Kathleen Tarr: Taking the Circum-Poland Route

I have cast my fate with Krakow, at least for the next six
When I left the homeland in late March, everyone wished me
well on my solo journey to Poland, but a few people expressed concern because
of the political unrest in nearby Ukraine. The U.S. military has sent a few
F-16s to Poland, and reports indicate our military will carry out limited ground
exercises here soon. What are Putin’s real motives and ambitions for Russia?
This is a question diplomats and analysts can’t fully answer. At all
levels—NATO, the E.U., the U.S. State Department—strategists are trying to decipher
the political codes behind what Vladimir Putin says publicly, and what he does
I can report that everything is peaceful and calm in Krakow.
I lucked out finding this centrally-located apartment, sight-unseen, in the old
Jewish district of Kazimierz with help from a property management company I randomly
found on the Internet. For the first time in my life, I am living without a car.
Nor do I have an oven, printer, bathtub, cable TV, a Polish phone, a toaster, or
clothes dryer. My Euro-washing machine is the size of a bucket, and I have not
been able to crack its operational code, either. It has a penchant for careening
on its own across the floor when, or if,
it ever makes it to the spin cycle. And that’s after it has taken four hours to
wash one pair of jeans and one shirt.
I dart in and out of delicatesys,
Keferiks (small food shops), and piecarnias (bakeries) being highly
selective in what foodstuffs I buy and can reasonably schlep through the city’s
busy streets and up the flight of 72 steps to my apartment door. The door is over
ten feet high and has enough keyholes, latches, and bolts to secure a castle.
But the view from this fourth-floor flat is worth the achy
legs and shoulders. From three out of four large windows, I can see the Vistula
River which flows 1047 kilometres to the Baltic Sea and is Poland’s longest. My
low-budget decorating solution has been to keep the window sills stocked with yellow
and red tulips, bouquets of daffodils, and purple and pink hyacinths. For art
work, I taped a map of Europe on the wall, and with a black marker, outlined
Poland’s border.
Spring days in Alaska involved driving to half-frozen lakes
and ponds, trudging over slushy ground under bare trees, in the hope of
spotting one pair of returning Trumpeter Swans through my binoculars. This
morning, over a dozen swans passed by—I watched them from my window—as if they
were a strand of white lotus blossoms floating to the next bridge. I can’t
imagine Alaskans feeding morsel of bread to swans, but that’s what people in
Krakow like to do.
When Poles and expatriates learn I’m from the distant,
mythical land of Alaska, ten time zones away, they are incredulous. “What are
you doing here?”
Large numbers of foreign professionals work in the new
Polish economy. Jaegiellonian University, the third-oldest in Europe (1364), has
always attracted a wide spectrum of students. The city draws over 9 million
visitors a year, and probably has close to 20,000 or more expatriates. But an Alaskan
I did not come to vacation, but moved here as a writer, and the
irony is I’m still searching for the right words to explain it. The shortest
answer is to say I came here to live. I came to Krakow to really live. To broaden my world perspective, to immerse myself in
Polish literature, to finally realize my life-long dream to see Poland, though I never
imagined such a personal turn of events would lead me to lease an apartment.

Poland is a country with a history of shifting boundaries,
appearing and disappearing kingdoms, bygone commonwealths, invasions, annexations,
Nazi barbarisms, and Communist regimes.
And yet, Poland is still Poland. A country of 38 million
with the strength in leadership and willpower to improve its economy and
position in the world, and to tout its achievements—including its writers. After
the cruel and bloody constraints of history, it’s a country living in peaceful
coexistence with its neighbors.
I was recently given a copy of the documentary film “View of
Krakow” produced by the Ministry of Culture and many other important cultural
entities, including the Krakow
Festival Office
and the Polish Book Institute. (You
can find the film on YouTube.) It’s no superficial, jingo-filled, tourist
commercial, but is a high-quality program that takes a serious view of Krakow’s
distinguished cultural past with poet and essayist, Adam Zagajewski, as
narrator. (The link I’ve included here takes
you to a podcast with Edward Hirsch and Zagajewski, together at a literary
event in Santa Fe in 2002.)

Writers and artists are given most of the credit for
sustaining Polish language, culture and literature through the turmoil and
battlefields of history. Writers and artists were esteemed because they actively waged a literary war to protect the
nation’s cultural identity. Some worked for many decades in exile like Cszeslav
Milosz. Other writers and artists remained in Poland and often created their
works when it was politically forbidden or dangerous to express pro-Polish
Writers in those dark times had an urgent purpose, a moral
center from which to write, a sense of literary courage, a clear role and
inheritance to fight against the iron tanks of repression, to speak out about
the doctrines of socialist realism and social engineering.
From the film, I was introduced to the contemporary Polish
poet, Ewa Lipska.  “An artist is always involved in history, a
poet is the child of his times,” she said.
But now in this new, bright democratic era, in the
dominating forces of market capitalism, it might be argued that writers, too,
have experienced some “shock therapy” as they feel less and less culturally
relevant. The indifferent world is rushing to the Galeria Krakowska, reading whatever appears on their cell phone,
and spending less zloty in Krakow’s 80 bookshops. All glories of the literary
past aside, in general, today’s society is more apathetic toward literature and
literary history when so many pressing economic needs and immediate day-to-day
goals are at-hand.
Though, why spend time worrying about it?  Literature will not be trivialized into
oblivion. It’s never a good time to be a writer. A line from the Krakow
documentary comes to mind: “Have you ever seen a happy poet?”
At the end of the film, Zagajewski addresses the perceived
decline in literary fervor: “Poetry has returned to its basic role, to what it usually
is—a dialogue between a lonely author, and a lonely reader.”
As I was trying to explain, I came to Krakow for a
combination of reasons, including the fact that my father’s family name was Witkowski
It was by no means a straight and steady line from Anchorage
to Krakow. The last few years brought many personal upheavals. After leaving a
good job in Anchorage, I tried and failed at the experiment of spending two
winters Outside—in the sub-tropics of Florida. The life I knew dissolved, and a
marriage of decades came to an end. The homes I once inhabited and the
stability I felt are gone.
I recognize the paradox I’ve chosen to put myself in. I have
brought my torn and partitioned self to Poland to feel whole again. Some inner
necessity has brought me here. And through writing, I will find my way back.
is the former Program Coordinator of UAA’s Low-Residency
MFA Program in Creative Writing.In 2013, she was named a “Mullin Scholar” at
University of Southern California’s Center for Advanced Catholic Studies. Her
work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction,
Alaska Airlines Magazine, the Sewanee Review, America Magazine, Cirque,
and TriQuarterly. Her essay,“The
Comeback Monk,” is forthcoming (2015) in We
Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope, Fons Vitae Press, edited
by Jonathan Montaldo and Gray Henry. Kathleen may be reached at ktarralaska
(at) gmail.com.

7 thoughts on “Kathleen Tarr: Taking the Circum-Poland Route”

  1. "My torn and partitioned self"–this is beautifully put, Kathleen, a phrase I will remember. I wish you wholeness and Polish adventures.

  2. Lynn Lovegreen

    Beautiful post, Kathleen. Enjoy the new chapter of your life in Poland!

  3. Bill Sherwonit

    Kathy, good job of giving us a sense of place and also the importance of literature in Poland, past and present. And I really like the ending. All best wishes.

  4. I read this one twice. It's quite a journey you're taking, thanks for taking your readers along.

  5. http://heartworksak.net

    Dearest of Kathleens,
    I can place myself at the ten foot door, lifting hand to knock. Let me in, quickly, before the window tulips fade, while chains of swans still span bridges.
    Bring me to Poland, to climb the stairs and knock. ~ Sandy

  6. Kathleen Tarr

    Thank you dearest readers and friends for leaving your wonderful comments. We're on this journey to Polska together!

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