Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2014
$12.99, paperback; $4.99 Kindle edition
Oblige the Light
Baltimore: CityLit Press, 2015
ISBN 978-1-936328-20-8 $9.95
How interesting that both new books by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka have a reference to light in the title, when dark periods in history echo through many of these poems. Kosk-Kosicka, who is co-editor of the Loch Raven Review, grew up in Communist Poland. Her mother Lidia Kosk, also a writer, with 11 books of poetry and short stories, was a young girl during WWII. Those experiences inform the work of Kosk-Kosicka and her mother. In fact, 16 of Lidia Kosk’s poems, translated by her daughter, appear in Face Half-Illuminated.
The title poem in Face Half-Illuminated explores the surreal state of being in the air over the Atlantic, the strange suspension of time that occurs during jet travel, and how it feels to be in a kind of stasis between two points, with parents at one end, husband and son at the other. The speaker turns her clock back “cautiously, just one hour,” but as the jet speeds west toward the lingering sunset, the passengers “begin to believe / our powers over time” (7).
That sense of the surreal continues throughout the book, in poems that present concrete images in the here-and-now that evoke other times and places. Lilacs smell “like May in Poland” (“Lilac Lilacs,” 10); a dunked biscotti calls to mind Christmas Eve at her grandmother’s house; wind whipping against a house in early spring becomes “a child at her mother’s / long woolen coat / out there at the door / both determined and lost” and later, “dizzy, frightened, struggling” (“Dizzy Spring,” 20).
In the second half of this book, Kosk-Kosicka has translated a selection of her mother’s poetry. There are mothers and daughters in these poems, too, and grandparents, and a sense of longing. But the harshness of war intrudes everywhere. “In the Current of the River” begins with a placid scene of a river flowing past grasses and alders, but this kind of scene is where the speaker “ran from the Germans,” where “the Germans shoot / 30 Poles,” where “the alders will grow and hide the bodies” (28). While walking through the city of Lublin years after the war, the speaker’s “defenseless memory” recalls “the crash of Nazi military boots,” the “whir of a bullet,” “a dying young man / kicked to a pulp on the pavement” (31-32). Lest we mistakenly think the violence is all in the past, “Before a Human Killed with a Human” reminds us that 9/11 wasn’t so long ago, an “ordinary day” that became anything but. Yet the brutal power of these images is often offset by tenderness and beauty, like the moonrise that makes the speaker realize “all of me was a song,” (35).
These themes continue in Oblige the Light, Kosk-Kosicka’s chapbook that won the 2014 Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize. Here again are poems about war, including one that connects that older violence to todays’ mass shootings. But here also are ekphrastic poems, poems about family, and humorous, ironic poems about living in Communist Poland. In “May Day,” the speaker and her friend sneak away, bored by a long practice session of waving red flags. While their dutiful classmates shout “Long Live Proletarian Internationalism,” the two runaways stuff themselves with sugar-glazed donuts (21-22) until they are sick.
In another of Kosk-Kosicka’s outwardly amusing poems, “The Train That Leaves,” she imagines a girl getting on one of the trains we all remember from math textbooks, “leaving at the same time from two cities, A and B, / coming toward each other at different speeds.” Alice rushes to board the train leaving station A, where the “train has to leave so the school children / may begin their calculations.” In the closing lines, the poem turns darker:
Somebody tries to stop her, somebody stretches out
his arms, helps her into the carriage. The books spill
onto the platform, pages waving, words disappearing.
Alice thinks about the school, her blue math book,
and her friend she has not seen in weeks, months, years. (59)
The connection to another poem in the book, “Girl in the Red Coat,” is obvious; here, the train is much more sinister from the outset:
Do not get on the train.
Do not go through the gate.
Do not enter the chamber. (43)
In these two volumes, Kosk-Kosicka offers glimpses of despair and redemption, war and peace, inhumanity and family connection, through the skilled use of imagery, sharp observations, and sometimes wry humor. In doing so, she has created two books that shed a beautiful light.