Lightning and Ashes: The Poetry of John Guzlowski

John Guzlowski is arguably the most accomplished Polish-American poet on the contemporary scene, a writer who will figure prominently in any history of Polish-American literature; and Lightning and Ashes firmly establishes Guzlowski’s artistic standing not just in Polonia but in the world of American letters. A proper appreciation of Guzlowski’s vision and achievement, however, requires some biographical background.

John Guzlowski is the son of Jan Guzlowski and Tekla Hanczarek, Polish nationals who were deported to Germany during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Born in 1920 in farming village north of Poznań, Jan was arrested by Nazi soldiers in 1940 and transported with other men of his village to the Buchenwald Concentration District where he worked for five years as a slave laborer on farms and in factories. Tekla was born in 1922 west of Lwów in eastern Poland; she was taken into custody in a roundup in 1942, after the murder of her mother, sister, and niece, and also relocated as a forced laborer. Jan and Tekla were married after the war and spent six years in refugee camps. John Guzlowski—properly Jan Zbigniew Guzlowski—was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Vienenburg, Germany, in 1948.

In 1951, the family, including an older daughter, Danuta (Kapustka), came to the United States as “DPs” (“displaced persons,” the term Guzlowski uses to describe their status). After working on a farm to pay for the cost of their passage to America, the family eventually found its way to Chicago and settled in the area around St. Fidelis Parish in Humboldt Park. Jan and Tekla Guzlowski worked in various factories in Chicago. John attended St. Patrick High School, took a bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus, and earned a doctorate in English from Purdue University.

Guzlowski taught for twenty-five years at Eastern Illinois University, achieving an impressive record as a teacher and scholar. Twice in his career (1987 and 1993) he was presented with the Eastern Illinois University Faculty Excellence Teaching Award, in addition to two Achievement and Contribution Awards and recognition as the Distinguished Honors Faculty Member of 1992. He also produced a fine record of scholarship, publishing various articles on contemporary fiction and eventually emerging as a leading American authority on the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Guzlowski maintains an active blog, had one of his poems read by Garrison Keillor on the prestigious Writer’s Almanac on public radio, and he has recently been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

More to the point of this study, Guzlowski began writing poetry. His poems have been published in a wide variety of journals including Atlantic Review, Spoon River Quarterly, Poetry East, Proteus: A Journal of Thought, and Periphery in the United States and such venues as Akcent, Nowa Okolica Poetów, and Tygodnik Powszechny in Poland, and Kalligram in Hungary. Guzlowski’s first collection of poems was entitled The Language of Mules; and in addition to its American edition, it was translated into Polish in 2002 by the Biblioteka Sląska in Katowice. Lightning and Ashes is Guzlowski’s second collection of poems; a third volume, Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, was published in 2006.

Guzlowski’s work has already attracted widespread recognition and garnered a number of awards. The Language of Mules, for example, earned for Guzlowski an Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award in 2002; and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry. Beyond that, he has been honored as featured poet by journals such as Spoon River Review and Margie: An American Journal of Poetry.

The primary subject of much of John Guzlowski’s poetry is the experience of his parents in the slave labor camps of Nazi Germany during World War II. With some modifications, this is true as well for the poems in Lightning and Ashes. In that volume, however, Guzlowski has broadened his focus and provides something of a family history. The primary focus of the collection remains the experience of his parents as slave laborers during the war; but now Guzlowski also reports more extensively on his parents’ lives in Poland before the war and on the story of the family’s experiences in the United States; he also wrestles with and tries to understand the legacy of the war for his parents and for himself and his sister—and even for his daughter.

This is part of the reason why John Guzlowski’s poetry is so important. For American audiences in general, he is telling a story which few have ever heard: the history of non-Jewish victims of World War II, the experiences of Polish Christian victims. At the Sixty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, two prominent leaders of the Jewish American community commented on precisely this problem. Robert Cherry of Brooklyn College, coeditor of Rethinking Poles and Jews, observed that “the brutality experienced by Polish Catholics is a story that’s not known by people outside of the Polish community”; and Guy Billauer of the American Jewish Committee commented that “Polish suffering [during World War II] is virtually unknown and needs to be disseminated.” In telling the story of his family in his poetry, Guzlowski is addressing this need; he is also reporting the experiences of a segment of the Polish American community which has probably been most neglected in the literary record of Polonia: that of Polish displaced persons who relocated in the United States after the war.

Most of us recognize, I think, that the majority of Americans are woefully ignorant of the story of Polish Americans and of Poles in America; this is partially a result of the selective indifference of American culture and of the American educational system to particular ethnic groups; but it is also a consequence of the Polish American community’s failure to find and support those voices which tell their story. This makes Guzlowski’s poetry doubly important: he is recording the story of a particularly neglected segment of the Polish American community, including that segment’s experience in World War II; and he is telling that story with great skill and recognition to both other members of Polonia and to the American public at large. Nowhere has he done this more powerfully than in Lightning and Ashes.

For the most part, the poems in this volume report the stories of the war experiences which his parents shared with him—sometimes willingly and eagerly and at other times reluctantly and under some duress. Guzlowski refuses to forget these stories and to allow others to forget or to remain ignorant. In a poem entitled “What My Father Brought with Him,” he recounts: “Once he [the father] watched / a woman in the moments before she died / take a stick and try to write her name / in the mud where she lay.” This desperate effort of a dying woman to be remembered motivated both the father’s report and the son’s effort to capture the memory in poetry. Guzlowski is not content, however, with simply reporting the tales of others; he wants the experiences of his parents to be remembered.

Not infrequently, his parents, especially his mother, don’t want to discuss their experiences; this very reluctance reveals much. In one of his most widely anthologized and re-printed poems, “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” also included in Lightning and Ashes, Guzlowski recreates, as he envisions it, the experience of his mother’s deportation to Germany:

My mother still remembers
The long train to Magdeburg
the box cars
bleached gray
by Baltic winters
The rivers and the cities
she had never seen before
and would never see again:
the sacred Vistula
the smoke haunted ruins of Warsaw
the Warta, where horse flesh
met steel and fell
The leather fists
Of pale boys
boys her own age
perhaps seventeen
perhaps nineteen
but different
convinced of their godhood
by the cross they wore
different from the one
she knew in Lvov
The long twilight journey
to Magdeburg
four days that became six years
six years that became sixty
And always a train of box cars
bleached to Baltic gray.

The first poem in Lightning and Ashes, entitled “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg,'” presents the guarded response of Guzlowski’s mother to this poem about her deportation; and it sets the tone for his inquiry, his determination to remember, and for his effort to understand:

She looks at me and says,
“That’s not how it was.
I couldn’t see anything
except when they stopped
the boxcars and opened the doors
And I didn’t see
any of those rivers,
and if I did, I didn’t know
their names. No one said,
‘look, look, this river
is the Warta, and there
that’s the Vistula.’
What I remember
is the bodies being
pushed out—sometimes
women kicked them out
with their feet.
Now it sounds terrible.
You think we were bad women
but we weren’t. We were girls
taken from homes, alone.
Some had seen terrible things
done to their families.
Even though you’re a grown man
and a teacher, we saw things
I don’t want to tell you about.

The things his mother saw took a toll on her, and Guzlowski is truthful in reporting that toll of “four days that became six years / six years that became sixty.” In “What the War Taught Her,” Section 3 of “My Mother Talks About the Slave Labor Camps,” Guzlowski reports the effects of those experiences with understanding but also with understated pain:

My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chicken and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don’t pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.

This sort of candor gives one a flavor of the power and pain of the collection and is also one of its many literary virtues.

In a paper of this length there is not sufficient time to review the poetic technique and skills of John Guzlowski in detail; but some aspects must be addressed—even if only briefly—to support the claim that Guzlowski is a powerful voice for Polonia on the poetic scene.

Like Robert Frost and Czesław Miłosz, two poets whom he very much admires, Guzlowski is primarily a lyric-narrative poet. This means, of course, that his poetry tells stories laden with a powerful emotional content in poetic form; and his poetry is successful precisely because his poems display an impressive mastery of the skills peculiar to both narrative and poetic literature.

The narrative skill of Guzlowski’s poetry is especially important to the success of Lightning and Ashes because the volume tells stories at two levels: the level of the individual poems which almost invariably report some specific incident or conversation in the history of his family (particularly the experiences of his mother and father in the war) and the level of the volume as a whole which gathers these particular poems together in a deliberate fashion in order to provide an overview, although not a complete picture, of the family’s story.

At the level of narrative, several skills are evident. For one thing, the poems present vivid portraits of their major characters: Guzlowski’s mother and father, the poet-son, and, to a lesser degree, Guzlowski’s sister and even his daughter, although the daughter appears in only one of the poems, the final one. In the course of the poems, readers will, I think, come to know and identify with these characters, notwithstanding the fact that the characters, especially Jan and Tekla (the parents), have been deeply scarred by their experiences in the war and are, consequently, flawed and frequently not sympathetic. We come to understand that the parents are not heroes who ultimately triumphed over their circumstances but traumatized victims who were never quite able to escape or overcome their wartime experiences—experiences which had grave consequences for their selfidentity and for their marriage. In the heartrending poem “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father,” the wounds of the parents are painfully apparent:

She knew he was worthless the first time
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried
the smell of the dead men who wore them before.
In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak
or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing
about the world, the way the planets moved,
the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,
electricity a mystery as great as death.
The first time lightning shorted the fuses,
he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary
to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.
He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
his check away as soon as he left work.
When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away,
He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg
in the bars on Division for food or rent
till even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb polack.
My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through her madness in the camps
when she searched among the dead for her sister,
and he stayed when it came back in America.
Maybe this as why my mother stayed.
She knew only a man worthless as mud,
worthless as a broken dog would suffer
with her through all of her sorrow.

This process of identification and even of empathy with the parents is possible partially because the character of the narrator, the poet-son, is itself handled with great success. Through the first-person point of view which Guzlowski employs artfully, we experience a very immediate and intensely personal contact with the parents and their struggles; as a result, it is not possible to de-humanize them. Furthermore, along with the first-person narrator, we attempt to capture and comprehend the experiences of the parents—even in their most unattractive moments.

The action of the poems is also handled deftly for effect. The individual poems often build to climactic endings which provide a focus but not an easy resolution of the incident described. Recall the endings of the poems cited in this review.

In “Cattle Train to Magdeburg” the “four days that became six years / six years that became sixty” forces readers to confront the lifelong trauma of the war years on the mother while in “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg'” the climax of the poem in a very powerful way stresses the mother’s futile efforts to protect her son and herself from the experiences: “Even though you’re a grown man / and a teacher, we saw things / I don’t want to tell you about.” In a similar fashion, the conclusion of “What the War Taught Her” documents the ultimate lesson which the mother has learned: “She learned that you don’t pray / Your enemies will not torment you. / You only pray that they will not kill you.” And, of course, in “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father,” just cited above, the last two stanzas provide an insight into the dynamic of the parents’ relationship which changes everything.

At a different level, the arrangement of the poems in Lightning and Ashes manipulates the action in a way that reveals a deliberate movement from the universal to the particular circumstances of this ethnic group, this generation, and this family. Part I, “What It’s Like Now,” deals primarily with the death of his parents a half century after the war and is, in many respects, universal in its appeal. Some of the details of the deaths of Guzlowski’s parents, however, will not become clear until the poems of the later sections of the volume reveal specific details of the family’s history. The poems of Part II, “When My Mother and My Father, My sister Danusha and I Came to America,” tells the story of the family’s arrival in America as displaced persons with the peculiar challenges which these circumstances created, thus taking the universal story of immigration and adapting it to this family’s special situation both for general American audiences and even for Polish American audiences. The final section of the volume, Part III, “What the War Was Like,” records the experiences which have made his parents who they were and forces all readers to deal with the peculiar history of this family; it introduces audiences, many for the first time, to the Polish experience of the War and confronts them with the tragedy of all wars. Finally, the single poem of the Epilogue, “How Early Fall Came This Year,” returns to the present, introduces the poet’s daughter, and forces a consideration of the effects of the family’s history in the war on the third generation; it also suggests the need and the difficulty of preserving memories of the war and the difficulty of doing so properly. This violation of chronology in the overall plan of the volume skillfully brings the reader into the story in a way which provides maximum engagement.

The lyric dimension of Guzlowski’s poetry is conveyed largely through narrative strengths; but at least three specific poetic strategies deserve comment. The first of these is Guzlowski’s innovations with verse and meter. In a decision dictated in large measure by his subject matter, Guzlowski has adapted traditional meters and verse forms to suit the topics he addresses: the tragedy of war, the trauma of displacement, the pain of immigration, and the consequences of all these experiences for family life. Thus, instead of traditional blank verse—i.e., unrhymed iambic pentameter—in his longer poems Guzlowski alters the normal patterns, varying the number of syllables allowed per line (sometime more than ten, sometime fewer) and the regular iambic foot. The effect is a less harmonious verse form which underscores the complexity and anguish of so much of his subject matter. In a similar fashion and for much the same reason, in his shorter poems Guzlowski resorts to what he terms “exploded sonnets.” Here he trades the number of lines traditionally employed in sonnets, the usual rhyme patterns, and the meter for “repeated sentence units” such as prepositional phrases or compounded elements to create the effect for which he is striving. Here is not experimentation for the sake of experimentation but creativity in the service of art and artistic effect and affect.

One particular effect to which these adjustments to meter and form contribute is a certain conversational tone—not always a pleasant or flowing conversation but a spoken tone, nonetheless. Remember that many of Guzlowski’s poems originated in conversations which he had with his parents; some were conversations which he initiated and in which he pressed his parents; others were exchanges in which his parents forced the issue. Regardless of the circumstance, Guzlowski strives to recreate that reportorial and conversational impression.

Despite the pain of some of these conversations and the complexity of the subject matter, perhaps precisely because of these considerations, Guzlowski makes every effort to ensure the accessibility and clarity of his poems. This should not be confused with a simplicity of vision or with easy answers to the issues raised. Complexity notwithstanding, Guzlowski insists that his readers not be daunted by convoluted forms or language; and this points to one other feature of his poetry, and that is his diction—his choice of words. Guzlowski’s poems are written in accessible and earthy language but with words that convey both clarity and emotional power; his poems are direct, almost blunt, but not inflated. On the topic of diction, it is also worth mentioning that Guzlowski’s poetry, although non-traditional in form and meter, makes careful use of repetition and sound patterns to achieve its effects.

Like all good poets, John Guzlowski writes poems that have universal relevance; his poems, for example, deal with parent-child relations, husband-wife bonds, new beginnings, death (especially the death of parents), family connections (and disconnections), tragedy, trauma, and endurance. In the case of Guzlowski, however, these universal themes are anchored in Polish and Polish American experiences and also importantly in a segment of the Polish American community which has, until recently, been virtually voiceless—without, at least, a strong and clear literary voice. As a talented poet and a powerful voice for Polonia, John Guzlowski deserves our attention, our thanks—and our support.

By Thomas Napierkowski

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