"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.