Two Poems by Isla McKetta

Reading the Firebird I Loose Lifetimes

Child of Reagan, what if the Russian boogeyman
is my blood? Ukrainian eggs and epicanthic folds,
I have to re-check our date of arrival to see if we fled 
pogroms or incited them. Massie says the serfs were rich 
and I wonder why we left to shunt coal,
if we could have survived 1932—
the Holodomor not the Holocaust’s hólos, simply 
the hunger death of ten million. Or if Koroschenko, 
the pretty little village in Western Galicia was Polish 
then. Djiedo said we were always Ukrainian, not knowing, 
perhaps, that Ruthenian was once the word—
he, born a hunky in Western Pennsylvania, legendarily 
only spoke Ukrainian until seventeen (or was it three) 
and recorded our origins, too, as Korotchenko 
and Kanich—more places that do not exist on internet maps 
trimmed by revolutions. And though my Cyrillic is bad, 
the Polish I learned in a year recovering my roots tastes 
the nearness of гарненьке село to Koroschenko. 
Closer than McKetta to Mixima, when Ms have to be Ts 
(but only half are) and I can find Koroshenko the composer 
and Korotchenko the politician (though he was East Galician)— 
the connection as dead as my ancestors (who would have 
used patronymics anyway), so I’ll never know which colors 
belong on my vyshyvanka, only that the center should be plain, 
hidden (like my married red-gold braid) behind ropes 
of coral, not the amber koraliki I bought in Gdańsk 
(despite the cognizance). Orange beads the color of 
revolution (not like Wednesday’s attempted coup) and Texas, 
the school he loved. Coral like I’d collected in Dubrovnik, 
where my language accents local. I’ll never know 
why I like Klezmer music and my hair only makes sense 
in a plaited crown, simply that embroidering on cold winter nights
brings me peace in this country of machine-made expend-
ability. In a week so long I can barely spell my name 
(even Romanly), let me be nationalist, now, when I don’t know 
what that is. Let me joke about eating Kolya after watching 
Mr. Jones and wonder about the Kievan Rus who once ruled— 
if they gave me my hair, or, because I am only ¼, the Danes 
who took England, and maybe I should celebrate my Welsh—
a people unconquered (by Danes anyway), except 
I look bad in tophats. So am I Swedish? Anglo? Saxon? 
Does it matter if my Scots-English blood is 400 years
diluted, so thin no one’s left to remember arriving here, 
wherever they came from—all I carry is memories of the man 
who lay dying two years ago this week. The man with the bushy 
eyebrows with whom I counted thawed pierogi: odyn, dva, try 
as we tried to share something neither of us really had.
Cześć Wojtek (Wojtka Nie Ma)

From our bus to Sixth Street I pace you, every morning, 
your stringy brunet Lurching beside wide hips, 
Farrah feather hair, not Monika’s waist-length auburn. 
Side looks at your baby face, small eyes disprove (again) 
time travel from a 1995 Toruń when Monika exchanged 
winnowy punk rock jeans and tee for an open-necked red floral 
and piled all that fire atop her head. Just us three in a field 
with your leaping dog. Your economist eyes invited me 
into your modern Catholicism, assessing as you told me
about a disappeared condom et by a cat. 
In flawless English you asked me to interpret lyrics 
I’d always accepted and explained the coming backlash 
when your newly free people would vote against themselves 
for the smallest securities. That day I toured the flat 
you’d soon share, just then hooked up to gas—
your parents’ blessing of a love that should last eternities. 
I spoke my own truths (because I did not have to hide 
from her motherly wisdom, a Hessian Eva at nineteen). 
In twenty-four years, I’ve often thought of you both, 
not just when my son dumps used condoms on my bed 
or my people vote against freedom. I never sought you out, 
“connected,” though I did wonder who you both became—
separate now, I’ve heard, but until the couple from the bus 
I didn’t know what I’ve been chasing—hidden, the memory 
of a day in the grass when we saw clear the world, 
                                         and how we were happy.

Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 (Éditions Checkpointed) and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art (Write Bloody). She writes in Seattle and serves on the board of Seattle City of Literature. Find her on Twitter at @islaisreading.

 

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