Monday, June 23, 2008

From Warsaw

Things are beginning to move swiftly now as I wind up my trip. So I won’t have a chance to go into much detail about my last days in Krakow. There would be something to say about the great outdoor food market just north of Florianska Gate, the one called Stary Kleparz, if I had time. But I can mention finding some delicious fresh strawberries there, not those huge, hard, sour things they sell in the U.S. And I could also mention seeing the Leonardo portrait (“The Lady Holding an Ermine,” one of only six extant Leonardo paintings in the world) at the Czartoryski Museum; or their Rembrandt (“The Good Samaritan”). On the other hand, a lot of this blog has been concerned with painting, so I’ll let that go.

I did meet with Adam Zagajewski yesterday at the little Kawarnia on the corner, which styles itself “Hamlet Café.” I got know Adam and his wife Maia eight years ago when we all stayed at a writers’ colony called the Château de Lavigny in Switzerland. When he walked in, I saw that I had aged a bit since then, though nothing drastic, really. We both had a plate of good pierogi and launched into a long summary of what we’d been doing. He is now a fellow of the Center for Social Thought at the University of Chicago, a loosely organized group of fellows in several disciplines that gather in the Second City in hopes that something useful will emerge from their association. I know that John Coetzee was there for a while, and the poet post was held by Mark Strand until a couple of years ago when he went to Columbia. Adam had taught a term at Houston for many years, but that is now past. A few months every year in the States does him good, he says, otherwise he is in Krakow, that is, when he isn’t attending conferences and poetry festivals. He’d just been in Sienna, to attend a celebration of Zbigniew Herbert, on the tenth anniversary of the great Polish poet’s death. And before that at a poetry festival in Norwich. So he isn’t idle at all when on this side of the Atlantic.

We never got around to the question about the special excellence of Polish poets. But maybe I will take it up with him in letters or e-mail posts. I suppose now I think of him as a pal as much as a great poet. There is always a little tension between those two things.

We said goodbye and I took a stroll around the neighborhood, where I stumbled on a celebration in Plac Wolnica, near the Ethnographic Museum. A stage had been set up and young men and women in a version of traditional Polish costume were dancing a version of Polish folk dances. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of either, but the effect was charming, a pleasant change from the usual watered-down American pop thing you get in Europe. I went back to the hotel for a little rest, then out again later on because there was to be a Midsummer festival along the Vistula. In the old days, young women used to make wreaths and attach candles to them and then float them on the water as part of Midsummer Night’s festivities. If a young man fished a wreath out of the water, its maker was sure to be married before the year was out. If the wreath sank, no such luck. I don’t know why I imagined anyone nowadays would bother with such a corny activity (well, maybe because of the Polish dancing that afternoon). What was planned instead was a vast outdoor rock concert on the banks of the river, with probably ten thousand people sitting on the grass for a mile of its stretch. I don’t know where the performers were. I never saw them, only a huge video screen on the opposite side of the river, with loud amplifiers to make sure we heard it all. I can say the language was English, but otherwise--. Behind us were set up street food stands and souvenir racks with glowing fluorescent wands, etc. The crowd was mostly young, but some oldsters were there as well, such is the attraction of large communal gatherings. The crowd struck me as subdued, I mean, compared to American equivalents on similar occasions. No one stood up to dance or even responded to the rhythm, just sat or stood quietly and listened. I didn’t hang around for long since really large crowds make me nervous, and the numbers were increasing every minute. It gave me food for thought, though. None of us realized back in the mid-Sixties, when we were listening to the Supremes, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin, or watching the light show at Fillmore West or East that rock music would sweep the globe as it has—after movies, the globe’s preferred art form. Both of them, for better or worse, America’s gift to the world. I guess you could add Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski to that.

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