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.
“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
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.
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.
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 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.