The Chopin Nocturnes (Warsaw, July 2011)
I arrive at midnight to an unexpected feast—
four courses, coffee, currant cordials,
a hunger for this family I don’t know.
I am given the tour the next day—
sleek glass towers (circa 2008), stone towers (circa 800).
The subway tunnel gleams clean
as a surgical suite. It is a wormhole
in time, transporting us to the Old Town,
where crooked candy-coloured townhouses
overlook a square filled with white umbrellas.
Here a palace, there a palace; my uncle from Krakow,
resplendent in a cravat, meets us, embracing me
in another square before another palace,
handing me a red rose. He looks like my father.
He takes my hand as we walk to the park
where students play Chopin as girls in white lace
dance with boys in blue velvet, gold epaulets flashing
as they spin and curtsy and bow. Chopin lived and ate everywhere,
even near the house Madame Curie owned.
I break the rules, lift the rope, let my fingertips glide
over the satin wood of her small desk.
On the way home, I step on bricks set into the sidewalk,
a thin red road running under buildings, outlining what once was
the Jewish Ghetto (death toll 300,000).
My cousin drives us to Strzelno, my father’s birthplace,
where my other uncle still lives in a subsidized tenement flat,
just a block from the graveyard. But we must stop
at Chopin’s country house first, unfurnished except for the piano,
white-washed walls leading to bright green gardens where notes
from hidden speakers float down like willow leaves.
We buy live flowers for the dead, my grandparents tucked amongst
their children. Soon my father will be scattered over them,
ashes, ashes, we all fall down (August 16, 2009).
We stop for rest at Popiel’s castle, the ruthless Prince
whose angry subjects locked him and his wife in a tower
where they were devoured, alive as legend has it,
by thousands of mice. He is now the Mouse-King,
elevated by history, as tourist children skip by,
wearing souvenir mouse-hats.
Another midnight supper and my uncle makes a toast,
my cousin translating as we drink wine until three
though we must be awake at seven
to go to the Muzeum Powstania Warswaskiego. I want to say
I am tired; I need to pack, but an appointment has been made,
there are tickets, it would be rude to refuse.
“The Warsaw Uprising Museum, located in the Wola district,
commemorates the doomed uprising against the Germans
in the fall of 1944. It is one of Poland’s finest museums.”
There are planes and even tanks,
all courteously labeled in Polish, German (surprisingly)
and English. I struggle with the German, give up,
read in my adopted tongue. The exhibits gut me,
I had not expected a lone pair of spectacles,
blood-spattered when the Germans gunned down
the doctors and nurses treating the rebels.
A white linen shirt, rust-stained, a photo of a boy
on a bicycle, a courier. He was 11 when he was shot.
Collages of smiling young faces, college students—
their names are on lists (63 days; 250,000 dead).
Himmler then had Warsaw obliterated.
At midnight, they, my family, leave me at the station
to take a sleeper car to Dusseldorf,
the notes of C minor echoing within me.