In the new chapbook Pilsen Snow by Philip C. Kolin, who kindly sent me this chapbook for review, the first verse of the first poem “Eden in Pilsen” immediately gets us grounded in what was once the second largest Czech neighborhood in the world:
“The new world they searched for in Pilsen
squeezed them onto lots,
20 by 95 feet long,
a bungalow to birth a family of nine,
a three flat close enough on hot summer nights
to reach out and touch the melting tar
on the flat roof of the building next door.”
Those lines introduce us, visually and matter-of-factly, to this community in Chicago where:
“The air moaned it had no place to go.
No place for anything green.
Here is where they looked for paradise.”
The sounds and sights bequeathed to us in this opening poem sweep across the neighborhood, while the next poem, “Speaking Czech,” gives insight into inner lives where:
“They lived in two worlds at once
but not at the same time.
Their homeland was real;
America demanded an act of the imagination.”
What a profound picture of the situation immigrants from almost any country most likely encounter! Instead of paradise, they find themselves located between memories still easy to envision and the hope but unclear picture of what might be.
As Editor of The Southern Quarterly and “Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi,” poet Philip C. Kolin has certainly distinguished himself in his work and many books, showing that, eventually, a peoples’ hopes and dreams may be fulfilled. He might not like my pointing that out, though, as his poems reveal a highly observant eye and mind not given to focusing on the self. He’s more apt to think about saints, politicians, mothers dressing their infants in Czech flags, or boys in mischief.
In “First Confessions,” for instance, the poet brings to life the “curtained box/ in the far corner of the church, closest/ to the vestibule where the ushers lingered,/ smelling of cigarettes and Vitalis before mass” as boys speculated on rumors:
“Another was sure it was God’s private elevator –
the green light on the top meant anyone in there
at the time was going straight to heaven –
as fast as God could call the angels
to pick him up and fly him out of there
before anyone knew he’d gone missing.”
Among the missing, albeit alive, was the beautiful, talented mid-twentieth century movie star from the poet's hometown, Kim Novak, to whom he wrote:
“You disappeared early into stardom
shaped by what the studio wanted to showcase.
On screen, you laughed.
Off, you cried.
You were not cut out for Hollywood.”
Eventually missing, too, was the first voice of Pilsen, where residents might be more inclined now to speak Spanish, and yet, in the closing poem, “Czech Hieroglyphics,” we see remnants of “some boy’s initials from the 1940’s/ squint underneath” a re-lacquered pew and learn:
“The sunlight no longer speaks
with a Slavic accent in Pilsen,
but it still highlights the buildings
where the Czechs left behind
their future plans in hieroglyphs.”
Etchings on school lintels and names fading on mailboxes leave hieroglyphs, reminders of a passing time and former neighbors who now live together only in the proximity of these poignant pages published by Finishing Line Press.
©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer in all genres
Pilsen Snow, paperback chapbook