MY MOTHER WAS 19
~This poem appeared in The Chattahoochee Review (2008)
Soldiers from nowhere
came to her farm
killed her sister’s baby
with their heels
shot my grandma too
One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times
They saw my Aunt Sophie
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the dress in her mouth
If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her
That’s the kind they were
Let me tell you:
God doesn’t give
you any favors
He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
you’ll see this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling
TEMPTATION IN THE DESERT
~This poem previously appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review (2007)
If a German soldier comes to you
and asks you to shoot the man
next to you because that man
isn’t even bones in his striped suit,
tell the soldier, “No, you’re the devil,
and though you offer me the cities
of the world and all their soft women
and bread, I won’t shoot this man
though he is as dead as I am.
We are brothers in death, and brothers
in death don’t torment each other,
no matter what the prize, no matter
that death is the only prize left.”
SOMETIMES I WISH I HAD A THEORY OF POETRY
~This poem previously appeared in Atlanta Review (2005)
I read about Ryszard Krynicki's
"Linguistic poetry" and Karpowicz's
Of language and Czerniawski's
"Specific relativism" that stems
Like a branch from the tree of British
And I hide my poems
With their prairie plainness,
Their beets and trains and sparrows
And I wonder how I got
To this plain corner, this non-abstract
Joining of plain streets where my words
Are as simple as a handful of raisins
In the palm of my hand.
Wasn't I paying attention
In Sandra Bartky's Philosophy class?
Or was my time for learning these things
In my twenties when too often
I was drunk or hungover?
And clearly it's too late now
For me to stiffen my lines
With philosophical verve. Derrida
And Foucault are as beyond me
As Bakhtin's Russian with
Its Cyrillic pagodas.
My mind gravitates
(Oh that heavy, slow word)
To pauses, and I find I like
To sit in a hard chair and stare
Out a window at the prairie
And drink green tepid tea.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
“My Mother Was 19” is about what happened the day the Nazis came to my mother’s farm in Poland and killed much of her family. It wasn’t an easy poem to write. I had been trying to write this poem for about thirty years.
How do you talk about your grandmother and your aunt getting raped and murdered, your aunt’s baby getting kicked to death? Your mother being beaten? Her escape from the home where this happened? The way this all affected her?
For a long time, I couldn’t write about it because I didn’t know enough about it. My mother wouldn’t talk about it. If I asked her to tell me about what happened, she’d just wave me away saying, “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away.” And when my dad sometimes talked about what happened when the Germans came, it was mainly whispers and bits of information. I think he was afraid to tell the story because he didn’t want to burden me with the terror my mom experienced.
So when I first wrote about it, the poems that came out mainly came from what my dad told me. They were about everything that happened except for what happened. I wrote about the dry summer at the start of the war, the boxcars the Nazis put my mom on, the landscape she passed through on the train trip to the slave labor camps in Germany, the work she did in those camps, and her liberation at the end of the war. I even wrote a poem called “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” but it too was a poem that didn’t talk about what happened.
This all changed when I had a book of these poems published in Poland. My mom was in her seventies then, and up to this point, I had been occasionally showing her my poems about her and my dad, but she couldn’t read the poems because they were in English. So when she saw the poems she would say, “Hmm, that’s interesting” and move on.
This changed when I showed her my poems in a Polish edition.
She read them.
She sat right down and read about ten of the poems, and then she looked at me and said, “That’s not the way it was.”
She started talking then about what had happened when the Nazis came to her home and what happened after the killing, her capture, her grief, and the two years of misery in the slave labor camps in Germany.
We kept up this conversation until she died four years later. A lot of times I would go to see her and she would ask me to take out a pen and some paper because she remembered something else she wanted to say about her years under the Nazis.
It wasn’t always easy listening to these stories. There were times when I had to ask my mother not to tell me anymore because -- even though I was a grown man and a teacher -- there were things she was telling me that I did not want to hear.
“Temptation in the Desert” was one of a series of poems I wrote based on my father’s dreams and nightmares. My father spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and after the war and liberation he had nightmares about the Nazis and the camps. I remember trying to wake him up from these nightmares when I was a child. He would be screaming in his sleep.
When he was dying of cancer years later and taking morphine for the pain, the nightmares came back. I was with him in the hospital and the hospice then, and I would try to comfort him. Drugged, he would scream all kinds of things about his experiences in the camps, the torture and the terror. After he died, I sat down and tried to write down as many of the things he talked about as I could. A lot of it, as you can imagine, was hallucinatory and fragmentary, but it all made some sense. One of the threads that connected the fragments was my father’s sense that the Nazis were devils. This poem suggests this, and it also suggests something else that my father often talked about, the bond between the prisoners in the camp. He would often say that the men were like brothers.
“Sometimes I Wish I Had a Theory of Poetry” came about because I was applying for an Illinois Arts Council author’s grant. One of the questions asked me to talk about my poems in terms of contemporary literary theory, and that question pretty much stumped me. My poems tend to be plain, straight-forward. I’m trying to tell them in a style that would reflect the way the stories behind them were told to me by my parents. My parents weren’t educated people. My dad had literally no education. He could write his name and that was about it. My mom had a little more, a couple years of school in Poland before the Nazis came. In my poems I try to capture their voices, the way they told me about their experiences. There’s not much room for Derrida or Wittgenstein in the way my parents told those stories.
The poem grew out of that—trying to figure out what I could say on a grant application form at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Finally, I ended up telling the truth. I didn’t have a theory. All I had were the plain truths my parents told me about their lives in the plain language they told these truths.
ABOUT JOHN GUZLOWSKI
John Guzlowski’s writing has appeared in The Ontario Review, Margie, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. He blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/. He's a recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Artist Award and a Polish American Historical Association Creative Arts Award.