Monday, January 19, 2015


Sometimes, when you least expect, you encounter at the suggestion of a friend, more or less by accident, a token that makes you think, makes you rethink that token, its symbolic value in your life. In this case, that token is Żubrówka, the Polish vodka scented, enlivened with bison grass. Żubrówka, for me, is comic—and it is a family comedy—of being completely buffaloed on the bathroom floor, prostrate after a long day of shots and apple juice and love in Małe Śwornegacie; or, it is the memory of golden-tinted evenings in the pubs and dessert cafés of Kraków, with my friends, Monika and szarlotka.

In Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, or rather, the movie by that name I’ve just watched at the recommendation of a friend and colleague, Żubrówka is described as “music by moonlight.” Chopin, perhaps, if you’re in that kind of mood, a melancholy, even a dangerous melancholy. In this story, a bottle of Żubrówka, scented like “newly mown lavender” returns the recently abstinent Sophie to her alcoholic depths, to her wayward life, and ultimately to her murder. Żubrówka, the vehicle to multipronged tragedy. I thought, at first, that this was just a movie, just a novel, and that what happens in such fictions doesn’t matter. The main character says as much, twice, about life even. But that’s not quite true. If it were a truly bad novel, or a bad movie, that would be true, but good books and good movies do matter. The problem is, they don’t matter much, they don’t matter enough. At least on their own. One needs a steady diet of them to affect one’s life for good—or bad.

And in this case, the disastrous role played by Żubrówka in The Razor’s Edge does not affect how I think about it, how I remember it, how I experience it, much. For that I am thankful.    

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Dukla is the name of a town in the far southeast of Poland, close to the Slovakian border, south of Krosno as the crow flies—no roads in Poland run as the crow flies. (Perhaps no crow actually flies as the crow flies.) But you eventually get to Dukla. I found it on my wall map without the aid of a magnifying glass and marked it with a yellow pushpin, which now completely obscures the name. Dukla is also the title of a book by Andrzej Stasiuk, a book of “mixed genre”, though it suggests just how categorically silly we’ve become as readers and critics with all our marketing and academic vocabulary. Not so long ago it would have been enough to call it simply “a book.” As if any extended piece of serious writing weren’t a mixture, simply literature.

In the process of not worrying overly about genre, I’ve been lightly enchanted nonetheless by Stasiuk’s prose and sensibility, and his sense, too, which sticks his sensibility in the eye when it approaches sentimentality. The author is about my age, and he visited Dukla in his youth and describes it in much the same way as I might my hometown, small, non-descript on the surface—however intricately detailed the description—and non-descript underneath, except for the merest suggestion of excitement and mystery out in “the bushes.” A modern Polish Breughel of homely life: “rubber boots on bare feet, the symbiotic smells of human and animal existence, curdled milk, potatoes, eggs, lard, no long journeys in search of trophies, no miracles or legends other than satiety and a peaceful death.” (73) Which is to say that having more than enough and peace are miracles for those of us lucky enough to have them. And death, too, in its time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Polish House Guest

My Polish house guest, after three weeks here in the Midwest, has returned to Poland. I trust that her stay was restful, restorative, and productive. Scholarly resources, not least the libraries and library hours, left her almost speechless, breathless with admiration. So much stuff. (The treasures of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków do not include library staffing until midnight—I remember when university libraries were open in the U.S. all night.) Except for her witnessing a physical altercation on the light-rail Green Line and dreaming, that is to say, bad-dreaming about Vladimir Putin, she reported only positive results, results so positive, that she sometimes imagines leaving Poland for the United States, or Sweden, or Ireland. Much as she loves her country, her patience with it, and hopes and fears for it, all attitudes tend in the wrong directions, respectively.

Her visit called to mind my accultural backsliding. I have not made significant progress since returning to the U.S. Language has languished. And while I have not wholly given up the project, I have not taken any concrete steps eastward. I can plead only laziness and negligence. Monika worried that her own disillusionment with Poland might have distempered my resolve, but in truth, I have few illusions about Poland, Polishness, or my project, even as I prefer to attend, when I attend at all, to their positives and curiosities. I must rediscover the occasion within, form some plans and stick to them. Very simple, discipline, but rarely easy.

Poland has been much in the news recently. Prime Minister Tusk has become the EU Council president. A squadron of U.S. helicopters put down in a field outside of Warsaw, owing to foul weather and fog. They represent a statement of solidarity with former central and east European satellites of the former Soviet Union. The Russians have embargoed Polish apples in response to EU sanctions over Putin’s many lethal mischiefs in Ukraine. I would eat a Polish apple in defiance of the Kremlin, even more than one, if I could get them here. And I’m not a particularly healthy eater. If war broke out, I think I should volunteer for the expatriate American brigade. Not having extensive soldiering skills, I probably wouldn’t survive, but falling in battle would likely earn me my White Eagle wings. There are many ways to become Polish.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Polish Museum

I have probably driven past the Polish Museum of America in Chicago a hundred times and said to myself at least fifty, “I should really try to visit someday.” So I did, on Friday. My Jagiellonian University colleague Doctor Hab. Monika Banaś, intent on some immigration and university research in America this summer, flew into O’Hare on Thursday and requested that we spend a few days in Chicago before she began her work in earnest. She had never been to the Big Shoulders, and wanted to see her favorite American painting, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, at the Chicago Institute of Art. Dreading the traffic and my complete lack of urban navigational skill, I nevertheless agreed and drove down to embarrass myself on the mean streets of Chi town. May I say that the Chicagoans could not have been kinder and more tolerant, but, seriously, someone needs to redesign access to I-90 westbound, and consider signage.
On a less successful note, the Polish Museum is reportedly open 10-4 on Fridays, and it was—the door anyway. We walked into the lobby 10:30ish—the bookstore and museum store don’t open until eleven—and spied no one at the front desk. I touched a virtual button, a primary color, red or blue, on a touch screen that prompted a robotic verbal summons somewhere behind the lobby indicating that service was being requested. We waited for five minutes, inspecting the closed bookstore and the unopened museum store, and snapped a few pics of the lobby. Nothing happened. No assistance arrived. A custodian walked through the lobby and said that someone would be coming. We waited five more minutes. I pressed the button again and reheard the verbal summons. We waited five more minutes. Dr. Banaś, who had not passed the Polish Museum a hundred times nor said to herself that she should visit someday, grew perturbed at the delay, and eager to walk the city, prevailed upon me to leave. I asked her if this incident said anything about Poles and/or Polishness. “Yes,” she snipped.

The Polish Museum Lobby

A More Successful Viewing

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Smoking Poniatowski

Of late, I’ve been filling my living room with the fumes and exhaust of burning Poniatowski (luxury blend) while reading the constitutions—of the Third of May 1791, of 1921, 1947, and the latest, 1997. (I’m not sure this is all of them.) I had thought to shift my attention from the sublimities of religious metaphysics to the more profane study of politics, but Polish political and religious practice are sufficiently entangled these last two hundred years as to prevent any neat and easy exit. Polish constitutional history mixes religion and civil authority like a national cavendish, one that I ponder as “pearly wisps of air,” a burnt offering, a charred prayer, a carboniferous benediction, the incense of ritual meditation over failed aspirations, failed institutions, the smoky memory of torched and defeated cities.

The name of Poniatowski, Stanisław August, the last “King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Mazowsze, Zmudz, Kiev, Wolyn, Podole, Podlasie, Livonia, Smolensk, Sever and Czernihov,” figures prominently in the Preamble of the Constitution of Trzeci Maj, the Third of May, 1791. I breathe in his soul when I light up, the ashes of the most enlightened, well-intended, and stillborn of Polish Constitutions.

In 1791, only four years after the ratification of our own quite secular Constitution—which makes almost no reference to God, until the end, when it affirms that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” and dates the document “in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven”—the most famous Polish constitution begins quite differently, “In the name of God, One in the Holy Trinity.” Yes, that God, the real God, not Nature’s God, the very Christian God, the Catholic God, “One in the Holy Trinity,” Who receives first mention in the ideal Polish republic. Those Americans who think that Christianity is inscribed in our founding documents should take a lesson in how such inscription would have been handled were it true—if they can be expected to read foreign and historical constitutions who have so little familiarity with their own. The First Article of Trzeci Maj reads as follows, unequivocally:

I.               The Dominant Religion

The dominant national religion is and shall be the sacred Roman Catholic faith with all its laws. Passage from the dominant religion to any other confession is forbidden under penalties of apostasy. Inasmuch as the same holy faith bids us love our neighbors, we owe to all persons, of whatever persuasion, peace in their faith and the protection of the government, and therefore we guarantee freedom to all rites and religions in the Polish lands, in accordance with the laws of the land.

 (Note, Tea-Partisans, how to establish religion in a constitution: Eight o’clock, Day 1, Article 1, Sec. 1.) And yet, religious tolerance is universal—except for lapsed Catholics, like, uh, me. But, interestingly, having established the Church, the framers later back away from theocracy (Article 5) when they concede that “All authority in human society takes its origin in the will of the people.” Poland’s is not the charter for the City of God. Most of the rest of the document is secular, an articulated arrangement of offices, powers, and processes, though bishops and the Polish Primate have responsibilities within these arrangements, most interestingly as “president of the educational commission” (Article 7) and as regent in the case of a king still in his minority (Article  9). Disappearing shortly thereafter as a country, Poland had little call for constitution-making for a hundred and thirty years.

By 1921, when the Polish republic was restored after World War I and assorted regional wars, it began on an even more emphatic religious note, “In the name of Almighty God,” [my italics] and “thankful to Providence,” but Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church don’t appear until Article 114; and while recognized as “the religion of the preponderant majority of the nation, [which] occupies in the state the chief position among enfranchised religions,” Catholicism retains no higher status than first among equals: “Freedom of conscience and of religion is guaranteed to all citizens. No citizen may suffer a limitation of the rights enjoyed by other citizens by reason of his religion and religious convictions.” (Article 111) Thankfully, apostates were not, by definition, traitorous. It would seem that atheism, however, was not constitutionally protected, not being “a legally recognized religion.” All were expected to believe in something, but no constitutional penalties attached to infidelity.

The Communist constitution of 1947, not surprisingly, makes no mention of God and religion over the course of ninety-two articles. Declaring atheism the national unreligion, however consistent with Marxist-Leninism—and ironic given the previous constitution and the recalcitrant Catholicism of the Poles under Soviet domination—the Communists were probably wiser to say nothing at all. At the end, under the Declaration of Rights and Liberties, they did pretend to recognize “Equality before the law, regardless of nationality, race, creed, sex, origin, social status and education.” If by “equality,” they meant equal in the regime’s fundamental disregard to any claims at all arising under these headings, then perhaps, a certain theoretical equality existed—a common nullification, equal but various oppressions, general official repression.

Fifty years later, the Preamble to the current constitution (1997) opens ambivalently with the subject of religion, recognizing within the citizenry, “Both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good[ness] and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources.” Poles’ political legitimacy finds support in either and both “our culture rooted in the Christian heritage of the Nation and in universal human values.” One can take one’s pick, “recognizing our responsibility before God or our own consciences.” The new fundamental law acknowledges both God and the individual, two concepts not carefully regarded under Communism.

Article 25 deals impartially with churches and religious organizations in five brief sections. Article 53 deals again, impartially and conventionally, with freedom of conscience for individuals and families. I am particularly charmed by Section 7: “No one may be compelled by organs of public authority to disclose his philosophy of life, religious convictions or belief.” You can be compelled by your daimonion, like Miłosz in The Land of Ulro, but not by the authorities. Good thing. That’s hard work, and for most of us, better kept secret. Office holders may take their oath “with the additional sentence ‘So help me, God’”, but Poles are largely otherwise on their own.

Yesterday, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last Communist and briefly first post-Communist President, died at the age of 90. He’s famous, and infamous, for declaring martial law in 1981, suspending the Communist constitution of 1947, which was never much more than a dead letter anyway, ruled as the Poles were from the Kremlin. He’ll be a controversial figure until his memory disperses like smoke, though I doubt any pipe tobaccos will be named for him.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

From the Sublime to the… Political

Holy Saturday a year later, and I am remembering my Easter week in Sulęczyno with something of the vicarious rapture of the unsaved, of proximity to joy and its nostalgia. All that church, candle light, candle heat, the sizzle of wax and the eruption of incense, and the flinging of holy water with long-tendriled mini-whisk brooms, followed by ritual and incessant feasting. I miss it. Here, home, rereading Proust, I happen across lines such as “Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our true life than the country in which we may happen to be.” [298] Proust reads actually like a Pole, melancholy, graceful, capricious, virtuoso, just as he described Chopin. So, while I’m far away, reading French and Russian novelists, they and the season return me to Poland and the richer reality of memory, our true life.

Swieconka: Easter basket blessed at Mass

I’ve returned as well to the Constitution of this, the Third Republic of Poland, now seventeen years old this month, for extended study. A curious document at first glance, high-minded, loquacious, contradictory, assertive, and yet a little silly in spots, as constitutions and teenagers are wont to be. I note that the U.S. Constitution, which serves as a model of sorts for western democracies, rather crisply delineates Seven Articles. In the Polish Constitution, there are two hundred and forty-three. Now, in all fairness, we’ve added Twenty-Seven Amendments over time, including one abolishing slavery (XIII)—only vaguely alluded to in the main body of the Supreme Document—so it’s not as if the U.S. Constitution got it perfect and spoke to everything it needed to speak to; and no doubt, the world and governance have gotten more complex since 1787, but two hundred and forty-three articles seems like a lot. Especially when more than one of them reads like Article 81: “The rights specified in Article 65, paras. 4 and 5, Article 66, Article 69, Article 71 and Articles 74-76, may be asserted subject to limitations specified by statute.” Not the most elegant of executive prose. There is a story to this Constitution and to each of its articles, I’m sure, and I hope I won’t get to them all, but enough of them to understand the foundations of its contemporary political culture, its basic rules for civic life, which is but occasionally ridiculous—everywhere.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Prompted by Miłoszean thoughts—and by interminable winter to get out of my house—I went to Mass this morning, the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the previous Seven of which I had remained warmly abed. (So it was an Extraordinary Sunday to me.) To the Cathedral of St. Paul. I do miss my Polish church-going, its regularity, its solemnity and gilded Otherness, its language, both fleetingly familiar and yet largely incomprehensible—the strangeness of the tongue, thus seeming holier than English, more magical. Polish is not liturgical Latin, of course, but foreign-sounding at least, suggestively sacred. The second reading was from 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, passages which coincidentally recalled my previous lesson from Katyń:  “It is the Lord who judges me….who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.” Or condemnation, as the case may be. Thus the powerful, the tyrannical, the brutal, and the murderous ought to be reminded, warned and forewarned.
Behind the altar at St. Paul’s are shrines to the Saints of the Nations, including one to the Slavs, with statues of St. Cyril and Methodius (translators of the Gospels to what became known as Old Church Slavonic) and with windows depicting Stanislaus (Patron Saint of the Poles) and Wenceslaus (Patron Saint of the Czechs). I offered Polish prayers for Ukrayna, peace to the sons and daughters of the formidable Cossacks, whose recent courage, resistance, resilience, and restraint in the streets and in the Maidan in Kiev impress and inspire us distant and mongrel Slavs.
Shrine to Saint Cyril and Methodius
Cathedral Church in St. Paul
And on a pier at the north exit from the passage of the nations hangs a picture of Jesus—above and somewhat inconspicuous, though I remember seeing it a number of years before, puzzling over what I thought was a Latin motto—with the inscription Jezu Ufam Tobie. It’s not Latin, it’s Polish. Who would have guessed? It's a secret waiting for Dan Brown.