Review by Lalita Noronha-Blob
SLODKA WODA, SLONA WODA/SWEET WATER, SALT WATER
by Lidia Kosk, author, and Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, translator and editor
Three short stories translated by Wojciech Wisniewski, Jan Wisniewski, and Piotr Kosicki
Astra, Lodz, Poland
2009, 129 pp., $35.00
Slodka Woda, Slona Woda/ Sweet Water, Salt Water is the second bilingual poetry collection by the author, Lidia Kosk, and translated from Polish into English by her daughter, Danuta Kosk-Kosicka, herself a published poet both in Europe and in the United States. Soaring on the wings of Niedosyt/ Reshapings, their first bilingual book, Slodka Woda, Slona Woda/ Sweet Water, Salt Water is comprised of 41 poems, 3 short stories and 9 stunning full-page photographs, including the beautiful book cover, a cinnamon-washed Baltic Sea at sunset. All but one photograph was taken by the poet herself. Over a third of the translated poems in this volume have been published in various literary journals, suggesting that this is a book whose time has come. It was published by ASTRA of Lodz, Poland.
Born in a small town in the Lublin area, Lidia Kosk grew up in Krzesimow, which meant she had to travel long distances to school by foot, bike or train. As a young girl living in Poland during World War II, she was subjected to the daily horrors of war. She was twice caught in round-ups in the streets of Lublin and carted off in trucks with other innocent people to camps where heart-breaking decisions were made. She was once shot at while running after her Jewish friend who was being led away. The real-life atrocities of young Lidia’s life during World War II shaped her abhorrence and sensitivity toward all wars. Not surprisingly, these are the experiences from which she writes. But what is striking about Kosk’s poetry is the laser-like precision of her words, which are as gentle and illuminating as they are harsh and dark—a mosaic of the ugliness of war and oppression irretrievably blended into the natural beauty of the earth and the depth of a poet’s heart. Kosk chronicles her journey in shimmering words that gleam off the page, conferring a quiet dignity to the blackest of times.
The book is comprised of four remarkable sections:
The first section, Birth of the World, is introduced with the robust barks of tall trees and a brick-red bird house. The lead poem, “Paradise,” is laden with expected imagery—fruit and apple blooms—which conjure up negative feelings of shame and banishment, but upon a second read reveal a touching story of lovers in which “the sun of summer/ does not burn/ the earth they stroll/ the rains of autumn spare/ the fruit/ so they can reach for it.”
The thrust of the poems in this section deal with the poet’s journey into childhood and adolescence reflecting both the hardship and beauty of those times. “Glass Mountain” begins with a plaintive cry: “The load is bigger than I/ as I climb the frozen hill/ carrying the treasure/ bucket of water from the stream,” and continues to the second verse where “the responsibility/ moves my feet/ tripping over the glacial/lumps of snow.” But when you get to the end, there’s jubilant resiliency: “In the flash of sun/I grow larger with my shadow/ as once more I go to wrestle/ my glass mountain.” And “In Your Voice my Name,” we hear an almost universal plea of humanity: “Your voice/ like a sliver of childhood/ stays with me/ Mother, call me/call my name often.” Kosk’s poems are nothing if not a passionate tribute to the human spirit.
The second section, From the Cradle of Earth, begins with two photographs of what appear to be thick, tangled, unearthed roots of trees. Overridden with shades of browns, the greenery, despite its sparseness, is reassuring, as are the poems that follow. Here we begin to see the poet expanding her vision, reaching out to the reality of a harsh world, and then courageously reaching deep within herself to discover, without apology, a quiet acceptance. Opening with one of my favorite poems, “Until,” the poet writes:
In heaven’s dome
hang stars that shine
for the lucky ones
the blackness of hell
between heaven and hell
the earth shudders
killed again and again
though she’s just given birth
like stricken leaves
lie on the spattered crust
cannot nestle in
spring will cover them with grass
until again the earth shudders
with Katyn, Kosovo, Congo
If forced to choose the best, I would, under duress, pick the third section of the book—Only the Memory Takes Note—perhaps because when all is said and done, long after memory takes note of what remains, there are still burning questions. Perhaps, too, because this section illuminates Lidia Kosk’s passionate love of her country, the history of Poland and of the people, among them her young husband, Henryk P. Kosk, who valiantly fought for freedom.
In the poignant poem, “From Afar,” she speaks to him thus:
“The surface of the Baltic seems smooth/the time and space wedged between us/do not stop me from looking for you.” Moving to the middle of the poem she says, “You wore no glasses then/just your twenty years/on the front line” and ends with “I must recover your knapsack/of memories.”
Kosk also collaborated with her husband on his two-volume book, Poland’s Generals: A Popular Biographical Lexicon. Recalling her own stories of war and those told to her by witnesses, Kosk delves into specific events such as the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944 in this section of the book.
In the poem, “Gloria Victis,” she asks heart-breaking questions: “Darling is the dawn coming?” and, referring to the moon, says, “Do you think he will give us away?/ He does not side with us anymore/ the stars disappear/ maybe wounded they die/ one by one.” But then amidst the despair we find answers: “Look/ the stars, and the moon, our/ faithful moon, shines above our/ vibrant Warsaw/ My Love, the dawn has come.”
In “Zofia, the General’s Daughter,” Kosk raises an ugly specter of uncertainty which resonates over the elapsed half century. She begins: “Thrown/ from the airplane/ like innocence/ from cliffs/ claimed by Gibraltar’s/ deep night waters/ over fifty years passed.” The poem ends with an ache, without any resolution, with only the memory taking note: “Sphinx-like Gibraltar/ guards the young woman/ who is still asking/ about her father/ still asking.”
In contrast to the poems in the first three sections, the fourth consists of storytelling prose as well as poems and short stories. Kosk, a member of the Polish Storytellers Association IMAGANA, first presented the story, “Alim and the Squirrel” in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland in 2008. The three short stories are rendered in English by her grandchildren, Piotr Kosicki, Jan Wisniewski, and Wojciech Wisniewski, accompanied by three corresponding poems, again translated by Kosk-Kosicka.
For this reviewer, the opportunity to speak with Kosk-Kosicka, the translator and editor of Slodka Woda, Slona Woda/ Sweet Water, Salt Water, was a memorable experience. I was particularly interested in learning how she grappled with words that arose from the heart of the Polish culture for which there are often no direct counterparts in English. For instance, a word like “Fido” (from the poem “Jasmine”) sounded jarring and out of sync with the rest of the book. Kosk-Kosicka explained that in Poland, the equivalent of Fido (or Rover, or Trixie) was “Burek,” a name that would have baffled or meant nothing to an English-speaking audience (“Burkow” is the genitive plural used in the poem). Such subtleties of grammar and context brought me a fresh perspective of the painstaking effort that all translators make to produce an authentic and articulate piece of work.
Whether read in English or (I imagine) in Polish, Slodka Woda, Slona Woda/ Sweet Water, Salt Water is a smorgasbord of delicious food for the soul. All one can do is savor the variety, one poem at a time. Within these pages are nutritional calories—vitamins, minerals, and sweet and salt water for a severely undernourished world.
Born in Bombay, India, Lalita Noronha is a research scientist, writer, poet and teacher. Recipient of a Fulbright travel grant to the U.S., she earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and is a widely published scientist. Her literary work has appeared in over sixty journals, magazines and anthologies, including The Baltimore Sun, The Christian Science Monitor, Catholic Digest, Crab Orchard Review, Get Well Wishes (Harper Collins) and Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press.) She has twice won the Maryland Literary Short Story Award, Maryland Individual Artist Award, and the Dorothy Daniels National League of American Pen Women award, among other awards. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Where Monsoons Cry, and a fiction editor for the Baltimore Review. Her website is www.lalitanoronha.com. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.