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SEED WHEEL
APRICOTS OF DONBAS
Masquerade
ECCENTRIC DAYS OF HOPE AND SORROW
East & West  
|
  Piotr Florczyk

ISBN 978-0-9908193-6-3     $18      6 x 9"       

68 pp      
PUB DATE: March 2016       Poetry





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Each day we wake and begin an interior dialogue about what is ethical and what is tolerable on this planet. Poet and translator Piotr Florczyk demonstrates in his lyrical evocations what that conversation might look like as he negotiates the distance between urban and wild, settled and migrant, Krakow and Los Angeles. Piotr Florczyk’s literary elders showed us all how to think wisely, deeply, and with dark humor, about the last hundred years, and now Florczyk himself leads us boldly forward into the 21st century, weaving those very same gifts into fabulist’s miniatures of wonder and play.

 —Sandra Alcosser, author of A Fish to Feed All Hunger

 

Drawn in lines that transcend all physical laws, then drawn in lines that attend to such painful, blessed limits, East & West is a gorgeous testament to the glory of being alive. It’s a rare poet who truly widens our vision of the human, who can give us an honest hope, despite it all, despite it all . . . and Piotr Florczyk belongs to this rarity.

 —Katie Ford, author of Blood Lyrics and Deposition

 

Beneath the deceptive, plain speech of Piotr Florczyk’s best poems lies a jarring assessment of American society that only a poet fluent in two tongues might tell: a backyard where field mice show up with “BB gunshot wounds,” where newlyweds bring “suitcases full of sticks, tin foil scraps, dead flies,” and where under the “quilt of lawn” one finds “hands waving in the air.” We discover that within our once pastoral life, “No one complains if, out of / boredom, I slingshot rocks at their windows, but when I stagger with a story of the sun / climbing a fire escape in the rain, they ask not for the ending but for silence, something / like a furrow or a dagger.” East & West is an outstanding book.

 —Mark Irwin, author of American Urn: Selected Poems (1987-2014)

 

About the Author

Piotr Florczyk

Piotr Florczyk was born and raised in Kraków, Poland, and moved to the United States at the age of sixteen. He is the author of Barefoot, a chapbook of poems, as well as Los Angeles Sketchbook, a volume of brief essays and photographs. He has also translated/co-translated seven collections of Polish poetry. After earning his MFA from San Diego State University in 2006, he taught at numerous colleges and universities, and now studies in the PhD in Literature and Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

Awards

East & West

THE JOURNAL
10 April, 2016
A Review by Sonja James

Piotr Florczyk’s “East and West” is a collection of poetry that supports our common identity even as the poet questions the parameters of shared geography. Florczyk was born and raised in Krakow, Poland. He moved to the United States when he was sixteen. While he never forgets his homeland, Florczyk pens poems that establish him as a major American voice. Florczyk is as agile and deft in his American setting of California as he is when remembering his native Poland. These are the exquisite poems of an author who is comfortable in two worlds. One of Florczyk’s most dazzling attributes is his ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. He writes of kitchen utensils and soccer with the same ease that he employs while speaking of Poland.

In “Stoppage Time,” Florczyk writes about soccer as a globally unifying force: “I’m not sure how soccer/explains the world,/though books/are written about that, you know.” For Florczyk, soccer is a democratic pursuit: “Democracy means everyone/gets to play--/regardless of who/rules the clock or the stands . . .”

In “Still Life with Apples,” Florczyk’s meditation on the primal fruit becomes a meditation on the mechanisms of production on a farm. He points out that when you bite into an apple, “you/realize you know nothing/about how it ended up in the fruit bowl/you got as a gift.” He then analyzes the production of apples: “So you think up an orchard/and a farmer driving a tractor./Baskets. Ladders. Knives./A sun that rises/and sets over pock-marked hills.” The concluding stanza focuses on the seemingly innocuous threats to be found in the natural world and our human response to such threats:

Come out, you worm,
you say to the bruised hole at the center.
Then you bite around it—and wait
for something to answer.

In a later, intriguing section of the book, Florczyk writes a series of poems called “From the Life of Postage Stamps.” In this section, Florczyk tackles such disparate topics as the American Aspen, a weightlifter, a castle, kitchenware, and an explorer. In “The Kitchenware,” the poet’s examination of common objects lends them a certain grandeur: “Between the fork, spoon, knife/and, my favorite, the two-faced/meat tenderizer, an entire/commando force can be assembled.” In the concluding stanza of the poem, a carafe of water becomes a still life imbued with beauty:

The carafe of icy water is a beauty.
From the center of the table,
it reflects sunlight onto
the plates and mugs of mortals.

In “Pastoral,” the poet makes a reference to his childhood in Krakow: “I was born in a city—you’ve never been there. I rubbed shoulders with/buildings, blue/trams, and pigeons.” The duration of the poem is not conventional pastoral. He enters the countryside only to decide to leave it and return to the city. He then discovers that he is lost: “Then I changed my mind, decided to leave, but couldn’t find my way back.” The poem concludes with his coming to terms with his temporary status as wanderer.

Other poems, such as “Cape Cod” and “In the Tropics,” affirm the richness of a life of travel. The volume concludes with “In Praise of Trains,” another poem celebrating travel: “I love riding trains.” He does not complain as he describes the sluggishness of Polish trains but is happy to “see everything already said and done.”

In “East and West,” Piotr Florczyk has made a gift of his penetrating perception of the world at large. Rooted in the simplicity of the everyday, these poems offer an almost surreal grasp of the complexity of human life. East and West is a magnificent book.

 

Sonja James is the author of The White Spider in My Hand (New Academia Publishing: Scarith Books, 2015) and Calling Old Ghosts to Supper (Finishing Line Press, 2013).

 

Web Del Sol Review of Books
6 May 2016
Reviewed by Monika Zobel

As a widely published translator and writer of essays and poems, Piotr Florczyk, a native of Kraków, Poland, persistently mediates between languages and countries. At the heart of his first full-length collection of poems East & West lies the disparity between a home country that is at once elegized, revisited, and left behind and the new country, in which “questions get answered with questions” and guest bedrooms represent “the emptiness of people / departing each year.” The space that opens up in the midst of these seemingly dissimilar worlds is to our surprise filled with much more than nostalgia for a lost home but inhabited by a forceful and precise lyrical voice of conscience. By not romanticizing the notion of leaving and instead suggesting a view of the Western landscape through the lens of a newcomer, Florczyk only reminds us that when “hoping / to open that door and enter the world,” we might just “find it the same / as the last time we left it once and for all.”

Florczyk aptly introduces readers to the East with the poem “Nineteen Eighty-Nine,” in which a mother welcomes back her dissident and escaped daughter. The poem sets the mood for the rest of the collection by meditating on changes—in the person who has left as well as in the home that was left behind. Florczyk writes, “We couldn’t wait to finally sieve, sort, and disembody the impurities in our garb” and cleverly evokes change in the shape of a Maytag washing machine, a symbol of the wealthy West and perhaps of a squeaky-clean new life.

And yet, change is more complex and more profound in the individuals who adjust to new lives. The line “Still, you stayed up late, calculating how far a heart travels from home with each beat” speaks to the idea that homes are perhaps never entirely left behind and that parts are always taken along on the journey.

In the same vein, water—the ocean and rivers—becomes a fierce accomplice, a reminder and a metaphor for leaving and wandering in Florczyk’s collection. In “Downriver,” the ones that stayed behind become “the rust / racing down the tongue of the slide, / the seesaw weighing the air,” “making baby sounds / with [their] lips / pressed against the fishbowl”; while in the poem “Pastoral,” the speaker, who in a past life “rubbed shoulders with buildings, blue / trams and pigeons,” reminisces on the idea of leaving as an act that resembles “catch-and-releasing” by a brook or a miniscule “breadcrumb,” only to be faced with “silence, something / like a furrow or a dagger” in this version of a pastoral.

In contrast to this, Florczyk invites us to share experiences of returning home that are resonant with feelings of nostalgia, uncertainty, and speechlessness. In the poem “Tetris,” the speaker climbs a staircase in a building he once used to inhabit, which skillfully becomes a metaphor for delving further into one’s memories.

“The air was thick with flies,
the smell of fresh tar sizzling on the roof, where,

years ago, we’d go to spit on people’s heads and tweak
the antennas to catch somebody else’s dreams.

Life was beautiful, I thought, leaving the first floor.
I found my misspelled nickname carved into the wall.”

In the long poem “Kinderszenen”—the title calls to mind Robert Schumann’s piano piece of the same title—this memory is intimately revisited through a series of places, ranging from Southern California and Cape Cod to Europe, the Tropics, and the speaker’s new and old home. Here too, water plays a significant role, namely that of a border to cross:

“My ship, the one I’ll take home,
is a walnut shell—its figurehead
a boy gasping for breath.”

The metaphor of the boy struggling to stay afloat is continued in the last scene, fittingly titled “Homecoming”:

“someone you love throws their arms
around your sweaty neck,
so that you can let go of the splintering oars
and wear your body like air.”

To “wear your body like air” gracefully recounts the otherwise difficult to describe sensation of returning to a childhood home after many years. The walnut shell boat and the splintering oars suggest the fragility of such a journey, the complications that might arise when we return to our homes.

The desire to look out over the water, to gaze beyond physical borders, and to have the world at our fingertips is not only addressed through the personal narrative of a speaker who has left home to find a different life, but also by means of a perceptive criticism of a society that is constantly on the lookout for new discoveries and ways to conquer the world.

In the longer poem “From the Life of Postage Stamps,” Florczyk employs witty metaphors to hold up a mirror to our antics of taking on the world by planes, by climbing towers, or by using computers, just to name a few. A weightlifter suddenly “has a future in Sudan, / carrying pails of water, / should anything here go awry” and “ghosts hook up inside / the royal chamber” while “the guests are reminded / America wasn’t built in an hour.” Florczyk’s facetious and assertive tone when writing “The planets are next” and “If you agree the future looks bleak, / don’t click here” remind us that our actions have consequences.

Reading Florczyk’s riveting collection, we find ourselves on a journey from the East to the West and vice versa, all the while being accompanied by Florczyk’s hauntingly beautiful lines that speak of the psychology of borders and exploration, as well as the reconciliation of old homes and new homes. In addition to sharing intimate narratives of moving and settling down, East & West presents us with the dilemma of the 21st century, where the “story of the sun / climbing a fire escape in the rain” is no longer worth telling, but instead quick discoveries are to be made since “Hitting the road—the desert / or the sea—has never / been easier, and that’s a fact.” As a translator of several books of Polish poetry, Florczyk pays attention to the smallest details and has perfected bringing down linguistic borders while also preserving cultural peculiarities. In East & West he allows his readers to step over the crumbling remnants of these borders, to gaze out over the landscape to both sides, and to our astonishment realize that there are no places left to hide.

 

A Review of East & West by Piotr Florczyk
by Jane Frazier


(Sandpoint, Idaho: Lost Horse Press, 2016)

Piotr Florczyk’s childhood in Poland, and adult years in the United States, create a poetry in East & West that reflects just such a worldview. In this lyrical book of poems, Florczyk turns an eye to the Berlin Wall, kitchen utensils, swimming at night, a weightlifter, and a telephone museum, to name a few. Florczyk examines each of his subjects with careful attention and offers us observations served up with not only precision to the fine points of the subject, but also often with a wry look.

In “Telephone Museum,” the telephones of different eras sit next to each other as onlookers from the contemporary world may imagine the words that were spoken through them:

Silence reigns in a hall,
where velvet pillows
and sturdy desks conjure hell
for uninitiated guests.

The tin-can telephone
sits next to a German red
rotary-dial, though most
don’t ring a bell unless

they’re reached by a stray
echo of ‘Give me a call’ or
‘Don’t ever call me again.
Asshole.’

The progression of the telephone is evidenced by a “cordless / push-button freedom fighter,” and as “technology goose-steps by,” we are standing on the sidelines, amazed, able to only utter “oohs and aahs.” The implication is that not only is technology moving, but so is history, and we must wonder at our own inability to have a say in its march forward. The poem aptly gives us a message, but it is also meant to make us smile.

Tongue-in-cheek humor also finds its way into a poem on kitchen utensils from the series “From the Life of Postage Stamps.” An entire universe of utensils exists within a kitchen, some of them apparently used by humans, some of them not, and among this collection many of the utensils seem to lie around waiting for use in a sort of culinary limbo:

No one beats the wiry eggbeater
or the black spatula, even
the food processor shoved behind
the Dutch oven. A jar opener

is for sissies who’ve never squeezed
a tennis ball. Better they stick
to the frying pan or the wooden
citrus reamer.

Some of them too, share a rather human relationship: “The peeler / loves the grater the way / the heirloom tea cup loves the saucer.” And beauty may be found here in a carafe of icy water as it reflects sunlight onto the china of “mortals.” Florczyk ends the poem whimsically, making us feel fortunate to have such deities among us.

More serious observations of American life, particularly the life of the suburb, find their way into the volume in an ecopoetic lyric. A narrator’s first backyard becomes the subject of a hymn of the modern day community, with everything present in the lawn from trash to animal life: “everyone I know is already here, or waiting / in line to get in. Ants, spiders, earthworms, even a pair of field mice / with BB gunshot wounds who show up at dusk. Same as newlyweds, / they bring suitcases full of sticks, tin foil scraps, dead flies.” “May’s beautiful here,” the poet writes of the backyard, full of the ground cover pachysandra and “fenced in by tall weeds.” Creatures, “you gypsies of the soil,” are summoned to climb over his feet, and, here, Florczyk, in union with his parcel of nature, delivers traces of Whitman.

At times, East & West gives us adventure mingled with its meditations on the American landscape. A married couple swimming in a lake at night brave the cold water and wind up again on shore: “ [we] lay side-by-side, / eager to pluck the stars and planes / zooming by. You thought you saw a buck. / But the moonlit grove was still– / the only sound I heard / was a feeble trill.” Florczyk gives us the eye of the relative newcomer to America and his devotion to detail is sometimes delivered with wonder and sometimes with a just sense of the anticlimax of everyday existence. Sometimes Europe and America are juxtaposed to deliver the richness of Florczyk’s experience. While traveling through New York, the poet thinks back to the palace of a king he had once visited and the two worlds stand matter-of-factly on the page in all their contrast: “The fact that I once paid / twenty bucks to tour / his walk-in closet, / where I came close to stealing / an ermine-trimmed robe, / [. . .] Long live anyone who can / survive a barrage of honking cars / and dropped calls, not to mention the red-eyed / storefront digits that tick-tock / across my face.”

East & West is, finally, a plunge into the American experience framed by the past of a poet who well knows another culture. Florczyk, time after time, packs his poetry with the details of the world that he sees around him and it is through this plunge into phenomena that we see our own lives through a fresh lens. And Florczyk’s philosophy through these pages seems to say that the world is with us, moment by moment, relaying bits of insight into our existence.

 

Jane Frazier is a Professor of English at Lincoln University of Missouri and has published a critical book on the poet W. S. Merwin, entitled From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W. S. Merwin (Associated University Presses). She is also a regular contributor to the W. S. Merwin website, Merwin Studies, and has previously published book reviews forThe Literary Review.

 

NOTRE DAME REVIEW

poems by Piotr Florczyk. EAST & WEST (Lost Horse Press, 2016)

Review by Dean Kostos

In the Eye of the WInd

The book’s title—East & West—is instructive: These poems trace the trajectory (geographic and psychological), from Poland to Los Angeles, where the poet resides. Like Joseph Conrad, the Polish novelist who wrote in impeccable English, Florczyk writes in a nuanced American English. One would never suspect it not to be his first language. Despite his linguistic command, however, he can still access the perspective of the outsider. That vantage point a affords him a unique view on our current zeitgeist. His poems hold up a sly mirror to the experience of being American, in all its disparate, troubling, and contradictory manifestations.

As if to provide contrasts between our countries’ histories, the poet reflects on periods from Poland’s past. Like Wisława Szymborska, Florczyk reminds us of the Nazi’s barbaric treatment of the Poles: “[W]e got hard labor, but not as bad as grandma’s / stint at Carl / Zeiss in Nazi days.”

This glimpse into Polish history includes the poet’s expedition towards an intimacy with language and the life-affirming art of poetry: “After they shut down the colleges and interned // the faculty, your father said that words don’t grow on trees, so we read the way / we ate—slowly chewing each word—unsure which words we were allowed to keep.”

Now, for a moment, we are made privy to the way the author’s voice sounds, as opposed to our experience of it on the page. A voice asks, “Tell me, where did you learn to speak / so fluently? Ten years, and your accent hasn’t changed—you still roll your Rs / and shorten those pesky Slavic vowels.” Florczyk goes on to reveal that the foreigner, no matter how adept in his adopted idiom, contemplates his dual existence: “Still, you stayed up late, calculating how far a heart travels from home / with each beat.”

The necessity of almost fitting in has been achieved, but not without shame: “Our faces had already been bleached by grins. / We couldn’t wait to nally sieve, sort, and disembody the impurities in our garb.”

He reconstructs a persona with the words of this new tongue, bending it to accommodate fears and aspirations. Perhaps, on some level, every poem is about language, as paintings, despite their subject matter, are about the application of paint. For a poet, a “new” language, with its quirks and possibilities, can foster linguistic experimentation, as the following lines demonstrate, “Deeper now, booming, / his voice rearranges the dark / inside of me.”

The interstices between words and intentions are part of how we communicate and process experience. Florczyk writes:

Silence reigns in a hall,
where velvet pillows
and sturdy desks conjure hell
for uninitiated guests.

Having a hyphenated self enables Florczyk to chart his blurred identities, “[W]ater, / she says, always / finds a way to make you see / yourself as another.” And again: “Some of us pay for the privilege / with a public visage; others lose their lives.” Maintaining an elegiac tone, the poet employs a sonic legerdemain in this statement, “[R]uin invites rumination.” One pictures the devastation visited upon Poland, and many countries conquered by to the Nazis and communism. The poet writes, “I waved to them as one waves to ghosts / lurking in cellars, or lovers on train platforms.” Later in the same poem, “Elsewhere,” he asserts,

press your ear to the ground and listen
to what the earth says.
Don’t let my accent fool you, he added,
then vanished without a trace.

Throughout the collection, there is a “you” to whom many of the poems are addressed. Is it the beloved, the poet himself, a hypothetical reader, or all three? Florczyk reveals, “One day / you’ll understand / the words cut in the wing by another / trembling hand.” The engagement with the “you,” however, seems to evaporate and metamorphose as the collection proceeds. The poet writes, “[W]ear your body like air.”

But the poet cannot erase his Polish identity in an American context. He finally reassesses his heritage, both historical and aesthetic. He “churns” an ongoing narrative with his tongue—meaning both language and the or- gan that articulates words, “[S]witching between Polish and English // and churning scraps of fiction and fact / with my tongue.”

His articulations eventually lead to an unsaying, as if acknowledging that the limitations of language are also the limitations of mortality:

I found the gutters clogged
with the eerie silence
of dead owers and headless nails
piercing the season’s first film of ice.

Conjuring Heraclitus, and his inexorably coursing river, Florczyk concedes, “[O]ur fractured shadows float in the river.” Like traditional elegies, many of these poems are rooted in nature, which knows no boundaries or languages. Furthermore, nature endlessly regenerates itself, providing hope and continuity. In the following poem, the poet speaks in persona as a tree. Notice the playful use of “I” and “eye,” as if to question the notions of self developed throughout the collection. In “Storm,” Florczyk writes:

A tree in the eye of
the wind, I
trembled while clouds raced around me.
Then I heard a thunder, twice,
but the bolt of lightning I had to imagine.

 

POETRY SALZBURG, NO. 30
by GRAHAM ALLISON

Things Turned Upside Down: Poetry, Perspective and Transformation
Piotr Florczyk
East & West
Lost Horse Press, 2016. 59 pp. ISBN 978 0 9908193 6 3, US$18.00 pb.

 

Piotr Florczyk was born in Poland and moved to the United States at the age of sixteen. East & West feels like a journey into American or Western culture, and expresses the sense of a life turned upside down, of a life having been jolted onto a different path. There often appears to be a running comparison going on throughout the poems between East and West, past and present. The poems in East & West are lyrical, rhythmic, fluid, and permeated with an elegiac sense that though much has been gained, some-thing has been lost along the way.

In the first poem “Nineteen Eighty-Nine” we witness Communist Poland with its sense of confinement: “If we stretched our arms out, / took five steps to the right or the left, there was the wall. So we moved little” (1-9; 1). We learn of strikes, cuts in food rations, colleges shut down, lecturers interned, tanks on the street throughout Eastern Europe, but there is also spirit and hope with “Monks transcribing prison verse. Bards rewriting Beatles’ songs for bound hands.” (1-9; 5).

“Still Life with Apples” struck me as an important poem and appears to meditate on life being transformed or gifted for the better but for no rhyme or reason:

When you first bite into
a hard, green apple, and the tart
juice runs down the stubble
on your chin and neck, you

realize you know nothing
about how it ended up in the fruit bowl
you got as a gift. (15)

The poem then goes on to consider where the apple comes from and the attendant responsibilities:

So you think up an orchard

and a farmer driving a tractor.
Baskets. Ladders. Knives.
A sun that rises
and sets over pock-marked hills.

This isn’t your life.
The trees change color with the apples.
You know you couldn’t
look after them, but you try. (15)

Then the last stanza introduces a darker note with an arresting image:

Come out, you worm,
you say to the bruised hole at the center.
Then you bite around it—and wait
for something to answer. (15)

In “Last Poem for You” there is a sense of being at the mercy of forces beyond individual control, the narrator is “in a jam-packed underpass” (49) and:

I don’t know how we made it out

alive—I only heard the muffled yelp
of someone going down.

You see, that was long ago, but still
I carry the crowd and the crowd carries me. (49)

A thread of everyday transformation runs through the poems. Kitchenware is regarded in a military way: “an entire / commando force can be assembled.” (“From the Life of Postage Stamps”, 19-26; “The Kitchenware”, 24). In “Backyard” we witness “Ants, spiders, earthworms, even a pair of field mice / with BB gunshot wounds” (31) moving into the backyard and when the narrator of the poem peeks “under the quilt of lawn, I see rooms, hands waving in the air.” (31)

In “Lullaby” we pick up on an ambivalence to the twenty-four-hour noise of America, and the noise may symbolise the pace and nature of modern Western life, as well as a feeling that freedom both gives and takes. After noise from neighbours and the ringing of the doorbell by tipsy carollers, the poem continues:

. . . Insured by Smith & Wesson, powered by

Rita’s Apple Pie, you won’t catch any Zs tonight, since the footsteps and toilet flush
give way to MAYDAY being tapped on the pipe above. Is fire alarm next in line? (18)

There is more ambivalence expressed in “A Pole in New York”:

Long live anyone who can
survive the barrage of honking cars
and dropped calls,
not to mention the red-eyed
storefront digits that tick-tock
across my face (46)

There also appears to be an ambivalence towards technological progress in East & West. In “Nineteen Eighty-Nine”, there is praise and wonderment:

Believe me, we were beside ourselves at the sight of the washing machine mad
in the USA. Those buttons and knobs. The days of bending over a washbowl were over. (1-9; 8)

Yet in the poem “Telephone Museum”: “technology goose-steps by” (13-14; 14), and in the section “The PC”, of the poem “From the Life of Postage Stamps”:

Not much can be said about it—
this depository of fading memory.
If you agree the future looks bleak,
don’t click here. (19-26; 26)

The poet makes the case for a slower pace of life and how this can enrich in the final poem of the collection, “In Praise of Trains”: “Polish trains are so slow / they take you places you wouldn’t visit / otherwise.” (57)



 

STILL LIFE WITH APPLES

When you first bite into
a hard, green apple, and the tart
juice runs down the stubble
on your chin and neck, you

realize you know nothing
about how it ended up in the fruit bowl
you got as a gift.
So you think up an orchard

and a farmer driving a tractor.
Baskets. Ladders. Knives.
A sun that rises
and sets over pock-marked hills.

This isn’t your life.
The trees change color with the apples.
You know you couldn’t
look after them, but you try.

Come out, you worm,
you say to the bruised hole at the center.
Then you bite around it—and wait
for something to answer.

—Piotr Florczyk