Tomasz Rozycki’s poem “Scorched Maps,” reprinted below, appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself. Both the poem and this guest post were translated by Mira Rosenthal, who received a grant from the PEN Translation Fund to translate Rozycki’s Colonies, a book of seventy-seven sonnets.
I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,
deeper than decades of ants. I asked
about them everywhere, but grass and leaves
have been growing, bees swarming. So I lay down,
face to the ground, and said this incantation—
you can come out, it’s over. And the ground,
and moles and earthworms in it, shifted, shook,
kingdoms of ants came crawling, bees began
to fly from everywhere. I said come out,
I spoke directly to the ground and felt
the field grow vast and wild around my head.
The poem “Scorched Maps” came out of a trip I took to Ukraine in 2004, when I was invited to a literary festival in Lwów. I took the opportunity to visit the places associated with the history of my family, who were resettled from that area after the Second World War because of the agreement between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, who won the war. At that time the borders of Poland were shifted west, and the Poles who lived in the area that was lost to the Soviet Union were transported by freight train west to Pomerania and Silesia, where I live today. These changes affected several million people, who had to abandon their homes, neighbors, traditions, memories, and God knows what else—everything that had happened on that ground for centuries. The Second World War in particular afflicted those living in this area, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians—everyone who had helped form the unusual mosaic of cultures and languages there over the centuries. They experienced the terror of Soviet occupation—mass executions and the transportation of millions of victims to the Gulag and forced labor camps deep within Russia—which met with the terror of the Nazis as the Germans, in a systematic way during the extermination of the area’s population, prepared their future “living space.” Inconceivably, at the same time a brutal domestic war continued between Ukrainian nationals, who cooperated with Hitler during the period, and the Polish resistance—a war in which neighbors murdered neighbors and the number of victims and the atrocity of what happened calls to mind ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. My family was one of those that experienced all of the terror and mourned each of the victims.
It is impossible for me to write about this poem without such a lengthy introduction, which is probably unnecessary in the end and obscures more than it illuminates. I went to Ukraine with all of this on my mind in an attempt to free myself from this terrible history. I went to the spot where my grandmother’s house stood before the war. My ninety-year-old grandmother—when she found out I would be going there for the first time so many years after the nightmare of the war—wanted me to tell her if there was any sign of her house left, even though she didn’t have much illusion that there would be. Yet she couldn’t help but hope that there would still be a brick shrine with the figure of Our Lady standing in front of the house, some kind of specific recognizable sign of the house and her entire life there, Our Lady who—as my grandmother believed—saved her and her children’s lives many times.
Despite the fact that I had a small map drawn according to my grandmother’s memory, I wasn’t able to find the house or the shrine. Out of everyone living there, I couldn’t find anyone who remembered her or anyone whatsoever from the neighbors she had mentioned, regardless of whether I used a Polish, Ukrainian, or Jewish surname. So I wandered around the forest, around the meadows and fields. It was already getting dark, and I felt more and more desperate and awful. I even thought that I must have gotten the spot mixed up, that it was all a big misunderstanding. And just when I had to leave for my return train to Lwów, I found someone who helped me, who showed me the way. There wasn’t a house, or a shrine, not even a tree remained in the garden—someone had rubbed out all the signs. But I found one of my grandmother’s neighbors, an old woman who remembered how they used to play together when they were young. She showed me the one thing that remained of the house—a brick cellar, half-buried, next to a dirt road that runs today over the spot where the house once stood. It was the only reminder of all the people whose tracks I was searching for.
When I returned, I found out that my friend, Jacques Burko, the translator of my poetry into French, carried out a similar journey a month later in search of traces of his Jewish family. I then wrote this poem and dedicated it to him.
Tomasz Rozycki has published six books of poetry, including Colonies, The Forgotten Keys, and the book-length poem “Twelve Stations,” winner of the Koscielski Prize. He has been nominated twice for the Nike Prize, Poland’s most important literary award. He lives in his hometown, Opole, with his wife and two children.
Mira Rosenthal has received NEA and Fulbright grants and held fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere. Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, Slate, Notre Dame Review, and other journals. She is also the translator of Tomasz Rozycki's The Forgotten Keys.