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Summer 2016 - Book Review by Michael Fallon
"Face Half Illuminated"

Face Half Illuminated
by Danuta Kosk-Kosicka
Apprentice House, 2015
$12.99, 70 pages
ISBN: 978-1627200455

Danuta E. Kosk Kosicka's Face Half–Illuminated is actually two small collections of sixteen poems each; the first by Danuta and the second by Danuta's mother, the Polish poet, Lidia Kosk, translated from the original Polish into English by Danuta. It also contains a four page introduction, Turning to Poetry, and a four page essay, A Note on Translating, at the end of the book, both by Danuta.

Face Half–Illuminated is a book that attempts to reconcile dichotomies: present and past, war and peace, English and Polish, daughter and mother; the pleasures of the art of poetry with the pain of violence, suffering, and loss. At times the poet is in suspense between these dichotomies, as in the opening poem, "Face Half–Illuminated, Half in Shadow," a poem which Danuta actually wrote in the air while on a return flight over the Atlantic Ocean—literally suspended between her native Poland and the U.S.—her adopted country. In one sense, the poem is a return to the present and the future from out of the past:

               ....In Warsaw
     concealed by heaven
     my parents sleep
     at twelve am. On I–95 in Maryland
     at 6 pm my husband and son are nearing
     the place where I will touch the earth (7).

Many of Danuta's sensually vivid, open form poems travel back and forth in memory between her present life in America and her childhood in Poland—where for a time, because of the Communist Government's decree of martial law—she was cut off from the place of her birth and childhood, as well as from her parents. The poems return to her childhood in dream and memory like a tongue to a wound. As in the beginning of "Lilac Lilacs" where Danuta dreams of lilacs along the road to her mother's native village:

     A big branch of lilac. Lilac.
     Like the ones along the village road.
     The carriage wheels through sand,
     yellow splashes of warblers whir
     through the fragrance. Lilac smells
     like...lilac—May in Poland, warm days,
     evenings not willing to sleep, simmering
     desires. And then the verses
     sound, better than any before...(10).

A poem begins to form in the poet's dream, the best she has ever composed as she glides "through the air of music /toward luminous mountains" (10). And sees herself as one of Chagall's floating figures only to wake at last with the memory of the smell of lilacs, the poem vanished. Other poems like "Coffee with Carya" and "Holiday Morning in the Tatra Mountains" recall joyfully the ancestral home "...the house and the well and fruit trees,/ like an altar, above the world..." saved from the destruction of time as memory is saved in poetry (12, 22).

Another poem, "Once she is here we will" imagines an idealized visit from the poet's mother where the family goes to the beach and can "arrange years of photographs/ which Lidia missed," And she can "see her grandson the first time he/ met the ocean's weave and roar—his feet/ gliding over the mirrored shore..." (15). But the visit never takes place in the hurried occasions when grandmother Lidia is briefly reunited with her daughter and grandchild, and must again, make the journey home across the Atlantic: "for now she is on the plane/ back through time zones/ earthskyocean/ in minute panes/ leaving" (16).

There is one poem in Danuta's collection that recalls World War II indirectly, titled, "My Mother at Twelve." In the poem, told in her mother's voice, the poet is remembering a story of her mother's about waiting in a bread line and then cycling the road home to find: "...German soldiers rounding up people, / my friend Hana among them." Then. "The soldier points his gun at my chest. I trip and fall; a bullet wails." And:

     "When darkness lifts,
     I see trampled bread on the empty road" (8).

Though Danuta is of the generation born after the war, she nonetheless shares the traumatic echoes of war, the Nazi occupation and the Communist takeover of Poland. The simple fact that at one point Danuta cannot go back to Poland and her parents are trapped there under martial law clearly shows that war and its aftermath reverberate through the lives of this extended family divided by history/ tragedy/ time zones/ and the Atlantic. Yet paradoxically, it is the very obstacles they have in common which they must confront and even embrace to be reunited.

In the second half of the collection, many of Lidia Kosk's poems, powerfully translated by her daughter, enact memories of the war years burned forever into Lidia's consciousness and attempt some kind of standoff or reconciliation with them. In the poem, "Our Children," Lidia muses, somewhat ironically, about how the children have been spared the war and yet:

     When they started hearing, they heard
     guns and bullets rattle
     in the stories
     about the invasion, about the war

     When they started seeing, they saw
     people being killed...(30).

Wars are never quite over. They are part of our inheritance, a birthright of suffering and grief, which is passed from generation to generation. In the poem, "In the Current of the River" for instance, Lidia recalls the slaughter of Poles by Germans. After the massacre, the poem concludes, "People will not return to their homes, the river/will flow, the alders will grow and hide the bodies"(28). Yes, the river will continue to flow—and now and again we will see the bodies, but we must live on, if we want to live at all, in gratitude and love.

     And living on is what the poems in Face Half Illuminated, painfully but beautifully, accomplish. Within the last poem in Danuta's collection "Poetry Dialogue," Danuta is reading a translation of her mother's poem "A Chance" aloud:

     To live
     I need, like air
     human kindness..." (24, 44).

Here, the voices of mother and daughter become one in peace.


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