Maria Jastrzębska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and came to England as a child. Previous collections include Syrena (Redbeck Press, 2004), I’ll Be Back Before You Know It (Pighog Press, 2009) and Everyday Angels (Waterloo Press, 2009). She co-translated Elsewhere, the selected poems of Iztok Osojnik, with Ana Jelnikar (Pighog Press, 2011) and is the co-editor of several anthologies including Forum Polek bilingual women’s anthology, Poetry South (2007), Whoosh! (Pighog Press, 2008), and Different and Beautiful (Allsorts Youth Project).
Her poems feature in the British Library project Between Two Worlds Poetry and Translation and are widely anthologised. Following a Wellcome Trust award, her drama Dementia Diaries toured nationally with Lewes Live Literature in 2011. A co-founder of South Pole artists’ network and Queer Writing South she lives in Brighton. At the Library of Memories is published by Waterloo Press.
“At the Library of Memories leads the reader from the ghost of one room to another, via the senses and catching at fragments of stories. This is an invitation to examine not only individual, arresting memories – at once familiar and disturbing – but the process of remembering itself. How we come to terms with our own past and what collectively we make of it are questions running in and out of these vivid, exciting poems.”
“In Maria Jastrzębska’s new collection memory is a powerful and truthful tool, admitting fallibility and never exceeding its prerogative, yet evoking a whole world of tastes and smells, longings, anxieties and human needs. This is vivid, thought-provoking poetry that takes us by stages to the heart of the immigrant experience and leaves us with urgent questions which imperceptibly have become our own.”
– Susan Wicks
“Maria Jastrzębska’s epic new collection is fabulous, audacious and compelling; here are dazzling conjurings of lost times and places, tremendously moving elegies, and astonishing fragments of intricate stories recovered from lost worlds. This exceptional collection is the work of a poet at the height of her imaginative powers.”
– Nick Drake
It didn’t matter that everything was grey.
Smoke and slate grey touched sea green,
brown grey, foamed at the water’s surface.
Dead souls’ icy spray.
Mama had packed me an extra jumper, rye bread
with polędwica. And in the fog I saw
the ship – swashbuckle silver – counted
her guns, wet metal grey. Days after that
I’d play captain, pacing her quarter deck
with my musket; I’d light stern lanterns
on her poop deck, shout orders into the wind
as we steered through choppy water.
We went across on the ferry instead.
It didn’t matter. It was enough
to hear gulls shriek, feel the brine’s
taunting slap. We leaned overboard
as far as we dared – the teacher
yanked us back by our anoraks.
I went to the port, I shouted
we saw the tall ships, we sailed abroad!
There were no words for the seal grey,
cross-bone and skull white
marbled grey, only a smell of diesel
in my hair, the sting of the spray
still cold on my cheeks. Mama took
my wet clothes.
This isn’t home,
we’re already abroad was all she said.
Deserted Boatyard, River Eye, Gloucestershire 1963
I never minded the stench of the water
or that it was completely black and I had to tread
carefully not to lose my footing among the planks.
Even though the boats moored there were
so old their timbers were probably rotten,
they held the promise
of voyages somewhere beyond
the few small worlds I inhabited.
That’s how I would leave:
on a boat or raft slipping
away silently through black waters
with my penknife, rucksack
and a tiny stove neatly stashed in the prow.
Above me: the swirling, creamy stars.
To a Boy
Wassily Kandinsky 1866-1944
Wassily, don’t turn your back on the blue world
of soft curves, take my hand. Look!
The riders with their cloaks of white and green
have almost reached the mountain’s peak.
Don’t discard their shapes altogether.
There’ll always be two opposing forces
and silence etched in black:
every boy dreams of being crowned.
But don’t try to remain cool with your points
and lines, those hieroglyphs in grey.
Who can blame you for painting
a development in brown
when they call you degenerate, confiscate
your colours? A weightless white ribbon
in a sombre background in understandable.
Yet I’m sure I saw a rabbit on its hind legs
or was it a tall bird, a gargoyle leaning out to sea?
A shoelace, thumb-print or pink boulder –
these are things which delight.
Let’s draw a horse with a mouse’s ear,
a tin can, the fin of a boat’s sail;
trace a star’s filament;
never forget the forms that flitter
like snowflakes so small
they dance in the infinite.
When fragile triangles oscillate,
you’ll be vaporising pigment.
It’s tempting to lose
yourself in purple swarms colliding
but don’t ease me out.
Cover what’s left – matchboxes, cardboard,
wood, corrugated iron – with circus creatures
that twirl hopeful as embryos,
and, swimming into blue sky,
pass through constellations.
In her story there’s a forest
in fading light and in the clearing
he introduces her to some friends
who call her sweet and darling,
fondle her like heavy-pawed bears
while hunger glistens in their eyes.
He denies there was a forest ever.
Then says she lured him there.
He calls his story one of love,
she says it was about despair.
She thought he was a faun –
his prancing gait – maybe a young stag.
He thinks it was the scent of her –
violet, bluebell – left him no choice.
He says she swore she’d never tell,
broke her promise.
She says he told her he knew the way
but when she found his hand,
tendrils like a vine around her wrist
bound them together.
The branches grew soft at first
but when she tried to sever them
tangles of sinewy undergrowth
lashed her with him to the forest floor.
It’s not enough to tear out your hair,
clumps of it, even the tiniest roots.
You’ve got to scrape the green bile
from the back of your throat,
pull up the stems of brambles where
they’re wrapped around your tongue,
the spotted fungi, brown blood
till it makes you gag, she says.
She still hears his voice in her head:
night’s falling, wolves will come.
As long as she’s eaten up with him,
he doesn’t care, she thinks he says.
Friends tell her she should arm herself
but what use is a knife, she says
when you’re carving out a space
inside your body, a clearing in your life.
People are shadows –
not even lines, their dogs specks,
the trees dark smudges.
Ramshackle oblongs and squares
could be their homes.
Roads and signs vanish
with contours of fields and villages.
Snow coats the world with layer
after layer of nothing
Close-up in the sun
snow is gold leaf
on the bark of birch trees.
scatter, mirrorwork crunching
under your feet.
A falcon swoops
to perch on the pine –
rocking on the branch
it sends a flurry
into your eyes.
Have you been here before?
It’s not that you’ve forgotten
only that the snow won’t stop falling,
catching on your eyelashes,
swirling in front of you.
Then settling on the path.
It has covered up
small stones and nettles
at the edge, hidden
Everything is levelled,
tinted with an almost blue, chalky bloom.
From a distance you can’t tell
if it’s a person
or a tree
in the wind …
A boy with dark curls and full lips
is running through the snow.
He doesn’t know
that he is lost.
You call out.
How easy to lose
someone in snow like this –
starting out together,
turning to find them gone.
What the Wolves Remembered
All it took was the door of a basement store-room
accidentally ajar or blown open and they moved in.
First, a few stray cats and dogs, next lean foxes,
tired of nudging heavy bin lids with their snouts,
chased them out. And then the wolves came.
Thin as the wind, they chewed on scraps,
quickly gulped down the bare bones
of what had seemed endless supplies. Afterwards, full
for the first time in months, they stretched out
to nap on discoloured couches that bulged
with wrecked springs, on piles of moth-eaten coats –
astrakan, mink – old exam papers, love-letters
torn lagging next to the hot copper pipes.
What they remembered, half-dozing and half awake
was always the same: war and the girl
in thick snow on the path.
First they’d seen men who raced
on gleaming steel hunting other men through the woods.
The wolves had sniffed faeces leaked onto fern, chased
blood trodden in the mud, and seen the men throw
a body to one another playing like pups. Their dogs,
yes, dogs ahead of them ears flat, snarling, scared.
They’d smelled their dogs too. The men left meat
that was easy to find so they’d feasted
ripping out heart, liver, lungs
when a new, stinging scent filled everything.
The forest flashed sun-bright, tearing their throats
its poisonous bite snapped at their heels, near – too near.
Yes, they’d heard whimpering, crackling, they’d run, run.
A trail of piss, sweet milky saliva, licked-up puke
led them to where black wind roared in hot tunnels,
sucking the marrow breath from their sisters
and brothers. They found them in the den and their once
wide awake mother baked brittle. Heard her howls
unravelling as they ran and ran through the dark.
Now a girl alone in their woods – no mate to guard her.
They circle. Know they have her. She’s no bison
or bear to stand her ground. For dark months
since the blaze they’ve been starving.
She hasn’t seen them. Quietly – the snow helping –
they come in closer, find a stillness
unlike anything they’ve known. It isn’t the snow.
What makes them stop?
Makes them crouch, tails tucked under?
Not a star but a flicker. She holds it out, blinding their eyes.
There’s nothing to sink their teeth into, nothing to track.
Ripples of light through the air. Lustre licking their sores.
Her scent snowdrops, moss. Buds split open.
Rats and shrews waking. She doesn’t twitch
like a fawn or squeal like a lamb.
No snarl either. As though she’s never learnt to obey
the laws of fight or flight. Their jaws loosened, tongues
rolled out; they crouch lower still.
Small in the dark, she turns towards them.
© Maria Jastrzębska 2013
from At the Library of Memories (Waterloo Press, 2013).
Order At the Library of Memories.
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