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.