pindus, still enjoy mountains, streams, history,
gaze into the sky, adore music, sing:
I didn’t expect anything, didn’t count on anything
knowing how brittle are man’s bones
how little his brain matters like credit card
numbers, passport numbers, license plates, the address
of the house where you live-here but the ocean, the beach,
high rocky cliffs teach man humility,
the water and the rock beauty, the sky and the bird dreams,
a few hours away from home, a few hours in the car
were enough to understand that all we achieved
was but a lonely shell on a beach, that a crab hidden
in a rocky gulf, swaying with the water,
could asses the strength of our bodies.

Baja California, kingdom of Poseidon,
a name unknown to the Indians,
striking terror with the sea and the earth,
rain-giver to the plants and animals
swam to me then in a dolphin’s silence
struck my heart with his trident, evoking song.

A girl’s name, name of a city or river
yet an army of soldiers camped at the border,
Tijuana appears like a rock basking its face
in the Mexican sun, aimed towards the States
great city of a million inhabitants, their legs of rock
ready each moment to hit the road north . . .
faces of rock, chiseled Aztec, Mayan, Tarachuman
televisions, big water-filled plastic containers at their feet
they sit on the cement bank, gaze towards the border
beyond which lies San Diego,
nourishing mother-goat of the hungry,
animal who’s ravished their hopes but still offers some sustenance
poised in the valley and on the hills, a step from paradise . . .
it takes but a moment of luck to sail
the great concrete channel of the Tijuana river
(another Berlin Wall between the poor and the rich,
navigable only by night) and fulfill their dreams,
pass unnoticed-non-existent-into bliss,
be night or fog, cross the border
in the wind’s disguise, as desert sand,
become everything-or at least no more a Mexican,
chiseled face that the American guards fish at ease
from the tourist river flowing north along the highway . . .
they camp on the cement bank, await their chance
as the Greek army at Troy they have time-a year, five, ten
something must come as long ago the gods foretold;
tense and eager for war, a better life
they bask in the sun, faces growing even more brown
eyes olive in color, wings sprouting at their feet
slowly from men, conquered people, prisoners, nomads
they become soldiers of hope
to whom indifference and insomnia are sisters,
recall the crafty Odysseus
in beggar’s rags, set to fool the Americans
play the trick and inside the Trojan horse
(a big truck bound for Chicago) pass
to the other side of the city’s, the country’s wall
now under attack for so many years,
Troy still defending itself . . . a big wooden horse.

Charles Bukowski

The man, enigmatic descendant of Silenius
rode the donkey of poetry through the gorges of Los Angeles
was often detained by Satyrs
at the time of the war with the Giants of the Everyday,
fought for the victory of Bacchus
his resonant voice verging towards war-cry,
after the war moved to San Pedro
eagerly smoked cigarettes for many years
at times became quite restless
felt fear, intense loneliness, started to travel
through the ravines and valleys of Los Angeles,
among the howling of the winds and people, the ocean’s singing
he never heard the voice of an angel,
saw only donkey-eared men, hearts like Silenius
an ocean vast as the sky and Los Angeles angel-filled,
understood that man is but a small casket stuffed
with various things, one shake and you’ll hear
the music of bones, murmur of blood,
grinding of thoughts, the color of hope
dropping to the ground, mixing with ashes . . .
what happened to those times, Charles, when gorged with desire
you raced to the ocean, that great kingdom
one plunge, one moment beneath the water sufficing
to merge yourself with it forever
though, of course, once there you couldn’t smoke
turned instead to harbor bars and hookers
goddesses of life spawned not from ocean foam, but beer?
Now, my life careening between two rails at the California
shore, I salute you from the place where I too
have turned up chasing my Medusas, that is, my Perseus.


He could be a mountain waterfall, or ocean
never a desert nor waste land
a giant Jagiello oak* in whose shade
the tired traveler will always find rest,
seize bubbles of life-giving oxygen from the air
and breathe poetry in their place-his words are seeds
which grow inside the reader, mature, bloom . . .
the corn-fields sway awaiting the reaper’s hand,
he is the moon which turns the tides
as beautiful women toss in restless sleep,
the angel with large bushy eyebrows
shaped like the wings of a bird, frightened
at mid-night from its nest, to which it will never again
return, though he still remembers the aroma of the grass,
apples, the pale-white of rooms, shapes of houses, lakes, rivers . . .
he is the Lithuanian bear, half his life spent
as a resident in the beautiful city of Berkeley
in wondrous California, on Grizzly Bear Hill
where he never growls but sings
that no one has earned our envy, sings of hummingbirds,
of honeysuckle, women’s bottoms,
poor Christians watching the ghetto in flames,
of cities where he’ll never return, sings to you and to me.

But what does Milosz mean to me?
a thousand times I’ve asked myself-
a mother who feeds me, a bright shapely breast
streaked by thin blue veins,
whose life-giving milk I drink in the Chicago heat.
And what does his poetry signify in my life?
Is it a round-trip ticket for distant countries,
for tropical rain forests, northern woods where
a flamboyant, colorful singer jumps from branch to branch,
chanting a song of ancient forests, rivers
whose sands grow warm in the sun
as boulders, with the ease of a butterfly, soar
into the distant galaxies where time flows vertically?

Milosz-muse living in the shade of the Eucalyptus trees
with a view of the San Francisco Bay,
in a city the size of an ant
whose lights reflect in the water like clouds,
a poet true to the ideals of his youth,
straining to hear the sounds of the cricket, looking
into the brightly-burning eyes of the cars . . .
            what is he thinking about?

In 1990 I asked him, at a dinner of vodka and herrings,
the sun had already drowned in the Bay, and night
painted the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge ink black;
“Oh, Mr Adam,” he sighed, “if I could only live to be
a hundred, then once more turn the meter back to zero.”

 Jagiello oak. Wladyslaw Jagiello (1351-1434), a king of Poland,
was famous for  planting oaks throughout the country.

Joseph Brodsky returns to Russia

In the span of one day
I sold two books of Brodski’s poems
which had been on my store’s shelf for many months,
yet I never realized
that the poet’s death had helped me sell the books.

                              The Russian poet and immigrant, who for many years had lived
                               in that hub of freedom, Greenwich Village,
                              among artists and homosexuals, has passed away-
the old rabbit who once fled the ubiquitous
hunting dogs of the worker’s union
from the statue of Peter I in Leningrad
to the Jefferson Market Courthouse in New York.
As a boy of seven, he already knew many of life’s truths-
that deceit is more useful than algebra,
that even three brilliant communists really aren’t so smart,
that poetic talent is a gift from God.
Since the old days, his life at stake,
he’d played chess against Death
yet Death caught him off-guard,
sent an icy telegram to Russia
where, in short, the after-life is beautiful;
the homeland is the homeland (even when not beloved)
and now, with obituaries written in Roman type,
America bids him farewell
while Russia greets the poet in Cyrillic:
Joseph Brodsky returns to Russia, his true home. . . .
words uttered by the lips of young poets-
in the midst of political upheaval
the black notices appearing in the most popular newspapers;
the immigrant’s journey has come full circle,
and in Saint Petersburg someone with a beautiful name
goes out for a walk, wanting to reminisce a little
to consider the future:
now it’s certain, Joseph will stay here forever,
never again able to leave.
 I have met Joseph Brodsky a few times in San Francisco
and Berkeley at the poetry readings and literary events.

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