A Poem by Jeannine Pitas

Ghost Dance Krakowiak

Ribboned braids. No fancy dance. Mazurka spun on wobbling knees. 1873: my great-great-uncle, a Polish priest, founded St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo, NY. Born here, raised here: I used to say my ancestors were back in Poland during the crime. But Poland wasn’t a country then. From colonized land, to colonized land: my priest-uncle landed in a genocide. They say he went to greet Polish immigrants at Buffalo’s train station, brought them to the city, their new settlement. His English was good. 1890: what did he think, reading headlines about Wounded Knee? Did he turn away, “It’s not my concern?” Did he mutter, in Polish, “Serves those heathens right?” Did he feel any pang, any sense that his Jesus might not approve? He has made it into some history books, but this story isn’t there. My Babcia might have known it, but she died a century after that crime. I suspect he believed “this land is my land,” though he never heard the Guthrie song. My mother grew up singing it, and “O Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” while still learning her parents’ native tongue. She passed that knotted language on to me, along with those slippery songs. My great-great-uncle was of no one place. Despite what my passport says, neither am I. The beaded vest I wore as a child, the lacy apron that flew as I whirled in the traditional Polish dances: Krakowiak, Kujawiak, Mazurka, Polonez – behind them moved another dance, one that did not belong to me. I could feel it deep in my skin, my bones: the Ghost Dance of those who prayed to be saved, who begged with their bodies for my people – my people – to leave them alone at last. It haunts each dance I do, the polka and waltz of my youth, the salsa and tango and blues I learn today. Red ribbons spin like blood. Ghosts continue to dance. They twist through each step and won’t go away.

Jeannine Pitas is the author of three poetry chapbooks and the Spanish-English translator of several Latin American writers. Her translation of I Remember Nightfall by Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio was shortlisted for the 2018 National Translation Award given by the American Literary Translators’ Association, and her translation of An Introduction to Octavio Paz by Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sánchez was published by Mosaic Press in 2018. A graduate of University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, she currently lives in Iowa and teaches literature, writing, and Spanish at the University of Dubuque. Things Seen and Unseen is her first full-length collection of poetry.

Image adapted from “Krakowiak” (Volkstanz), Silar/Wikimedia Commons.

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