by Karolina Manko
• Somewhere in a country I was born to but haven’t been to, there is a small white house that knows all the secrets I suspect to be mine. It has been built for hiding- my great-grandfather raised the floor so he could hide the neighbors from Germans. Generations later, the handmade fortress holds. Somewhere in the attic of this house are all of my childhood toys- abandoned, suddenly, the summer we moved to America. In my dreams, I move through this home barefoot. Its curtains billow during thunderstorms, as the water sloshes heavily from the gutters. I know the shape of the long hallways and sloped ceilings. I have smelled the way the rooms hold summer air. This house is proof that memory is a strange net to work with.
When my mother first told me about my father’s other wife, I finally stopped grieving his death. When she told me about his four other children, I began to believe in magic. Connection works like this: you feel it even if you never choose to. It’s cosmic; but even more simply it’s tidal. I am no stranger to the identity of push-and-pull. I keep one eye on the moon. The rubber-band of my life stretches over the largest oceans.
My grandmother doesn’t understand me. When I cobble two languages together for the sake of ease and efficiency, she slams down her dinner plate, points a finger in my face, and tells me I have no business being an Amerikanka. The word sours everyone’s appetite. I stop eating the food of my childhood. I pack my suitcases and begin to move again in the way that lost things do.
• From the rooftop in Harlem, I note the constellations and think “It’ll be Autumn soon.”Orion’s Belt, that crisp lasso of light, will be visible once more. “We’ve named so much into existence. How incredible.” I often wonder if language marks that which is real, validates the space a thing belongs to. Orion’s Belt: three stars but one name. Where is the line between them?
Jay asks me how much of my old life I remember. “Y’know, before you came to America.” I tell him about a metal playground between two tall co-ops, the black lake we used to go fishing in on weekends, the stray dog named Pearl whose puppies once followed me into a forest full of mushrooms. All details coming together like constellations from so great a distance. I often sit and marvel at the volume of traffic in other people’s recollections. Whole galaxy of memories, like a spilled jar of glitter. While I sit naming everything: “Before” and “After.”
Jay hands me another 40 oz. bottle of beer and we turn our bodies back toward the rows of light below. From the ledge of the old tenement, El Barrio is an out-of-tune guitar. Streets straight as strings, buzzing with a sound I can’t decode. All things at a great, unmovable distance unfolding.
“This is how I know my mother’s country.”
• By the end of the week I have a college degree. By the end of the month I am in the backseat of a Subaru Baja pulling a U-Haul trailer down the state highway towards something different. Alabama is as open as I am. Field after field, like a series of welcome mats. I am in love with a man who plays blues guitar and has a Baptist education. I am twenty-two and filled with howling, drunk on an old Southern memory. I am certain I know who I am; and the speed at which I travel is thrilling.
The South is spacious and always guarding itself against acquiring too much. It holds tightly to its rituals of purge. “Stay simple”, it whispers. I spend my first few nights in Alabama laying on my back on the hood of a truck tracing the outlines of star clusters. “Who rules me?” Everything here feels familiar in a strange way: like the way a mouth full of water feels like drinking, just before it feels like drowning.
This is where, months into it, I meet a red-dirt road that runs its tongue against a field of soy; and finally I feel the weight of endlessness. What a tragedy the body can be. It is constantly being interrogated, asked to define and identify, to authorize and authenticate. It carries the burden of details, of orientation- of knowing where it is and how it relates to the space that holds it. One name up against another name- which is real? What a stupid thing to cage the cage of it: to trap it with a comfortable plan, a safe strategy, a dark man with sad eyes who’s hungry to hold still. While everywhere life exists in all places at once, beckoning me to move through it without settling. There, on that road under the gaping giant of totality, it speaks to me:
“Go where you must go. Belonging is irrelevant.”
Karolina Manko is a Polish-born immigrant who grew up in New York. She is a recipient of the 2012 Esther Unger Poetry Prize as well as the 2012 David Markowitz Poetry Award. In 2016 she was a general contributor at the Bread Load Writers’ Conference. Her work can be found at Magma Poetry, FreezeRay Poetry, Toasted Cheese, DecomP Magazine, and various other journals. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @k_manks