Queen Elizabeth - 1956, August

I wrote this poem many, many years ago. It was, in fact, the kernel I kept going back to whenever I thought about writing the story of my family crossing the Atlantic. When I finally lassoed my racing mind and wrote the memoir, Passage From England, I found it interesting to re-read this poem and see what details might have changed my memory. It was gratifying to note that the emotional tenor of my perspective on this time in my life has remained constant through the decades.

 

 

Passage From England

I

I wake and look through the pane

on a gray morning. The early rain

falling along the guttered roof.

I watch my father’s boots

struggle, slip, and grip the earth

as my mother’s china, balanced,

trembles in his awkward stance.

 

We’re moving, but it’s more

than moving; like some dormant

creature, who after months stumbles

into a new world, dumb

upon the landscape, we leave

England for America. I believe

the hand upon my shoulder,

my father’s hand. We say good-bye,

and promise as men not to cry.

 

The tears run down my face.

From the ship’s deck, pacing,

my mother waves a forced smile

to the still form now a mile

away. My brother and sister laugh

when the fog horn booms a path

out of the harbour. The tug boats

at last let go, and the tall ship,

alone, begins this senseless trip.

 

In the late afternoon breeze,

beyond the gravity of land, with ease

my mother talks of father’s eyes,

how like the sea they are blue. I disguise

my tears as salt spray, and wonder

about the empty house. A shot of thunder

warns us to the ship’s inside.

We move in silence. My fear

is louder than any words here.

 

II

The sea grows weary. All day

planes and boats and tanks rake

the docks and shores of Danzig.

A bombardment of false promises

resounds against the muted soil.

Wave after wave of cannon caw

shake the crystal glass of Warsaw.

 

The sea at Danzig swells

to black peaks from whose hills bells

ring retreat. Fear and loss call

the people inside. In halls

and dark rooms the families wait,

holding each other through the night.

A young girl quivers, her frightened

lips pressed to her mother’s hair

while overhead, bombers paralyze the air.

 

They come in hundreds, march in time

to the cathedral’s broken evening chime.

The city is running out of breath.

All falling, all dying, town’s

people stand fast against the browns

and ugly greens of unprepared war.

My father, lost in the hordes,

chaotic as his own heart’s throb,

leads the pulsing and ineffective mob.

 

In this scene, this man, fair, young,

runs past churches that are flung

to ashes under petulant bombs.

Nearby he find his father, gone,

a broken scythe clutched in his hand.

The hand looms large, displays

its purple drops, then lays

itself upon my father’s neck

and rests, for the last time, rests.

 

III

“It is only a nightmare,” my

mother says, “Father will soon be by

your side, and the war is years gone.”

Yet the war goes on and on

inside me. In England

I see my father, alone

within the hallways of our home.

 

All day I think of that empty house

whose rooms I fill with a thousand

sounds and pictures of other days.

Each Christmas, the fire ablaze

with pink crackling, the table large

with grandma’s cooking, a harvest

of every candy and Christmas cake,

I hear my father cough by the stairs,

but his handkerchief does not hide his tears.

 

I know only parts of the past

that sent him from his father’s last

embrace. He runs from Poland,

climbs to the high Carpathians;

to the West he sees the land

that is his freedom. He feels his hands

freeze and moves toward France

while the echo of murder and burning cries

is relieved each as each day dies.

 

It is Tuesday. My older brother

finds shuffleboard, movies, and other

luxuries on this liner. He looks forward

to American girls; I keep looking toward

the stern. I watch the dolphin and the gull

dive for the ship’s offal. My eyes close to see

dogs scavenging the Vistula. I stare back,

hoping, but on the sea there are no tracks.

 

IV

Five days and still no land.

I rock ceaselessly; the ship’s banners

flutter in the wind and find

no calm. Each day I climb

to the third deck. Here the smokestack’s

charred throat stretches high

into clouds that blacken each new sky.

 

I sit for hours and watch old people

wrapped in gray blankets, their feeble

gestures are quiet from the deck chairs.

Two lovers, without coats, careless,

photograph their memories of this floating

mountain. Up here I feel the shudder

of giant pistons winding the rudders.

The quick foam against the ship’s hull

seems almost playful.

 

The ship is the Liberte’. Young stewards

in crisp blue coats exchange words

that are simply sounds to me. I ask

directions; they move their hands backwards

and forwards. I walk through clean

steel halls hung with scenic

scapes of France, the flag waving.

I have never seen my father’s flag

and I know I will never see Poland.

 

My mother tells me to stay near,

that I may get lost. Her fear

is foolish, for even if I choose

to wander all day I cannot lose

myself for there is nowhere I belong.

My sister takes my hand, she sings a song

my father sang often. I forget

his smell; his low voice fades

into silences that swallow his face.

 

V

“The water’s just like glass,

honest, just like it.”  Alone

in my cabin, I am sea sick,

my body as vacant

as the ship’s compartments.

There is much cheering

and the slick sound of cameras popping.

 

The upper decks vibrate

with excitation. People, eyes wide,

salute like soldiers before their flag.

There, the gift of France, she stands,

her torch once darkened

for four years. Now, secure,

the brightest star in this harbor

of reflected constellations,

reaches this colossus of expectation.

 

A man holding the guard rail,

his light blue coat tremulant

in the wind, shoulders a place

for me. My empty face

tilts toward this statue.

Here, flaming, her huge

beacon hand glows

soundless in the night. Softly

the ship wanders to its dock.

 

Do I place myself in this land?

Under this light, this female hand

of steel, will this be my home?

My mother writes a postcard,

the glossy statue staring hard

“We are finally here.

We wish you were near.

The children send their love.

We will see you soon…”

 

© 1976 Frank Zajaczkowski

 

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