I’ve tried not to think too much about Europe, about its designs on me. It’s there, of course, in my genes and poems and politics. But how do you keep the ‘New World’ new if you’re always looking back? So I didn’t read Miłosz – not really, not well – until I was in Warsaw (‘Today neither of them is alive, / Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.’). I didn’t read Seferis until Athens (‘I awoke to find this head of marble in my arms’). I didn’t think much about Andrzej Duda and the Law and Justice Party until Trump was leading in the polls.
In the early summer of 2016 I was living in Warsaw with my wife, infant son and extended family. Every morning on my way to Łazienki Park I passed by the permanent camp outside the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, where protestors had dug in to resist attacks on the Polish constitution (and legal abortion and immigration and…). It was primary season in the US, and despite this daily reminder of how suddenly and sharply a country can turn to the right, I could hardly imagine a “President Trump.” The summer I wrote Łazienki Park was bewildering enough.
I completed the first drafts of the poem’s sections under Chopin’s gaze, as America descended into another season of mass shootings and the UK voted to leave the European Union (slipping ‘Polish vermin go home’ notecards in postboxes the following morning). I compiled the poem one month later, while traveling in Athens amidst the rubble and salvaged bronzes, Seferis’ Mythistorema as my guide to the poem’s final shape. And now I’ve made a third return to Łazienki Park, in North America in the summer of 2017, to write this. It’s our first summer with the impossible President, a summer of torches and Nazi salutes and Confederate statues. The ‘New World.’
Again and again: monuments. How we use memory as a means to forget: to surround, seal in, and cauterize the wounds. Quickly, so we can return to the battle. ‘We sought to find once more the primal seed / so the age-old drama could begin again,’ wrote Seferis in 1935. And amidst all of this: Chopin, the absent hand, the music.
Thank God for the music, I thought as I wrote that last sentence. Then I paused for a moment before recording it here nonetheless.