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Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Where am I from?" by Stefan S. Sencerz

An earlier draft appeared in From Page to Stage and Back Again: The 2003 National Poetry Slam, ed. by Michael Salinger, Lucy Anderton and Regie Gibson (Wordsmith Press, 2004), pp. 20-21.

I first heard this moving poem at Southwest Shootout in Austin, Texas. To begin the poem, Stefan Sencerz instructed the crowd to phonetically pronounce the Polish tongue twister "Chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Strzebrzeszynie," and after we terribly repeated the finally assembled phrase, he said, "see how easy that was?" then proceeded to launch into the poem. It is best read while imagining it performed with an incredibly thick Polish accent.

"Where am I from?
By Stefan S. Sencerz

Over and over and over again
I great people with the usual "How are you?"
and hear "What's up? Where are you from?"

"Detroit," I say, for I spent four great years in Motown,
I left my heart in that town I found sunshine
on a cloudy day, I still root for the Pistons.

"I knew you were not from here,"
I heard in Texas where I live now
most of the time I meet with an incredulous stare
"Yeah! Right! Detroit?! Where are you really from??"

I ponder this question for the matter is serious,
feel like a beginner about to meet the Zen mind --

Where am I from, really, Who am I?
What was my face before my parents were born?
What is the sound of one hand?

I don't know. So I say, "I was born in Warsaw, Poland."
"Say something in Polish!" I hear and oblige
"Chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Strzebrzeszynie."

This sounds so weird that one can doubt it means anything, but it does:
Chrzaszcz is a scarab, a kind of beetle, "brzmi" means "resounds,"
"w" stands for "in" or "amongst," trzcina is a kind of reed,
and "Strzebrzeszyn" a name for a village.
A scarab resounds amongst reeds, in the village of Strzebrzeszyn.
Easy to say, if you are native,
some claim impossible, if Polish is your second language..

Whichg leads me to my father
it's Warsaw, 1943, the midst of the war
my father, an officer of Polish underground receives an order
to meet someone whom he had never seen before.
So they must identify each other, they exchange the password
greed each other with the usual

"Jak sie masz?"
"How are you?"
"Where are you from?"

"I am from Warsaw," my father says.
"Great," the guy continues, "I need to get some tobacco?"
"The best tobacconist is right here, right across the park,"
my father completes the password for now he knows
this is the right guy
the guy he was supposed to meet
and kill
a suspected Nazi spy.

They walk through the park.
My father pulls out a pistol, points at the guy
"You've been tried for treason , sentenced to death.
In the name of the Polskiej Rzezcpospolitej . . . "
And the guy says, "It's is some kind of mistake."
So my father says, it's no mistake, we have surveillance photos of you.
And the guy pulls out a photo of his young children
bursts into tears and swears upon their heads and the love of the virgin Mary
that he is innocent.
So, my father says, "Who are you, really? I need some proof!"
And the guy says, "Jestem Polakiem. I'm Polish."
"Chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Strzebrzeszynie,"
fluently without any mistakes.
And my father
had mercy for him, and let him go.

Sometimes I wonder how could he trust him
burdened by his orders
burdened by the trust of his friends
what would I've done had I been there?
I don't know.
I never had to kill someone who looked straight into my eyes and cried.
I still do not know where I am really from.

Stefan S. Sencerz is professor of philosophy at Texas A&M in Corpus Cristi. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Rochester in 1992. He teaches Introduction to Philosophy, Foundations of Professional Ethics, Issues in Philosophy of Religion, Environmental Ethics, Eastern Spirituality and Western Thought, War, Terrorism & Ethics, Zen: Culture and Art and Philosophy & Science Fiction.

His published papers cover ethics and moral philosophy.

He published his first poem, "Writing a Poem," in ByLine magazine, issue 224, July/August 1999, and has since been published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Freedom to Speak: National Poetry Slam 2002, and From Page to Stage and Back Again: The 2003 National Poetry Slam, di-verse-city; Anthology of Austin International Poetry Festival, 2004 (ed. Vicki Goldsberry ); a runner-up in the competition for The Christina Sergeyevna Award.

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