by Jehanne Dubrow | Contributing Writer
All those painters, all their lives looking at reality with such scrupulous attention, attention pouring out and out, and what does it give us back but ourselves?
In “The Musicians,” Jerzy Duda-Gracz paints people, buildings, skies, and earth so that all things have the same texture, noses and clouds bulbous, fabric and roof shingles scraped with age. Figures are made pale by the cold, with splotches of red where wind has roughed the skin.
When my parents bring the painting home, I hate what I see. Poland is a hard place in this canvas, its citizens comical, their faces lumpen as potatoes dug up from the ground. I am certain that real art is meant to be pretty. My seventh-grade history teacher has told me about painters from distant centuries who depicted their wealthy patrons sitting alongside great glittering bowls of fruit, bodies draped in lustrous silks, cheekbones dusted with a pleasing, diffuse light, a gauzy curtain in the background, a small adoring dog.
But, here a tired man in folk costume sits with the edge of a violin held to the vulnerable spot of his neck. The bow pauses above the strings. On either side is a woman, each in the white blouse, embroidered vest, and vast floral skirt of the region known as Małopolska. One leans against the fiddler, her knees vast in their roundness. The other seems to tilt her head toward the despondent music.
There’s not much information available about Duda-Gracz in English. He was born in 1941 in Częstochowa, the southern Polish town renowned as a holy site of pilgrimage, the place where the devout go to pray before a painted icon known as the Black Madonna. The idol’s scarred face reveals her encounters with the violence of history. She is more adored for her wounds than if her skin were still untouched.
Duda-Gracz died in 2004. I look at his dates and can picture what he saw in 63 years. Buildings razed and raised. Street names changed to honor the current regime. Illicit paint sprayed jagged on the pavement. Trauma layered on top of top trauma, the pigments of one grief mixing with the shades of another.
On the right edge of “Three Generations,” a house is angled and sagging behind a fence. On the left, the three: grandmother, mother, and young child. Or should I say, babcia, matka, i dziewczynka. In a poem, I once argue that “what we remember most is the shawl / one of them wears on her shoulders, / fabric patterned like a tired field, / pink roses done with blossoming.” By the time I write these lines, I have spent decades looking at “Three Generations,” thinking about the collapsing cottage and the women who live inside it. There’s so much blue in the scene—blue tights on the toddler, blue cap, blue shirt, blue splotches of ground and sky—that the sadness feels as if it has been given an anemic hue.
In my parents’ house, at ul. Dąbrowskiego 65, I stare at the painting. I am twelve or thirteen. The grandmother could almost be mine, how she gazes back at me with a watery affection. Her wrists and ankles are sticks that could snap with some force. The house looks brittle too but remains mostly upright, no matter the occupying army in the pasture or the name of the government or what year of history.
It’s difficult to pick my favorite of the three figures. Each has her charm, the mother’s pearl earring luminous in the way of a Vermeer, the strength of the grandmother’s grip around her daughter’s hand, the child with her back to the viewer. I’ve come to love them, despite their slumped postures, because Duda-Gracz paints them with such understanding. His generosity is evident in the brown garden of the mother’s scarf, a wool fringe knotted along the edge.
To write about other people. To form their shapes with the observant brush of language, the little bristles that apply dribs of color. To ask if people are either beautiful or hideous. To choose between empathy and mockery.
The third painting is a gift to my parents from a Polish opera singer. “Brzegi, June” is a landscape with a peaked cottage in one corner, a few drooping pines, a haze of hills in the background. There are several villages called Brzegi. And, perhaps, that’s the point—the anonymity of this setting in early summer.
Landscapes are rare in Duda-Gracz’s body of work. Here, he compacts open stretches of vacant country, as if pointing to the fact that, in his best pieces, small human lives are made enormous. Now that they are absent, I miss the people, the raw soil of their faces, the way they touch one another, head to chest, or knee to knee, the sensitive oil paint of their bodies.
Recently, far-removed from the Poland of my childhood, I write a poem about a man who tried to destroy my career. I think about his face, ruddy around the nose and cheeks. More than once, I saw him shamble from his office in the afternoon. Or I saw his door closed and pictured a bottle of amber liquid on his desk, a plastic cup crumpled in the trash. There were times when I sat close enough to him that I could see the red not as a tint flushed across his skin but as a map of livid lines.
I say of him in the poem: “In those meetings, I watched the veins / in his face like cracks in a disappointed street. / Were it not for his cruelty, I might have said, / I’m sorry for your loss. Who knows.” It takes many drafts before I can render, not just the contempt in his voice when he spoke to me but also how he must have hated his own failures. I find a little empathy in myself, like someone scooping the last cup of flour from the bottom of a cotton sack. I’m sorry for your loss, I write. I don’t know what he lost; it must have been significant for him to have looked at me so angrily. Once, during a particularly hostile conversation, he turned on me with such fury that I thought he might leap across the gray table between us, his hands suddenly around my throat, squeezing and squeezing my voice back down into my chest.
This is small history. It doesn’t contain tanks and soldiers. It isn’t a country erased from a map for 120 years. It’s the intimate, ordinary sort of narrative that forms between people over many weeks and months, when they speak or don’t in conference rooms and hallways, the war that develops when colleagues say with all due respect.
As in painting so in poetry. I keep attempting to evoke the “disappointed street” of the man’s sad face. But compassion. Gentleness. For now, the best I can do is to take the ugliness that once existed between us, placing it within the considered frame of a page.
And then on the internet, I find a sheet of Polish postage stamps featuring a fourth painting by Duda-Gracz (each stamp labeled 1,35 zloty, the equivalent of 37 American cents). “Autoportret,” the painting is called called. Self-portrait. When the stamps arrive, I rest the block of perforated rectangles in my hands, eighteen miniature Duda-Graczes watching me. Like a satyr at a feast, he’s wearing a wreath of flowers on his head, the garland slipping almost to cover his eyes. He has the gray walrus mustache favored by Polish men of the late twentieth century—the same facial hair of steel workers, political activists, and presidents. His belly rounds beneath a white undershirt.
I like this self-portrait. It seems to say: I don’t flatter anything, not even my own image. In another recent poem, I return again to that year during which the man tried to destroy my career. This time, I write, “And I, was I the weeping or the stinging, / Io or insect, pursuing myself through / the iridescent cruelty of that year.” It’s the myth of the gadfly. I can’t decide if suffering is visited upon me like a winged pest or if I’m responsible for what the poem calls “the reds welts that mean living.” But when I describe my hands opening a bottle of pills or holding the telephone to my ear, I am inclined to speak gently about the pressure of my fingertips on these hard surfaces. And if Duda-Gracz can paint everything ugly-beautiful—his own mustache, a piece of countryside, the hat tilting on a musician’s head—then I can remember that often to write about others is to write about the self.
The Duda-Gracz depicted in “Autoportret” would be comfortable sitting near the violinist, listening to a nocturne played in a minor key. Or I could imagine the painter talking to the old woman and her daughter. Maybe he has a caramel in his pocket for the grandchild—krówki, as the candies are known, little cows. He is tired from walking, and they ask him inside for a glass of tea. Everyone sits at the table with its uneasy legs.
Duda-Gracz and the women are used to broken things; they rest their elbows on the wood to stop its wobble. And although the artist is already considering how he might paint these three generations, he isn’t removed from them. When they offer him a slice of a macowiec, he takes a huge bite of the cake. And when he laughs with the women, all of them laughing, the poppy seeds stuck between his teeth look like tiny ants crossing a road of shining, white stones.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of six books of poetry, including most recently Dots & Dashes, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017). Her first book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes, will be published by New Rivers Press in 2019. And her seventh poetry collection, American Samizdat, was one of the winners of the Diode Editions Book Contest and will be published in 2019. She is an Associate Professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.