Tag Archives: Maria Jastrzębska poems

Maria Jastrzębska’s At the Library of Memories

Maria Jastrzebska 
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.
Maria Jastrzebska 2 
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.”
At the Library of Memories 
“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.
Telling Tales
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.
Kiarostami’s  Snows
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
but itself.

Close-up in the sun
snow is gold leaf
on the bark of birch trees.
Tiny prisms
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
any footprints.
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.

Visit Maria’s blog.

Visit South Pole, Art with a Polish connection.

Maria Jastrzębska’s Everyday Angels

Maria Jastrzębska by Tricia Wass

Maria Jastrzębska was born in Warsaw, Poland and came to England as a child. She studied Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex and has done various jobs including teaching English and teaching Self Defence to girls and women. She lives in Brighton and works part time as a Community Interpreter and for the Ethnic Minority Achievement Service in schools as well as teaching Creative Writing.
She is the winner of the Off_Press International Writing Competition and the author of five poetry collections: Postcards From Poland (Working Press), Home from Home (Flarestack, 2002), Syrena (Redbeck Press, 2004), I’ll Be Back Before You Know It (Pighog Press, 2009) and Everyday Angels (Waterloo Press, 2009). She was a co-editor of Forum Polek – Polish Women’s Forum, Poetry South (Pighog Press) and Whoosh! – Queer Writing South Anthology (Pighog Press).
Her own work has been much anthologised, most recently in See How I Land – Oxford Poets & Refugees (Heaven Tree Press, 2009), Telling Tales About Dementia (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009) and Antologia (Off_Press, 2010). Her drama, Dementia Diaries, was premiered in April 2009 by Lewes Live Literature. Her work has been translated into French, Japanese, Polish, Romanian and Slovenian. She is currently translating a collection by leading Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik with translator and scholar Ana Jelnikar to be published in early 2011 by Pighog Press.
Visit www.south-pole.org.uk.

“Everyday Angels is a book filled with stories, such great vivid stories that span many worlds, that of Poland and Britain and those places where they overlap in the past and present. Jastrzębska’s poems have the beauty, warmth and rhythm of natural speech – a language that takes me directly into the poems. She has a ‘good ear’ and it serves her well. Moving, precise scenes and portraits bring a sense of true history. Tenderness and affection, grief and pain, duties and debts between generations, between us humans. Most of all, the poems show a deep respect for and fascination with people with all their faults and virtues and their marvels. I loved reading this unforgettable book.”
– Lee Harwood
“Maria Jastrzębska’s poetry explores major concerns of our age – exile, dementia and sexuality. She records the resilience of parents forced to leave their country, giving the places, people and rituals they left a shimmering, out-of-reach quality. This estrangement is embedded in language rich with names and phrases, always on the seam of the surreal. A mother at different stages of her life, but in particular fractured by dementia, girls on a bus, lovers, aunts – Jastrzębska’s writing is knowing and humane. This is an uplifting collection.”
– Jackie Wills
“There’s a subtlety and seeing-round corners perspective to her poems that could be Polish, could be queer or could just be pure Jastrzębska.”
– John O’Donoghue
Babcia Zosia

Oj Babciu
I never got a chance to tell you.
No bo niby jak, kiedy?
I loved your gravelly voice
even lower than Babcia Kicia’s
and everyone thought she was a bloke.
“Eye um nott sur, Eye um madam!”
she’d bellow down the phone.
You rasped like a jazz singer
in some smokey dive bar,
gruff with sex.
Your voice didn’t match how you looked –
cropped silver hair and sensible shoes.
I heard stories about you,
widowed young, no kids, driving
ambulances in the war, oj Babciu.
Za mało, za mało o Tobie wiem.
Your clothes were shabbier than ours.
We had our first electric fridge,
you put food out in snowdrifts on the sill.
We watched Dr.Who, while you tried
to get the BBC World Service on your radio
when the Russians didn’t jam the signal.
You promised you’d be back to see me
but you didn’t sound sure,
‘if I can save enough pennies’, you said.
Oj Babciu. I already knew.
* Babcia – gran, granny, great aunt.
Par Avion
When I send your parcel, there’s always
a queue. I’ve forgotten the cellotape,
so I have to buy more as well as a flat pak.
I want to take off my coat, but there’s nowhere
to put it and I’m already carrying too much:
your presents, my hat, gloves and now the box.
Luckily Rena takes pity on me, shows me
how to undo the flaps. I’m still trying
to join them all together, when an old woman
stands next to me. In a brown fake fur coat
and flesh-coloured tights, she’s bent
almost double, filling in a form.
Ripping cellotape with my teeth, I smile
and make room for her. Silently she points
to everything I keep dropping. Does Antoś
even like Spiderman, will Paweł think
a rucksack’s boring, maybe Ewka would have
preferred pink instead of lime green?
It used to be simpler: you could send
Nescafe, tea or, since it was still rationed,
always more chocolate. Before that
people sent blankets, men’s jackets, Ceres fats
no one there knew what to do with. Or else
it was Odorono and injections of liver extract.
It’s not as if we’re the first exchanging gifts
across this divide; before us our mothers
and grandmothers worrying if they’d sent
the right thing, would it arrive in one piece,
like the bottle of halibut oil, which did,
the ‘heavenly’ blue dress, exactly the right size.
Babcie over there sent me classics, favourites
in hardback no one here had heard of:
Tuwim, Sienkiewicz, Słowacki. Orphan
Marysia or the billy goat forever in trouble
and Hałabała who lived in a tree hollow,
frying bilberry pancakes on a tiny wood-stove.
Are you worrying what to send us? Please,
no more stuffed birds. No matter how colourful.
But send pictures – of anything, people
on a tram. In my photo of Ewka she’s still
a toddler, but probably by now she’s a Goth.
Would she have preferred something black?
By the time I’ve stuck everything down,
the old woman is leaving. ‘Cheerio!’ I call
after her, but she can’t hear me. I reach the front
of the queue, place your parcel on the scales at last.
I’ve stuffed the empty spaces with today’s
sports page, which I normally use as kindling.
But will the cellotape keep your parcel
safe, all that way, crammed into holds,
crossing borders through thick snow to arrive
in a quiet dawn at your door? I wish
I’d bought the thicker kind. Rena says:
Best to send this as small packet.
Planting Out Cabbages

I envied the altar boys
their white cassocks
and being allowed to ring the bell
before communion, but I had my eye
on the priest’s job.
Folded tea towels over my arm
and picking up a plastic doily mat,
trance-like round the kitchen, I copied
the solemn way he walked
carrying a silver tray
of flesh and blood which had come to us
from Mary’s womb
in the unlikely form of fruit.
Years later, the tai chi teacher traced
the shape of clouds through the air,
turning in slow motion on the spot.
She spoke of moving meditation.
I knew exactly what she meant.
I’d had years of sermons
when the priest thundered about the evil of divorce.
But then there was one (there’s always one
and for that I do thank God)
a priest who said prayer was something
you could do anywhere –
devotion found in the simplest task
even planting out cabbages,
which the brothers did in the vegetable patch
behind the chapel.
Tonight I wash my hands and face
at the sink, warm water slipping on my skin.
Delicious task.
We’ve come in from a chill, starry night
after seeing friends. You’re falling asleep on the sofa –
a defiant look on your face – and won’t go to bed
just like your daughter
when she’s too tired to know it.
The house is quiet and it’s late;
every part of the silver darkness
is there outside. I pull the curtains across.

I’m Taking My Daughter’s Violin to be Mended
I’m taking my daughter’s violin to be mended
when I notice three giraffes lolloping
down Portland Rd. I stop at the corner shop
to get some apples and see Tinu wearing
his cricket whites. He says it’s not the first time
those giraffes have turned up. He shows me
the new internet café at the back; it’s full
of lemon trees and gardenias. I’m about to ask
how they’ll survive the Winter, when I realise
the bass guitarist from Putrefaction is there
drinking chai. Naturally, I get his autograph,
which he scrawls onto a sheet of Elgar’s
Grade 5 piece, Salut d’Amor, tucked in the pocket
of my daughter’s violin case. The giraffes
have stopped by the elm tree just outside
so as I’m leaving, even though I’m in a hurry,
I offer them some of my apples.

Trupki Moje Trupki
“Trupki moje trupki, trupki wszystkie razem
trupki tanczą rumbę, cmentarz jest pod gazem.”
“Corpses, my old corpses having us a ball
dancing to the rumba, rat-arsed one and all.”
It’s not that the dead don’t argue back
they do and in the end
of course they have the last laugh
but the wind flaps in the birch trees
like a snowy bird.
Squirrels are greedy acrobats
waiting for handouts.
They put you at your ease,
make you feel at home.
Even the living are different here,
they’ll let you borrow a watering can
and their grief isn’t all buttoned up.
Coach-loads arrive to catch up with their dead.
Friends, families come from overseas,
they bring flags and bugles, ready
to salute or just to say hello.
You’ve never seen so many candles lit.
Lilies, roses everywhere –
the living chat freely with the dead
and the dead listen as they never did before
and the distance between them
though it doesn’t diminish
shimmers like a sheet of flame.
At this time of year, black
nets for catching olives
are spread like widow’s crêpe,
under the trees. Dry leaves
like thousands of little fishes
crackle silver under my feet.
There are enough white pebbles
to skim the motionless water.
I find orchids in wild grass.
Wisteria petals blow
into my salad, lizards appear
as I’m about to turn away
and all over again
your death catches me out.
Published in Everyday Angels (Waterloo Press, 2009).
Order Everyday Angels.
Visit South Pole, Art with a Polish connection.
Read three of Maria’s poems on the Poetry International Web.
Visit Maria’s page at poetry p f.