Magically and realistically, violently and affectionately, Karen Kovacik in Metropolis Burning interweaves the minute particulars of people’s lives. The tantalizing power of these poems lies in a quivering balance between magic, beauty, empathy, violence, realism and affection for what is distorted and uncanny. They recuperate each moment by denouncing and “magicalizing” it.
Part of the book is dedicated to Warsaw. Kovacik investigates her Polish roots without sentimentalizing or idealizing them, but by giving voice to her relatives and friends. The poems are not self expressions. They offer dybbuks, half-lives that ended too soon but to whom the poems give the blessings of more life. In “Versions of Irena,” Kovacik recalls her aunt through the minutest details. Somehow through short chronological statements we are invited to moments of kairos and timely utterance:
When she was five, her great delight was gooseberry juice.
At seven, she experienced the strangeness of books.
When she was ten, her beloved uncle expired at the table
In the voice of anonymous male, we hear a fable which acutely encapsulates a Polish mentality:
The Bridegroom caught me by the shoulder and pulled me to the kitchen. Before me was a beer mug long as my arm. Drink, he commanded. As soon as I did, he poured me another, foamy and dark as the last. Then he brought out a steaming round loaf and urged me to eat. I hesitated, not wanting to seem greedy. Eat, he bellowed. You‘ll dishonor me if you don’t. I tore into the bread, burning my fingers
In Kovacik’s poetry, each moment of violence has its recuperative moment of lyrical beauty.
Here is a fragment from a poem on Warsaw:
A City of lavender pigeons
Strutting for new mates
City of aphrodisiac kasha
And noirish eel.
City I still struggle to capture
In charcoal. Whose churches
I can never make pregnant.
But Metropolis Burning is not just a book about Poland. It also evokes and embodies other European and American cities and their inhabitants whom Kovacik’s poetry turns into artists. At times her art offers prayer.
Here is a conversation with saints:
Help me to bear my fate,
You who come in praise of the miniature—
Cells of wax, cells of notes
Humming before the choristers,
Each thorax of ink
Soaring on its own black wings
At times the prayer becomes celebratory. Kovacik is able to change even a city directory into poetry because it too also embodies other people’s lives. The collection ends with antiphony in “Songs for a Belgrade Baker”:
Blessed are the Slovenes, for they are the cake-makers
Blessed are the Croats, for they excel at fish
Blessed the Macedonian, for their black wine gave birth to philosophy
Blessed, too, the Bosnians for the subtlety of their tongues—who else would season veal with lemon and hibiscus?
Blessed the Herzegovinians, for their silver wine strengthens friendships
Blessed the Serbs, for their bean soup makes foreign clerics sweat
Blessed the Albanians for their love of cinnamon
And blessed are the olive trees and vineyards, goats and sheep, for they serve both parable and table
Blessed are the mint and dill, for they are the peacemakers
And blessed the yeast and sponge, the sour-gray loaves, for they have inherited the earth
To this ending, one might add Karen Kovacik as well for she also saves the world with a beauty that reminds us of the origins of poetry in song, praise, and wonder at the lives of others.