In 1984, when Anthony and Elaine Bukoski were planning to leave Superior for a teaching job in Louisiana, the former recalled being struck by a thought: He might not come back to his hometown — the place where his Polish grandparents settled.
“It had a deep and psychological resonance,” the writer said in a recent phone interview. “I was forsaking my neighborhood, the people here, our St. Adalbert Church. That was really overpowering.
“It was an emotional uprising.”
Bukoski did come back, though, within three years — back to the city he describes as being at “the end of the earth.”
“It’s an ugly, run-down city,” he said, “and I love it.”
The city and its blue collar people, specifically the Polish Americans who have lived in Superior’s East End, have long been at the center of Bukoski’s award-winning writing. He told the Superior Telegram in 2009 that he was inspired by “imagination, inspiration, small courtesies people pay to each other, tragedies people suffer.”
“I’ll never in my lifetime be able to tell all the stories that just seem to hang in the air,” he said at the time.
Time has proven it true.
With his latest, “The Blondes of Wisconsin,” published in April by the University of Wisconsin Press, Bukoski again pulls from that same air with a series of 16 linked short stories built, mostly, around Eddie "The Bronk" Bronkowski who is a brother, boxer, deckhand, beau and uncle.
Meet ‘The Blondes’
On first glimpse, The Bronk is a baby whose older brother is fresh from Marine Corps boot camp. As the book winds into its final pages, he is seen slumped in a wheelchair — his words lost to dementia.
In between are moments in his life and those of his seemingly successful cousin, the Polish neighbor whose writing has been translated to English, and a mail carrier mourning the loss of his culture.
The title story is about a troupe of heavy-hitters, women who tour small-town bars for boxing matches against poor saps willing to get clocked by the women of their dreams. The Blondes, whose good-hearted owner is zapped on the kind of meds that circulate through these dives, supply their own boxing ring.
While in Northwestern Wisconsin, and near a sign that reads “Next to Duluth we're Superior,” the women go glove to glove with The Bronk.
In “The Second Cook on the Henry L. Stimson,” Verna has left her husband, Lloyd, to work as the second cook aboard a ship that travels the Great Lakes. And every time the ship returns to the Duluth pier, there is Lloyd with a wave as they pass through. She avoids her husband for 2,555 days — a period that introduces her to Eddie Bronkowski.
But when the Stimson pulls into the Duluth pier, this time Lloyd’s holding a sign made from Magic Marker. He tells her he’s dying of a heart condition. In the next story, “They That Go Down to the Sea,” Lloyd voices his side.
Bits of Bukoski
There are pieces of Bukoski in these pages scattered like clues. Mr. Urbaniak, a history lover who mourns the loss of ethnic churches in Superior, the writer visited Temple Israel in Duluth.
Frank Bronkowski works in a flour mill — and so did Bukoski’s father.
The Bronk’s boxing record isn’t great and Bukoski, too, has sparred.
As for the half-dozen women well-presented in his stories, the writer mused that he must’ve tapped into his feminine side.
And when the experience isn't his, he does the legwork: While researching the Verna-Lloyd-Eddie love triangle, Bukoski said he drove to the ore docks and stood under them. He wanted to know if a home in West Duluth with a certain vantage point would be able to see this spot through a telescope.
“I determined it was possible,” he said.
Bukoski’s writing has taken him from Superior and back to Superior with stops in Vietnam (he, like Al Bronkowski, was in the Marine Corps), Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Iowa City for the Writer’s Workshop.
“But mainly it’s been Superior,” he said. “I’ve said this so many times: I couldn’t be happy anywhere else.”
He retired from the University of Wisconsin-Superior in 2011 and around that same time, writing professor-author Jayson Iwen was moving in. Iwen, too, has an interest in chronicling this similar geographic space.
His celebrated poetry collection “Roze & Blud” is set in Duluth and Superior.
“It was a beautiful convergence of sensibilities,” Bukoski said of the friendship.
For Iwen, the friendship led to a feeling of having a writing community and a better understanding of this region. He described “The Blondes of Wisconsin” as a Midwestern Gothic style — and a heartbreaking work.
“He’s really very sensitive and alert and aware of how other people, the characters around him, behave,” Iwen said. “It’s emotionally intelligent and a little quirky at times.”
Bukoski, he said, is attuned to his Polish American roots, and often talks about the disappearing language and ceremonies.
Iwen saw similarities between The Bronk’s loss of memory and the writer’s concerns about the loss of Polish culture.
“It feels like he is a manifestation,” Iwen said.
Back at it
Bukoski has written a handful of books, including most recently “North of the Port,” which the Boston Globe referred to as a gem. He’s regularly reviewed by Publishers Weekly, and Booklist tapped into his “heart-piercing, poetic fiction of place and ethnicity” and mused that it “makes one wish to be Polish, too, despite the heartbreak.”
During the pandemic, he carried on as usual: long walks in the country and work on a novella — much-chronicled, written in longhand, using both sides of a sheet of paper, a pillow in his lap and topped with a record album.
This new project, which recently topped 100 pages, marks the return of a character Bukoski hasn’t been able to shake.
It has been about 10 years since Bukoski published a new collection, a period that found him writing, but without his regular level of enthusiasm.
“I was worn out from writing,” he said. “I was just tired. So I kept writing, but I wasn’t as intent at getting another book done.”
He recalled thinking that he had to make a decision: write or don’t write. He found through the inertia and came out on the other side.
Recently, he said, he feels like he has gotten his strength back.
“I’m writing as well as ever,” he said.
Title: "The Blondes of Wisconsin"
Author: Anthony Bukoski
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Online: Anthony Bukoski will discuss his book in a free live-streamed event at 7 p.m. May 26 on Minneapolis bookstore Magers and Quinn's Facebook page and YouTube channel. He will be joined by Jayson Iwen.