Erik Harper Klass

From Polish Poets in Beds with Girls and Other True Stories (Part 1)

 Café Ziemiańska, Warsaw, 1927

“In the Cafe” by Eugeniusz Zak

The little round tables are of real marble. Simple wood chairs. The floor is tiled in black and white squares, angled forty-five degrees. Paintings by Tytus Czyżewski and other formist-futurists1 hang from the walls in incongruous old-fashioned wood frames. The ceiling is low and flat and supported by square pillars, but the smoke is thick and clings up there so that one can’t escape the feeling of being immersed in a great vault, of being sheltered by great arches of dark cloud. The droshkies clatter across the cobblestones on Mazowiecka Street, the horses clip clopping like castanets. Music (of a different sort) plays from the

gramophone: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2.2 The waiters run it on a loop. The poets, all eight of them,3 are here, at a café called Ziemiańska. They have sprung babbling from the loins of Polish independence and now they open their notebooks and turn their pages and read their poems. They have begun to address themselves in the Communist/Socialist style of the second person plural. They sit in the smoke, clinking cups on saucers and leaning back in affected nonchalance, hats askew like insurrectionists. They write reviews of poetry in verse. They overuse the word bourgeois, they like the sound of it—that wonderful French zh sound—but of course they will never admit it, and besides, what are aesthetics, what are bourgeois aesthetics? The poets talk of ideology and dialectics and form and discourse and superstructures and modes of production etc. etc. etc. They all pretend to have read Das Kapital, the Russian translation (Nikolai Danielson); they carry around their dog-eared volumes, pull them out like party badges.

Yes the war had been waged and won. An independent Poland. AN INDEPENDENT POLAND! Some of the poets were soldiers who fought in Piłsudski’s Legions. They had danced with him on those Vistula plains, watched the Russians run (Piłsudski was a man who danced). But all is forgiven now. It is a time of possibility. The gap between Marxist theory and praxis is not yet a chasm, and so the poets sit in the café and smoke Russian cigarettes and lick their wounds, really just scratches, and think about utopianism and communism—a redundancy. Mayakovsky is in the city, now, today, and the poets will later hear him read. He will light the sky on fire and level the city with his words. Revolution can never be forecast. It cannot be foretold. It comes of itself, and it is here!4

And now the poets put down their drinks, snuff out their cigarettes. They rise and straighten their hats and come together. They close ranks, form a line on the black and white tiles. They put arms around shoulders, a chorus line of men in dark suits. And while their thoughts are really on love (each of them thinks of what he has left behind, on unmade beds in darkened rooms), they lift their voices high, all of them, they shout into the silver smoke:

Does the eye of the eagle fade?
Shall we stare back to the old?

They move all at once, in perfect time. Each step as if predetermined by history. They shout:

Proletarian fingers
the throat of the world
still tighter hold!

Here they are, this vanguard of the poets, this vanguard of Man. Their eyes gleam as they look to the future, as they look to the east. Some cast nervous glances over their shoulders to the west, but there is nothing to fear, here at Café Ziemiańska. Here—before the bombs have fallen, before the armies’ have surged across the plains like some disease let loose—they celebrate with words. All will be well, they tell themselves, now that Mayakovsky is here. They kick out their knees, their feet, their knees, their feet, with little quarter turns left, right, left, right, and they shout into the silver air:

Chests out! Shoulders straight!
Stick to the sky red flags adrift!
Who’s marching there with the right?!!

Łódź, 2018

We are quiet for a while, Julian Tuwim and I. The boys on their bicycle rikshas ring their bells and pedal languidly, looking for fares. Shoppers already hold bags with both hands and dance with the darting pigeons. I lean back with my arms over the top rail of his bench. My voice is tired. I would like to sit here for a while longer, but it is time to go, time to collect my books, return them to my JanSport (the books are scattered everywhere, on the bench, on the bricks at my feet, balanced carefully on his lap).

I’ll see you again, I say, rising to my feet.
I’d like that, he says.
I touch his nose, turn, and continue north up Piotrkowska, and he watches me, beneath that lowered hat. Yes, we will meet again. He is everywhere in this city. If only Rachel were so easy to find.

1 (much to the displeasure of the burgeoning social-realists)
2 Inscribed “Proletarians of the World, Unite!” B major. Op. 14, 1927.
3 Truth to tell, Jasieński is in Paris, but he is here with the other poets in spirit, as they say.
4 See Vladimir Lenin, Collect Works, Volume 28 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1965), 83 (minutus mutatis)

5 Mayakovsky, “Our March,” in Mayakovsky, 129–130.


About the writer:
Erik Harper Klass studied mechanical and manufacturing engineering at UCLA and music at Berklee College of Music. Now he writes. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Erik Harper Klass is the O:JA&L Featured Writer for December 2019.

Image: Dans le Cabaret by Eugenisz Zak (1884-1926). Oil on canvas. 39.5 x 31.5 inches. 1919-20. Public domain.