"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Aug 4-5: Train back to Prague

rI sat in the dining car with a beer, Gambrino, writing in my journal and reading as the rural rolling Czech Republic flew past the broad line of windows. I read Too loud a solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. I thought about the turning point in growing up at which one realizes it’s not about oneself anymore. It is our responsibility not to be ignorant. Back in Prague for 18 hours, I felt like a local walking the bridge across the river one last time as the sun set. My last morning in Prague I spent looking for the gifts I wanted to buy for John, my family. Then I took a taxi to the airport. While traveling, I needed to create my sense of home wherever I was, even if it's boundaries extended only to the edges of my body. After traveling for two months, I couldn't wait to get back to the place I belong.

Aug 3: Auschwitz

Rooms of eyeglasses, black metal twisted like filament, round lenses crushed. Piles of hairbrushes, shaving brushes, toothbrushes. Children’s shoes, boots, crushed leather, laces removed. Men’s shoes, women’s shoes. Chewing tobacco tins. It’s all about sorting. I’m sick to my stomach on the bus ride back to Krakow. On the bus a group of people are sorting their Ipod music, counting their gigabites. Another woman is removing film canisters, labeling them, Auschwitz. I notice that we count and sort in times of stress. How can our bodies survive for so long before giving in? Who would have imagined standing cells? At the foot is a small door to crawl through. The cell is 1 x 1 meter large, with a tiny bent ventilation hole at head level. Four men would stand in this cell all night, then go to work in the morning, then go back to the standing cell. They would die after a week or two, or not, or suffocate at night. Small gestures of shame by the Nazis; covering the windows of the barracks on the side opening to the execution wall, dispersing the ashes from the crematorium into the river, anywhere, to hide the evidence.

As I left through the metal gates, I saw a man trip over a sparrow he kicked accidentally as he walked. I heard its little body hit the boot, not a sound muted by feathers. The bird fluttered above the pavement, little flights of confusion between his legs and his girlfriend’s feet. Then its mess of wings and feathers and chirps fluttered into the buses and I couldn’t see it. Stillness. Inside one barrack was a drawing of a guard pulling his leg and booted foot back as far as he could before kicking the naked prisoner on the floor before him.

In the crematorium, three rooms, one for disrobing, one for gassing, and then a room with four ovens. Respectful memorial candles have been lit next to placards on a little makeshift altar on the floor in honor of the dead. Gassing took 15 minutes for 1000 people. Special prisoners would remove the gold fillings from the teeth and then put two bodies in each oven. Cremation took about 30-40 minutes so this was the bottleneck. Later on I wished I hadn’t gone entered the crematorium. At dinner back in Krakow, trying to recover in a traditional polish restaurant, I couldn’t shake the ghost of ash from the walls, from the air, from the ovens, all over my body. It felt like white claustrophobic chalk. My meal was very traditional sour crout with lamb and kielbasa, pickles, carrot salad, sacred home-made bread. I couldn’t eat enough.

Aug 1 - 2: Krakow, Poland

Saturday after packing and checking out of the dorm, I took the 10 am train to Krakow, Poland. I changed trains somewhere just on the Czech side of the border. Love the train. The second train was older and bumpy, so that I could barely could write. Noise rattled from broken open doors, squealing metal scraping on metal, buckling joints and train cars bucking up and down. After almost 9 hours, I arrived in Krakow and slept 11 hours that first night.

In the morning I walked through the massive town square center, the largest in Europe, 200 m square. A cloth factory building commands the center. The Wawel castle stands at the end of town. Here I joined a trio of traditionally dressed street music performers. And past that, I entered Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, or ghetto. At Pub Stajnia with some sparkling wine, my skin was prickly with humid heat. I watched a man take a shot of vodka and then stir sugar into his cappuccino, a mixed drink waiting next to the little espresso cup. I ate pink cold borscht soup with dill and cucumber floating in it. Poland has avoided the industrialization of food production and their food surprises with flavor and color.

In the nighttime, I discovered fire dancers in the town square performing before an old medieval church. Afterwards I sat at a street café. I was perfectly comfortable and unbothered as a single woman. This is one thing I love about Eastern Europe. I walked all day. My camera has been my companion and allows me to reminisce over the day; a way to record, comment, and remember.

Last week at PSP

Monday after workshop I visited the contemporary Kampo Museum on the Vltava river in Prague. A staircase climbs to the roof where mirrors set off the sky and funnel the heat onto your skin. In the garden a reflecting stream flows under the wall into the gallery. I stood before a sculpture in black shiny stone called “Anxiety” by Otto Gutfreund, 1911-1912. Stanley Plumly in workshop today said that you must find the form of the poem within the content, the shape of the sculpture within the material of the stone. The stone is the block, content is discovered within? The figure hunches his shoulders into his ears, arms and hands large, robe bunching around his cheeks and down into the pedestal. The face is closed shut so that the entire piece is interior. A quote on the wall says, “To see the invisible, you must penetrate the visible as deeply as possible.”

In Tuesday’s lectures we listened to Ivan Klima speak of Samizdat and Cynthia Hogue lecture on sound in poetry. Hogue spoke about thinking in song/singing in words. She looked at the musical non-verbal element in poetry, comparing sonic drive to the maternal babble and doodle of poetry. Samizdat was the underground publication of writings by Czech poets, playwrights, other artists. Typewritten, read in 24 hours and then passed on to a friend. Later, the manuscripts were smuggled out of the country by the French embassy and others, to be published by Czech publishing houses in other countries, then smuggled back to be passed secretly. Hundreds of books, 30 people reading them in 30 days, staying up all night to read. Now people watch tv. Reading is not as valued an activity. We have other sources of information, and we don’t need to fight to get them. But is the information we are receiving as stimulating, as original, as true? What is true?

At the Strahof Monastery (and brewery) are books made from the bark of trees, moss and lichen growing from the spines. Beautiful living books. And the beer was very flavorful. Those monks had the life back then. Also, a collection of dried sea creatures, painted library ceilings, bright illuminated books.

Friday night was our last night celebratory party (the drink of choice seemed to be Fantanay – Fanta with Chardonnay) with desert at Kaverna Slavia. Since it was my last night, I walked up through the castle streets late on the way back to the dorm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 20-26: Week Three at PSP

Monday morning our workshop gained three new poets and a new instructor, Stanley Plumly. There are so many ways to read poetry, to figure out what’s going on in a wise reader’s mind. I have exciting ideas for revision but I don’t really know where to begin my rewriting yet.

Monday night I went with Jennifer, Chad, Stephanie and James to the Jazz club U Glena and watched Stan the Man perform the blues on his guitar with a drummer, base, and keyboards accompaniment. This club is downstairs in a small dimly lit cavern. Stan’s lips embraced the microphone as he crooned and shouted BB King and rock tunes to the rapt crowd. Our tiny round tables were overlapping and soon we found out our neighbors were Czech ski instructors who had skied all over the US and Europe of course, including Alpine Meadows in Tahoe. Along with the drum and keyboard solos, Stan’s singing set a spell over the room.

Tuesday night after the readings, I sipped fresh ginger tea at Café Savoy. The Savoy is a large friendly Austrian styled café with just incredible food. It has become a regular place for me to write in their comfortable booths. Thursday night held another reading.

Saturday morning our bus left the dorms for Cesky Krumlov. We wandered the old town dominated by a palace set on the spine of a hill above the river. That night we watched the Rusalka opera by Antonin Dvorak performed outdoors in the night time rain in the palace gardens. Our seats turned to follow the actors who ran the large circle around us. The lighting in the forest set off the trees and the rain that continued to drop from the branches. It was a sport performance – those actors must have run a few miles at least even as they sang and our seats spun to face us to whichever portion of the donut-shaped stage the action occurred. It was an unbelievable, magical night. After an hour or so the stars began appearing in the sky and the temperature dropped well below normal. The crowd, covered in clear plastic rain ponchos, rustled and dripped. The actors didn't show any notice of the cold and wet as they threw themselves into the grass or onto the wooden pier. In the end, will o wisp lights floated over the marsh and everyone died. It was beautiful. Long past midnight, we walked back through the castle, down the hill into town.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 18-19 Terezin and Kutna Hora

Saturday we headed to the concentration camp called Terezin. It poured rain all day. In the memorial cemetery, now a national monument, a giant metal star of David with black river stones piled at its base stands above the field of gravestones, red roses planted at each grave, ten thousand of them. Many of the stones are just numbered, bodies of prisoners recovered from a mass grave directly after WW2 ended. In the middle of the field, a taller cross, spare and wooden, stands above the star.

We toured the Little Fortress. This was a prison run by the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and finally the Czecks in differing political circumstances. This prison held political prisoners of whatever regime was in power, as well as Jewish prisoners under the Nazis. About a third of the prisoners would die of living conditions, crowded and suffocated in hot rooms with doors and windows closed, lose half their body weight on rations, tortured and left in isolation cells without windows. This is the prison the assassin of the Arch Duke Ferdinand was held for two years and tortured until he died of pneumonia. We stood within his cell, #1. We walked part of the 28 kilometers of tunnel system through the fortress walls, emerging into daylight again by the guillotine and execution wall, brick riddled by bullets from long ago.

In the town of Terezin nearby were held nearly 200,000 Jewish families, separated and worked 14 hours a day in a ghetto as they awaited train transport to extermination camps in other countries. In the transports, 63 over two years, about 1000 people per trainload, only 0 to 11 would survive the trip to their destination. A secret synagogue was discovered in the town only a few years after the war ended. It seems even the Germans never discovered this secretive hidden worship. Only a few people must have known within the camp itself about the existence. The museum documented many cultural events, plays, musical performances, children’s choirs and art, during the years of imprisonment. Now this haunted town is deserted, a few children riding bikes through the martial square. I ate pistachios in the rain leaning under a thin overhang outside the museum. Over lunch no one knew what to talk about, surrounded by the history of human suffering and injustice. I realized that my ignorance is not acceptable. Our responsibility is to be informed.

That night back in Prague a group of us went out to see the new Harry Potter movie. The Czechs have an intermission so people can go to the bar or have a smoke break in the middle of the movie.

On Sunday, I took the train to the beautiful medieval town of Kutna Hora to see the Ossuary church and the cathedral. In the early 1800’s, the small church in that town took the bones of nearly 40,000 people that had piled up around the walls of the church and decorated the inside in bone patterns and pyramids, a bone challis and bone chandelier. The legend is that the church yard and cemetery around the church has holy dirt from Jesus Christ’s burial place, brought back a few centuries earlier. For this reason, people had been transporting dead bodies to this location for a long time.