Tuesday, April 24, 2007

John Guzlowski's poetry instead of "Alberto Gonzales still has a job?"

John Guzlowski's new book, Lightning and Ashes (Steel Toe Press, 2007) is a searing and unsentimental consideration of the lives and deaths of his parents, who survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps in Poland during World War II and who subsequently moved to Chicago to start a new life after the war. John doesn't make the mistake of trying to pen his subjects larger than life, make them heroes; his parents are average people, farmers, burdened by poverty and their own character flaws and idiosyncrasies, survivors permanently scarred by their experiences.

His writing is deft and luminous, intimate without being invasive, and fearless in his exploration of events that are still painful in our collective historical memory. The book moves in reverse chronology from his parents' deaths through their time in the camps toward their childhoods, when "he imagined he would always stay on his aunt's small farm" and "[s]he loved picking mushrooms in the spring" and " . . . loved to sing." The poems are appropriately dark, many even hopeless, but the book provokes a greater sense of hope in its decision to take the responsibility that comes from choosing to witness and to speak.

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

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 couldn't crawl away.

He was too embarrassed. Sober, he'd beg
in the bars on Division Street for food or rent
until even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb polack.

My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through the madness in the camps
when she searched among the dead for her sister,
and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this was 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.

John lives here in Valdosta, recently retired from Eastern Illinois University. We have coffee and compare poems. I'm lucky he's here. And as for the rest of the post title, just be glad you were spared the obvious rant.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Writer's Block

I'm sitting in my office at VSU, listening to Tom Waits, thinking about my friend Bob Hicok at Virginia Tech. I was teaching his poems to my students yesterday, distracted with worry, so I read them badly. Sorry, Bob. Such tragedy hits us all, wakes us to the fact that, every day, we deal with trouble, with stress, with human beings, some of whom are broken or breaking. Sometimes, the crush of school puts them out, and they wander off to find work or solace elsewhere, some bar, some other city. To hear that the shooter was an English major, frankly, surprised me at first, and then it didn't. Young writers are given to violence as a way to end things in their stories. It's something I have to caution against because it's almost always too easy an ending, like the dream--wake up, everything's ok!-- and yet dwelling on violence is supposed to be a sign of creativity, so some experts say. It never surprises me when I read it in the work of beginners. But I do worry about my students when I read their writing and I know it's too real. I only hope that getting it out helps get it outside so they can look at it. So they can shape it and feel a kind of control over it once it's outside. Craft compels this. Craft is control, is self-control, after the creative/destructive blurting that most art begins as.

The media are another kind of control. Instant blame. Instant expertise. Instant mythology. Fear, fear, fear. I watched some of it, the endless what-they-should've-done-ing that pretends we don't live in a country that loves guns more than we love civility. All I can do is push for civility, keep my door open anyway, and know that hiding in my office or asking the University President to hire more people with guns isn't going to make a difference. You put 10,000 people together in our gun-addled culture, someone's gonna go off. Once when I was visiting Fresno about ten years ago, a car full of young men, teenagers, pulled away from my parents' neighbor's house. Kid riding shotgun pointed his finger at me as they rode past, said, "pop, pop, pop." Laughed. This is a sad, simple, awful story, one that will be told again, I'm afraid, soon enough. Pop, pop, pop. But my door is still open.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On the death of anyone's child

For a parent, the loss of one's child is unimaginable, and yet a constant, nagging fear, something you live with by ignoring it the way you ignore your refrigerator's hum. When a friend loses a child, all that noise awakens into magnified presence, yet one is left speechless, astonied, as they used to say--an archaism, but one that fits the mouth better than any other word I can think of at the moment. When the child has taken his or her own life, the speechlessness itself magnifies. What can one possibly say? What question can one possibly ask that would find a satisfactory or consoling answer? Explanation palls. Reason fails.

What I can do is love my own children, Elizabeth and Ian, and be grateful that I can still tell them so.

What I can do is remember Margaret Ann blossoming into her mother's living room briefly, smiling, politely helloing and furtively darting into her bedroom to escape the tiresome adults, as teens do. Beautiful, beautiful smile. . . .

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Poetry , J. Allyn Rosser

J. Allyn Rosser read her poetry here last night. She read over the squeaking chairs in the upstairs auditorium of the science building. Since the building is fairly new, one supposes the squeaks were included as part of the purchase price, perhaps to keep the students awake, perhaps to keep the professor awake.

She was a pleasure to host, magnanimous with her energy, and she engaged students here with openness and appreciation. We talked at length about poets we knew, poetry we liked, and, since I was only distantly familiar with her work, it was a pleasure both to get to know her poetry and her ideas about it. I liked her very much, in short. At the reading, her poems ranged from portentous and ambitious ("The World's Brain") to observant and witty and true ("Self Pith"). I only wish I hadn't been getting over a virus, since it limited my own energies for the visit. Several of us--Andrea, Kaleb, Andy, Joel, and Amy--went out to dinner and drinks after at the Cafe Bleu (2 for 1 vino), and Jill (as she prefers to be called; Allyn honors a poet for whom she was named who died to young) talked with us about poetry and music and admired Kaleb's new tattoo to cap off a delightful evening. I wish her safe journeys as she makes a pilgrimage to Savannah to visit the grave of Johnny Mercer.

Congratulations also to my dear friend Christopher Buckley (the poet, not the novelist) for his Guggenheim fellowship.

(Oh, and click Andrea's link to hear her band and her lovely voice, recently voted one of Myspace's top 25 band's by Rolling Stone.)