Helen Jaskoski

Helen Jaskoski

Helen Jaskoski was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at California State University Fullerton from 1970 until retirement in 2003.  She also taught at Stanford University, the University of California at Irvine, California State University Los Angeles, California State University Dominguez Hills, the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont and the Poetry Therapy Institute of Los Angeles.  She was Resident Director of the California State University program in Florence, Italy in 1982-83.  Her field of interest is American multi-ethnic literature with a specialization in American Indian literatures.  Books include a critical study of the fiction of Leslie Marmon Silko, an edition of critical essays on early Native American writing, a detective novel in a series of ESL readers, and a handbook on poetic forms.  One of her earliest publications appeared in Kwartalnik Neofilologiczny, and her latest conference presentation was in Warsaw for the 2010 conference on Postcolonial Discourse.  She was a member of Multi-Cultural Writers of Southern California and published poems and creative work in their anthology, Sowing Ti Leaves and in other anthologies and periodicals.

When I try to remember my time in Poland, the year I spent as Fulbright lecturer at Marie Curie-Sklodowska University and the two summers I taught in the Poznan seminar, I think of the students I taught and met and was ever indebted to.  There was only one rule, I told each class: when they were with me, everyone must speak English, not just to me but to each other as well.  I would accept all invitations and sometimes call on them for help.  They were hospitable and generous with their time and talents.  What I remember: conversations in tea rooms, cafes, restaurants, riding crowded buses to visit country villages, hospitality in homes and flats, horseback riding lessons, sometimes little get-togethers in my tiny apartment.  When I was a student myself back in pre-history my own mind was awakened in such off-class debates and dialogues with my fellow students, and I hoped something similar might take place in Lublin with my students.  Now some of them are professors of English and American Studies.  I hope that all of them were able to benefit in some way from that injunction: “English, please.”

Colleagues who remain in memory were consistently generous and kind.  Leszek Kolek and his family invited me as a guest more than once; I particularly remember Leszek’s father, a musician.  Bob and Danuta Marek remained friends through the years; on his first Fulbright in the U.S. Bob became friends with my mother, a few years later we were able to meet Magda when they spent Christmas with us.  Maria Dakowska also visited me in California when she had study grants.  Then there were the unforgettable James Cormick, British Council lecturer, and the legendary Alina Szala.

In May of 2010 my husband and I visited Warsaw, Lublin and Mazury.  I wanted to see what had changed since 1975, when I had last been in Poland.  Whenever people asked what the changes seemed like I was at a loss for words.  I could not help thinking of Rip van Winkle.  What was different?  There was traffic, there was advertising–no longer novelties–but that did not seem to explain much.  Then it occurred to me that whenever we got tea it came in cups with a little English-style teapot.  Now drinking tea from a glass was something I had always thought of as a charming Polish if not general eastern European custom, and besides I liked the idea of everyday glass of such high quality.  I had regretted not bringing back a set of tea glasses when I went home in the 70s, and thought I might even buy some this time.  But they were not to be seen.  Whatever happened to tea glasses, I asked.  Oh, everyone was so happy to be rid of tea glasses.  Who knew that tea glasses were apparently weighted with political subtext.  So much was strange and disorienting. There is no denying a faster pace of life, an energy and liveliness.  I’m still trying to figure it all out.

Because I was the only American in Lublin I sometimes was called on to assist or entertain other Americans passing through.  There was a couple who came for a few weeks to confer with a mathematician.  I asked them what they would like to see, and they said Majdanek, so I took them there.  I had not gone before.  The camp was a deserted, empty place, unreadable to anyone who did not know its history.  Some years later I wrote a poem.  I never dreamed that in 2010 I would be shown the entrance to a secret base in Mazury where Americans sequestered “special” prisoners.

 

MAJDANEK, APRIL 1973

It looks like any meadow.  Sheep might safely

graze here, or lie oblivious to the April

drizzle.  These buildings should be barns, or should

have been.  But were.  Terminology

will fail us: built for beasts, vacant now,

weathered to mellow brown they mutely stand

windowless, dark and blank.  We wait in vain

to sense past horrors: even the barbed wire

coiled in the ditches glistens with raindrops

sweetening the tangled weeds.  Pastoral thoughts

persist, until the future impinges on

the mind.  Too quaint.  Too picturesque, the place

is too available.  Ready for use,

it stands.  We would tear it down.  But worse

to forget, some say.  The residue of sin

colossal not original.  There is

no remedy for past or future here:

only the think itself.  We can make

nothing of it, forever.

(c) Multicultural Women Writers 1990

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