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Two Poems by Jan Kulka

Jan Kulka, translated by Reuel Wilson

THE GAZING GRAIN

The tires slowly came to a rubbery stop.
Alliterative festoons in the sky noted
That this branchy birthplace of presidents was also
The big frigidaire-cum-cowbarn where mendicant

And margrave alike waited out the results
Of the natural elections. So any openness of song
Was the plainer way. O take me to the banks
Of your Mississippi over there, etc. Like a plant

Rooted in parched earth I am
A stranger myself in the dramatic lighting,
The result of war. That which is given to see
At any moment is the residue, shadowed

In gold or emerging into the clear bluish haze
Of uncertainty. We come back to ourselves
Through the rubbish of cloud and tree-spattered pavement.
These days stand like vapor under the trees.

FRIENDS

I JOHN THE ALMONER…

I John the Almoner once called alcoholic born 1937
in the poorest quarter of the city I do morning gymnastics
for the health of fallen girls and a few other things
at last you have to tell the truth about this as we forget
flowers which grow for a silken hand
rains which are the act of forgetting umbrellas
love is always the summoning forth of willing memory
of an Arcadia past of a mother lost from the moment
until hands were needed to coax us
on a journey amid objects retrieved
on the junkheap of excavations from distant centuries
we had scarcely accustomed ourselves to the feel of household objects
and now we must think of leaving
of fastening the boat to the shore but first
let us remember exactly how many tears you wrung
from whose eyelids how many smiles you stole
whether or not those faces were real is unimportant
the mirror reflects no others
no mirror would tolerate such hypocrisy
only man is capable of this—freezing his own reflection
on a passport to nowhere from whence we are coming
begotten by love we throw in with it only to
abandon ourselves at the appropriate time
when bookish love will no longer suffice
and a bed will only be waiting
and here the real world begins
of social niceties for which there won’t be time
to avoid recognition I threw off my penitent’s weeds indeed
we’re in open theatre no need for a costume
we stroll through newspapers amid new steel mills factories
we participate in open friendly conversations
a bird’s song the music of Tchaikovsky Chopin drifts by our ears
we leave everything behind even ourselves
we dig our roots into the ground
for the sake of the ground

PATIENTS TAKE A WALK ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON

The visitors from town have gone—
a substitute for home
remains in the cupboards
words—good words
dissipate with the car exhaust
everything in their eyes has gone up in smoke
lovely families
are piously returning
the show is over
inadvertently someone
left a sentence open
it will have to be closed with pheno-barb
completed with a pack of cigarettes
until eyelids close
they left
a father-in-law came a husband with a daughter
friend friends girlfriend
there was so much indecency in their commiseration
that the flowers are burning
in the nurses’ mouths
they know
what charred faces mean…
now back and forth
around
one’s own pain

Translator’s Note: Jan Kulka was born in Katowice, Poland, in 1937. He first published his poetry in 1956, the year of Poland’s “thaw” which ushered in a new period of comparative intellectual and artistic freedom. Since then Kulka’s poetry has often appeared in Polish literary journals and been read on Polish radio and television. Four collections of his poetry have appeared: Project for a Sunset (1962) A Painful Change (1968), Therefore I Am (1973), and A Road Through the Shadow (1975).

Throughout his life Kulka has struggled against great adversity. Permanently marked since birth by a semi-crippling disease, he has also had to contend with poverty. Until fairly recently he has subsisted on the all too meager rewards of the only vocation he has ever practiced—poetry. Recognition has come, moreover, slowly and painfully, since he has remained aloof from intellectual or political schools and trends. He made his first trip abroad, to Greece, in 1975.

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