PASSINGS: Recalling the ironic, sardonic, compassionate writings of PJ Laska


PJ Laska

By Bob Henry Baber | From a July 21, 2022 Facebook post


I am terribly saddened that my once Professor and mentor, and long time friend and literary buddy PJ Laska died today after a short illness.

Born in Farmington, West Virginia and partially shaped by the 1968 coal mining disaster that killed 78 in a nearby mine, nobody rendered in poetry and prose the political, economic, and social suffering of the Appalachian coalfields more effectively than Pete.

And yet, he never lost his sense of the ironic and sardonic. I recall he wrote a short haiku-like poem about flood waters near Prince, W.Va., where he lived when teaching me and other Soupbean Poets at Antioch-Appalachia in Beckley in the 1970’s:

Who pitched that tent...in the river! 

It would be impossible for me to do justice either to his writing or to his intellectual prowess. But I will say, as a man, he always sought to share what he knew and never once came across as anything other than a person who could learn from any and everyone.

In one of his many powerful and harrowing poems, “Song From My Grandmother,” Pete recounts the story of a woman being put out of the company house when her husband is killed in the mine. Destitute and desperate with cold hungry kids in tow, she writes to her sister who had remained in Russia, then being ravaged by civil war between the red and white armies following the 1918 revolution.

She asks if she should leave her tragic life in America and return home. The poem ends with these words sent back from the war-torn countryside:

Living in tents
and holes in the ground....

If you have a crust of bread
in your hands 
                           don't come back! 

Only Pete Laska could capture in such succinct language the stress of two mothers living on opposite sides of the world, each in their own distinct hells. Such poetry is unadulterated brilliance.

Pete obtained his Philosophy Degree with the help of the G.I. Bill. His book “D. C. Images” was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other titles included “Morning In America” and “Night and Day, “published in 2010. This following haiku is taken from it:

        Moon and clouds —
clear thoughts
that don't last long

The Soupbean Poets in Beckley, 1976. Pete Laska is at lower right. Next to him is the late Bob Snyder. Both had enormous influence on a generation of new Appalachian writers. Top left to right: Bob Henry Baber, David Chaffin, Pauletta Hansel, and Gail Amburgey.

FOR MORE ON PJ LASKA’S BOOKS and BACKGROUND: 1) Amazon author’s page; 2) Acadamia.edu page ; 3) Igneus Press Facebook memorial post. He also published his own translation of a Chinese classic with his book “The Original Wisdom of the DAO DE JING: A New Translation and Commentary,” described this way at the book’s Amazon page: “The ancient “Way of the Sages” is presented as a biocentric political ecology teaching that “great governance does not cut,” but acts to protect human communities and the natural world from the “excess, extravagance and extremes” involved in quests for power, wealth and privilege.


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A poem before going

On Oct. 28, 2020, WestVirginiaVille published a poem by PJ Laska that certainly speaks to our times here in America, especially given yesterday’s news down Mar-a-Lago way. We are happy to reprint it here in his memory.


“THE GREATS” by PJ Laska

The Great Tower
The Great  Wall
The Great Power
Conquering All

The Great Look
The Great Weave
The Great Assets
Of Make-Believe

The Great Story
The Great Tweet
The Great Businessman
With Chicken Feet

The Great Buildup
The Great Spin
The Not-so-great offspring
And next of kin.

The Great Deals
The Great Trades
The Many Promises
The Great Charades

The Great Betrayal
The Great Scam
The Great Lies
Ad Nauseam

Change the World
With the stroke of a pen
Make the Great
Even Greater Again

The Great Floods
The Great Fires
The Great Wisdom
Of Science Deniers

The Great Legends
Of Famed Lands
With Great Pyramids
Tilting in the Sands.


PJ Laska was born into a coal mining family in the Marion County WV town of Farmington. After high school, he was able to spend two years in Japan as a guest of the U.S. military, where he studied Zen and developed a lifelong interest in Eastern philosophy and literature.  After completing a Ph.D. in philosophy, he taught at universities in the U.S. and Canada, and at Antioch’s Appalachian Center in Beckley, where he was part of the Soupbean Poets collective. Contemporary publications with Igneus Press include “Seasons in the Ravine” (2017) and “The Sleep of Reason” (ed.) (2019).


RELATED

CHARACTERS | The “Spark-eyed” Vision of WV Poet Bob Snyder: October 20, 2020: Influential West Virginia-native poet Bob Snyder died in 1995. But a new collection of his poetry exemplifies why, says a fellow poet: “Every West Virginia writer should know Bob. At least know about him. You may not ever get the whole story, but this book will help you understand some of it.”


STORY INDEX FOR AUGUST, 2022
WestVirginiaVille.com

1 | EDITORS/NOTE: From Legislators to Lost River, thistles to abortion bans: In the midst of all the normal chaos of American and West Virginian political life, some good news breaks out. Plus, some worthy tales from worthy lives around the state. An overview of WestVirginiaVille’s August 2022 edition.

2 | EDITOR/IAL: Score one — a big one — for Manchin: The Earth wins one (with some important caveats) as Joe Manchin finally steps up and does right by the Biden administration’s grand climate hopes. It’s not everything, but it is a serious something.

3 | FIRST/PERSON: Why I Have Four Names: “They were both the most cussed, stubborn people you’d ever meet, my Dad and Mom, when they come together over something that stood them apart. “Both would not give up their position on the proper naming of you,” said K. “So, they agreed to disagree. And gave you all four names.” | By Joseph “Billy” Corduroy, reprinted from joebillyjohnbob.com

4 | ‘KEEP THE DOOR CLOSED’: Inside the chaotic week when West Virginia Republicans’ efforts to ban abortion stalled: “I can’t hear,” Senate President Craig Blair repeated from his dais. The body had just passed a bill that would ban nearly all abortions in West Virginia. The remaining pro-abortion rights protesters had packed themselves into the hallway beside the chamber in their 10th straight hour of demonstrations. “No justice! No peace!” | By Ian Karbal, reprinted from Mountain State Spotlight



5 | FIRST/PERSON: ‘A Wild Woman Love Story’: Once upon a time, a round-faced girl with curly hair and identity issues was told by someone (that genuinely loved her) that she was not “model pretty” like her sister but that she could be “mother pretty” … | By Angelica Gilleran, reprinted from BLACK BY GOD: The West Virginian

6 | PICTURE/SHOW: A West Virginia Walkabout from Elkins to Lost River: If you could use a West Virginia roadtrip, here’s a vicarious one, traversing from Elkins to Lost River. You’ll cover lots of ground. From August Heritage Center jamming at Davis & Elkins College, to the soothing solitude of Kimsey Run Lake in Lost River. | A WestVirginiaVille.com original video

7 | ONE/PHOTO: What the thistle tells: ‘the ants quickly took to the milk thistle this year. her bloom doesn’t last long. maybe two days. they seem to be in sync with this knowing, almost as if there is a pulse they can feel when she begins her bloom.’ | By Water Light

8 | CHARACTERS | The One-Armed Bandit of No. 1 Holler, West Virginia: The story of the “The One-Armed Bandit” is the stuff of heroes and legends. You may not know Gary Mays’ tale, however, as the major league career the West Virginia native might have had may have been blocked by racism. Yet nothing ever kept Gary down for long. | By Douglas John Imbrogno, reprint of 2016 Charleston Gazette story

9 | VIDEO: “WATER/CLOUD/WIND/LEAF: A Hoeft Marsh Melody”: Hoeft Marsh in Greenbottom WV is where I go off to when I want to get off the timeline of the world’s news. Here’s a short, lyrical recent visit there. It’s a little fishy, too. | A WestVirginiaVille.com original video

10 | PASSINGS: Recalling the ironic, sardonic, compassionate writings of PJ Laska: “It would be impossible for me to do justice either to his writing or to his intellectual prowess. But I will say, as a man, he always sought to share what he knew and never once came across as anything other than a person who could learn from any and everyone …”


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WestVirginiaVille.substack.com


INDEX: A guide to the August 2022 issue of WestVirginiaVille.com: Here’s a linked guide to all the articles, essays, videos, and photographs in the August 2022 edition of WestVirginiaVille.com

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