Finding my grandfather



Selected poems



Finding my grandfather


There is the photograph

of my father's father in military uniform,

an Austrian, serving in the Polish cavalry

in World War I, standing ramrod straight.


It is he whom I think of when

I find myself dowsing my genome for

answers regarding my origin, the deep

pull that draws me to the late symphonies


of Mozart, Rilke's angelic mysticism, and,

as a child, to Krapfen and Apfelstrudel.

However, how could I ever discount

the perpetual awe I find in Chopin's Etudes


and the wonder of the first and second

piano symphonies, the lyrical madness

in the short stories of Bruno Schulz.

That grandfather died shortly after returning


to his farm from the results of having been

a victim of a mustard gas attack in the war.

There are no photographs

of my mother's father, who it is said I am


a namesake, since she never fully recovered

from his premature death in an automobile

accident in New Jersey while driving home

in his Model-T Ford one stormy evening,


the spokes of two of the spinning wheels

splashing with falling rain as the car lay

on its side, overturned in a roadside ditch.

This was the grandfather who I heard


was beloved, and was referred to as being

reciprocal of such love in return. This

grandfather leaves no image from which I can

gaze, only the darkness from which he drank.


There needs not to be a photograph for

the grandfather I did have, known as Grandpa

Gorski, whom my mother's mother married

after the death of her Waju. This man I would


come to know as a boy of three, until he died,

three years later, when I had arrived at my full

precocity at the age of six. This grandfather

was not a true grandfather but more of one than


any of the others, the one who was the reconciler,

the steady one who intervened with wisdom,

who provided calm to the warring factions of my

father and grandmother, who resided in a house


of hysterics. I remember finding resolute trust

in this man in whom I recognized equanimity.

Moments before his death, he called for me,

and my grandmother took me to see him in their


room, so he could hear my playing ukulele for

him, a smile spread on his face beneath

the darkened circles around his eyes. How I can

still feel the hand he placed on my head, briefly,


before removing it, whereupon, he vacated

the body he had in that life, and, at least in my

imagination, arose into the storm winds that filled

the hurricane that ravaged the Floridian sky.




The view of the river


It was the view of the river

          that intrigued me, that lured me

                    toward its banks, the sheer


vastness of its panorama, as I

          looked north, the sheen on its

                    surface, which broke then


broke again in the choppiness

          of its waves that September

                    morning my mother was


interred into the earth forever,

          as I lost myself among

                    headstones in the graveyard,


presupposed to be standing

          along with my father, aunt,

                    uncle, and grandmother beside


the open grave, but instead

          chose to wander, intuiting

                    both my new freedom, which


reflected itself in the water

          of the flowing river, river

                    that empowered the factory


towns of the impoverished

          Connecticut Valley, known

                   as the Housatonic, its brown-


silver muddiness carrying

          itself to the sea, and what was

                    my incomprehensible loss


due to my mother's death,

          which seared itself into

                    my psyche with an intaglio


that would perennially ink

          itself with her memory.

                    There I stood, and heard


my name being called as I

          teetered high on a ledge

                    above the Housatonic,


gazing upriver, magnetized

          by a destiny I could not

                    either interpret or imagine,


the coolness of the river's

          rush emanating up the bank,

                    its turbulence caught on its


own swirling eddies, the gritty

          odor of it as it propelled

                    forward out of the Valley,


away from the tedium of

          the hiss and bang of machines

                    in the manufacturing plants


and their medieval domination

          of the workers enslaved within

                    the brick walls, resembling


fortresses or prisons,

          the river calling me as my life

                    summoned me, while needing


to listen to the voices which

          urged me toward them, among

                    the tombstones, which I began


to run towards, all the while

          carrying the vision of the river

                    within me, which still courses


and churns in its archetypal

          flow, surging onward, that

                    always reminds me, and never


lets me forget, what heartache

          is, as I listen to it pound

                    within upon its bed of stones.





It is not so much who she is,

as Poirot suggested about the unidentified

dead body in The Clocks, but

who she is, which can confuse almost any-


one, if we aren't paying attention.

As your cameo role in my life did when we

met, you as my third grade teacher, and I

as your student, who had just


lost his mother. Was it the opportunity to

clean erasers and blackboards

after school that I had volunteered for so

I wouldn't need to arrive home


to the flat devoid of a mother's love? Or

did I really feel your reaching out

to me and that opening led me to unfurl

my child's soul to you, so much


so that you invited me to your room in

the convent next door to

Saint Michael's, where, as you informed

me after our discussion of


death, you kept a human skull atop your

dresser, which you said

became your focus of meditation so that

you could have a greater


understanding of death, and in so doing

you might live life more fully.

Your suggestion piqued my curious boy's

mind, and we arranged our


after school appointment the way some

lover's arrange their tryst —

covertly from public view, although openly

between themselves. As you


led me down the long hallway, hand in hand

to your room, I didn't

expect you to invite me to sit on your bed,

upon which the corners


of the covers were tucked in with military

precision. As I rested myself down,

I remember the tautness of the blankets,

as if I were sitting on a cloud, and


as your fellow nuns walked passed, some of

whom looked in briefly, soft smiles

playing across their faces, as if they may have

intuited that there was as much


sensuality about this event as there was any

amount of metaphysical investigation

regarding the subject of death and dying as

evidenced in the skull on the bureau


opposite me, which held my rapt attention

more than the epiphanal experience of

being in Sister's room and my anxiousness

in my hoping she would return so


I could ask her questions about the skull, so

I wouldn't have to divert any more

of her colleagues' glances as more of them

seemed to find reason to pass by


than before, and what if Mother Superior had

found out about this foray into

the house of the divine feminine by her young

nun and a student? However, you


did return, as lovers do, who eventually leave

again, but who are remembered

more for the intensity of their relationship than

for its brevity; and I recall you


saying we couldn't stay long since you might

be bending the house rules, but

I will never forget that you, indeed, did and

that whatever infatuation danced


between us is still choreographed in my heart,

so many decades later, that I thank

you for showing me the way toward what I

recall as a sweetness in realising


a reason for being, feeling an unexpected wind

rippling the silkiness of our life, the way

the early morning coolness has

in whetting the beginning of a summer's day.



Wally SwistWally Swist's books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love, The Daodejing: A New Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder, Invocation, and The Windbreak Pine. His forthcoming books are The View of the River, Candling the Eggs, and Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir.

Topic tags: poetry, Wally Swist



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Existing comments

Any speculation as to poetry being in decline is well and truly put paid to by Mr Swist's poems here. Exquisite!
John | 30 May 2017

Wally: Very moving - "Finding My Grandfather"! My Scottish granny's father passed away a mere two years after the close of The Great War - also the result of a mustard gas attack. Just 60 years of age. After his death his widow and youngest daughter joined the two older daughters (the second my granny) in Australia. The only son was in western Canada. Thanks for making me think of them all - the way in which war and its effects on the human landscape ripple out - over successive generations...
Jim KABLE | 31 May 2017


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