Polalka by Karolina Zapal
Spuyten Duyvil, June 2018
134 pages / Amazon
“An immigrant moves as water / evaporates: / in vibrations caused by heat or as the extraction / of sediment. Return is possible, / but only as rain,” (Zapal, 54). In her fearless debut, Karolina Zapal’s Polalka is a hybrid collection that explores belonging and un-belonging, as a woman and Polish immigrant. As she weaves together language and her experience living and traveling between countries, Zapal creates a transitory space that extends beyond borders.
Throughout this multilayered collection, the author and speaker are suspended in the space between familiar and unfamiliar, here and there: “Remember borders exist by attempting to cross them” (92). Polalka allows readers to pass over personal and national borders, carried along by stirring and vital words that move through the body and punctuate the page. Polalka is an embodiment of relocation, a text in which the author-speaker traverses girlhood and womanhood within a liminal space of belonging: “Authorization sounds like otherization, what they do when they help me belong” (75).
Polalka’s structure as a hybrid work of poetry, prose, image, and diagram deliberately rejects narrativity, rather it exists as a lyrical exploration of Zapal’s memory and ancestry. Her parents’ emigration from Poland to Chicago through the Diversity Visa Lottery and her delayed I-130 Petition for Alien Relative application both act as autobiographical anchors in what is a truly remarkable and expansive investigation of language, religion, gender, and culture. Zapal writes the body as a borderless space, creating an interrogation of emigration and legibility: “Only when I become legible, I become legal eligible” (40). She marks and unmarks border crossings and maps, documents her and her family’s movements, and locates her body in unbounded national space.
Zapal tells readers, “I am from a European country, / a place where pizza is a delicacy, / and the letters Q and V do not exist” (44). She writes of growing up in the space between: between Poland and America, between speaking Polish and English, between what it means to be Polish and American: “I grow up to be transit or transistor” (95). She calls into question what it means to dwell elsewhere, as both and neither, while examining government structures designed to alienate and exclude immigrants from a sense of safety and acceptance: “But now, travel holds me hostage. / It is my host, and my migrant bodies replicate within, / like a virus. / I want desire everywhere.” (91)
Polalka opens and punctures a space of engaged language and offers up the text as performance. It urges readers to recite, mouth the words, and engage with the language on the page. She observes how embedded language is within a culture and nation: “A nation can’t stake claim without language, / but language has no basis without land” (50). As we drift from out-of-focus family photos and erasures to photocopies of Visas and letters of correspondence, we arrive at the edge of the untranslatable, unanswerable, and undefined. Zapal poses the question, “What’s in language that isn’t meant to live? / What’s a symptom of language that outlives it?” (58)
Caught between two languages and two cultures, Zapal negotiates a new social space embedded in the essence of the immigrant experience. She uses language as material and as a way to return to the body, to a multiple sense of self: “The longer time dreams of place, the farther from that place I lose the yellow-orange stucco and three sweeping floors in the country HOME HoMe Home home hom om O. I lose the exactitude. It becomes a part of my body” (43). Ultimately, Zapal illustrates what it means to be caught between two worlds and how regret and hope can reside in the same space. “I fell hard into America, leaving behind a thread that has over the years pooled and knotted in the space between my past and present self” (9) writes Zapal. Readers are asked to follow her thread through a labyrinth of “shuffling consonants / or / continents” (95). She traces the thread from girlhood to womanhood.
Interrogating the gendered nature of language and status, Zapal writes: “Immigrant of woman status: every traditional Polish name for a girl ends in a. He’s on, and she’s ona. Abstinent a, abducted a, abortive a…In English, a assumes an article with the headline: HERE IN aMERICa OUR NaMES aRE NOT GENDERED, which is the most difficult to learn if born into classifying end / stop.” (62) As she meditates upon her traditional Polish Catholic upbringing, Zapal examines and remembers her girlhood traveling between Poland and America. From girlhood to womanhood, there is a sense of disembodiment the author-speaker experiences, perhaps due to rigid Catholic ideals regarding gender, sex, and eroticism. She writes, “I morph into a woman during sex / who’s willed into the role of her surroundings and cannot com- / prehend the estranged physicality of her body.” (74)
She continues, “They translate me into a man. I am / a woman. To survive, I reduce my thoughts / to a normative whirring: look at the TV, cry at this book” (74) This mimicry as a form of survival forces Zapal to adhere to oppressive gender roles dictated by a guilt-imposing patriarchal hierarchy. Referencing abortion ban strikes and unpassed abortion laws in Poland, Zapal discusses the expectations of Polish girls to “abstain from sexual conduct until marriage,” (64) “oblige to ceremonious abduction of her will,” (64) and “abort abortion” (72). Like language is embedded in a landscape, “A man cannot stake claim without a woman, / but a woman has no basis without a man” (68). A woman is considered a foreign text, therefore unreadable, and must be translated: “…when the text appears foreign, we’re inclined to implant our own / thoughts as to what lurks on the page” (74).
Polalka shows readers that to migrate to another country is to migrate to another memory: “Allows the child to forget / but remember the forgetting, / which sounds foreign because it’s foraging, / scavenging the empty space that a rose / can burn.” (96) Zapal inhabits the liminal space of constant departures and arrivals. However, she shows readers that home can inspire feelings of belonging and empowerment that may come from existing in between worlds and embracing multiple, intersecting identities. Our notions of identity, transition, and transformation, and the translation of language are called into question. Finally, the very idea of documenting who or what a person fundamentally is, is challenged.
Polalka’s elaborate architecture and palimpsestic layering prevents the work from settling, from keeping still. It’s a collection that’s in constant motion, always leaving and arriving, but never quite settling. Zapal’s sentences stutter, digress, and press on. Her words metamorphose before our very eyes, conjuring memories as fragments—an entanglement of smothered roots, ponderosa pines, and her grandmother’s making pierogi, naleśniki, and czerwony barszcz z uszkami in the kitchen. To say that Polalka is a thought-provoking and versatile text is a vast understatement. This timely and necessary collection offers readers urgent and daring insight into the life of a young woman connecting her past and present selves.
Sarah Alcaide-Escue is a writer, artist, and editor at The Adirondack Review and Plath Profiles. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from Naropa University where she served as a Graduate Writing Fellow and received the Leslie Scalapino Award and the Robert Creeley Scholarship. Sarah has been selected to attend national and international residencies and seminars including the Creative Process Residency at Greywood Arts, the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and Writers in Paradise. Her written and visual work appear in Atticus Review, DIAGRAM, Bombay Gin, Permafrost Magazine, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, and Mud Season Review, among others. Her chapbook Bruised Gospel is forthcoming from The Lune in 2020. You can visit her website at www.sarahescue.com.