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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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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