This Is Not a Place to Sing by Christina Pacosz

This Is Not a Place to Sing This Is Not a Place to Sing: poemsChristina V. Pacosz; West End Press 1987WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

Polish-American poet Christina Pacosz traveled to the homeland of her father’s family in the mid-1980s, and the moving poems in this brief but powerful collection were the result. Published by West End Press in 1987, it’s long out of print, but last fall Christina announced that she had discovered a box of copies in her attic and I asked her to send me one. I’m glad I did. In just 26 poems, she makes the grand sweep of Polish history and many details of its contemporary landscape come alive for me, and I guess it’s the latter that make the former seem bearable, though she doesn’t go out of her way to suggest avenues for redemption.

The title, we learn from the acknowledgements, was something said by a woman in the Auschwitz Museum coffee shop, admonishing some overly boisterous schoolchildren. Pacosz wrestles with this idea throughout the book: how to sing in the face of so much needless suffering and death? “If I open/ my mouth/ I could/ drown,” says Baba Yaga, briefly imagining the life of a pious peasant woman (“Baba Yaga Speculates”). In “The Trumpeter of Krakow,” Pacosz translates the message of the trumpeter’s broken-note song:

Each of us
is invaded
daily, hourly,
minute by minute
by time
and its deadly
arrows.

How to sing
from the highest steeple
and warn the city
with the sounds
that live
in us
and the world?

“Rafting the Dunajec” begins with accordion-playing gypsies and the speaker so grateful they’ve survived the holocaust, she gladly tips them before stepping on the boat. Then:

We come to the gorge
and the wind off the high peaks
washes us with the odor
of spruce, rosemary, pepper.

I say to myself: If
I knew a song
I would sing
and then I hear
a raft of children

singing across the water,
and I am happy,
just like I am happy
when I hear
the water
as it meets
the rocks.

“The Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw” begins with an epigram from Psalm 137: “For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormenters, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'” and begins: “Only the trees sing now…” In “Krakow Monument: Another View,” Pacosz notes: “There are always those/ who would kill/ the singer.” And the emotional climax of the book comes in a brief poem for the director of the Jewish Orphanage in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation:

For Dr. Janusz Korczak Who Was Not Afraid to Sing

At the end
of the line
he knew
what
to do.

Walking
from the boxcar
to the gas chamber
he led the children

singing.

Instead of songs and their inevitably inadequate words, Pacosz finds, there are often flowers — ubiquitous offerings, bouquets for every occasion. “Auschwitz: Oswiecim” begins,

We are leaving
flowers like messages
in this awful place:

what else to do
except fall down
with weeping
into a grieving
that will never
be done.

And how to live
in the world then?

So it is calendula
for memory, here
with the children’s
clothing they never
outgrew.

On the feast day for “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15,” bouquets are gathered to be blessed in church. Flowers partake of the Virgin’s own dual nature, Pacosz implies, but the blessed bouquets serve a practical purpose, too:

And when the next cow calves,
the dried bloom
will sweeten her
first drinking water,
and Mary’s blessing
flow from her udders.

The book ends with a visit to the speaker’s ancestral homeplace, suggesting the only way out is further in. It is, however, as tough and unsentimental a poem as any in the book. I am left with the music for Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs running through my head. Though the poems in this collection aren’t quite so uniformly mournful, Pacosz understands as well as Gorecki did the power of simplicity and an unflinching gaze.

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