Friday, April 29, 2016

Poem for a Rainy Day

(as described by the writer john guzlowski)

John Milton died alone in his room,
his daughter Ann picking herbs
in the garden, parsley and rosemary.
She said she’d be right back,

and he said nothing.  He was dying,
and didn’t want his daughter with him.
There was something about the way
she sat in silence next to the bed

that made him want to turn his head.
And he knew if he did, she’d ask him
if he were in pain, and her concern
troubled him.  He knew when he died

she’d mourn for him, and her mourning
would be brutal.  Her heart was tender,
and every misery touched her hard.
Dying, he didn’t want to think of it.

He wanted to be free of the mourning world,
free of everything, free of  all the sadness
that woke him early every morning,
and seemed to sleep at night but never did.

He wanted only to think of the poem
he burned because he knew finishing it
would have brought misery to Ann,
but he loved thinking about the poem,

and so he lay there, dying and thinking
about the poem he burned in the fireplace.

Its first line?  Wasn’t it, “In His bright day,
the world awaits” something, something,


This poem originally appeared in The Atticus Review.  If you click on that link, you'll be taken to a page where you can access several of my other poems, including "The Bakers of Auschwitz" and "A Brief History of Sorrow."

Friday, March 25, 2016

Easter Poem

My father wasn't an educated man.  He was born on a small farm in Poland and never attended school.  He didn't know much about stuff most of us take for granted.  One of the things he didn't know much about was religion.  You couldn't talk to him about things like Moses or the Garden of Eden or the Holy Trinity, even though he was born a Catholic.

But he had a strong faith, and there were things that he believed with a certainty as sure as the turning of the earth.   This is a poem about that.

What My Father Believed 

He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river 
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life 
was to love and honor and serve God.

He‘d been to the village church as a boy 
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried 
in a cemetery under wooden crosses. 
His sister Catherine was buried there too. 

The day their mother died Catherine took 
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried.  She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God 
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life.  He knew living was hard, 
and that even children are meant to suffer.  
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other.  If you see someone 
on a cross, his weight pulling him down 
and breaking his muscles, you should try 
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.


Garrison Keillor read this poem on his program the Writer's Almanac.  Click here to hear him read it. 

The illustration at the top of the page is by the artist Voytek Luka from my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day Poem: Quarantine by Eavan Boland

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here's one of the great contemporary Irish poems by the poet Eavan Boland, a poet who has inspired so much of my own writing.
In the worst hour of the worst season
    of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
     He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
     There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
      Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Monday, March 14, 2016


My new memoir in prose and poetry about my family and its experiences during and after World War II is now available.

Here are some early reviews and responses: 

“A searing memoir.” Shelf Awareness

"Devastating, one-of-a-kind collection.” Foreword Reviews

“Powerful...Deserves attention and high regard.” Kevin Stein, Poet Laureate of Illinois

“Deeply moving. A powerful, lasting, and sometimes shocking book. Superb.” Kelly Cherry, Poet Laureate of Virginia

“Unforgettable. An historical and literary revelation.” Cosmopolitan Review

“Exceptional…even astonished me…reveals an enormous ability for grasping reality.” Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Guzlowski’s earlier work.

The book is availble from Amazon and other bookstores.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

International Woman's Day

My mother was taken to Germany as a slave laborer in 1942 after seeing the women and girls in her family raped and killed by the Germans.

She worked in various small camps.  The work was brutal, and when she first arrived in Germany in November, the cold and snow was so bad that she didn't think she would survive a week.  She survived 3 years.

This is a poem about her.


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 chickens 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.


The poem is from my book about her and my dad: Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Question about the War

What can we say about the past when so much of the past is lost? My mother felt the weight of her mother's death and her sister's death and her sister's baby's death at the hands of the Nazis all her life, but what can I know of those deaths. There was my mother's horror when she told me the stories, but my mother could not tell me much without breaking down, turning her face and its tears away from me. And so what's left to learn, what can I know about my mother's grief, my grandmother's face when she was shot again and again, my aunt's absolute sorrow when she saw her baby daughter kicked to death, the baby's screams that would not stop. There are no photographs of what happened, no news reports, no eye witnesses now that even my mother is gone, and all that's left is just a handful of broken memories that will never truly belong to me. What's left to say?


The image above is taken from Siege, an Oscar nominated documentary about the German invasion of Poland. It is available from Aquila Polonica Press. Click here.

Friday, February 19, 2016

What Kept People Alive in the Concentration Camps?

On Hope and Survival -- From an Interview I gave to Rattle Magazine:

RATTLE: The line “hope is the cancer no drug can cure” from “My Father Dying” struck me, because it so contradicts the way most of us define hope—as a sort of karmic wish that will aid in bringing us what we want, rather than the role it serves in the book as a foolish and fruitless burden. It interests me that our society, while overtly acknowledging the horrors of the Holocaust, seems to take a sugarcoated view of it: our films about it often temper the overwhelming suffering with “the strength of the human spirit”; we tend to toss around words like “hope” and “courage” when we talk about it. Your book, however, is unflinchingly raw and honest, refusing to do the cheap work of shining artificial light on darkness. Do you agree that the American view of the experience of the Holocaust is overly redemptive? Was it a conscious decision to write about such horrific events in an unapologetic way?
GUZLOWSKI: I was brought up on those redemptive books and movies about the Holocaust and the world of survivors that was depicted in films like Exodus, Diary of Anne Frank, Life is Beautiful, and Schindler’s List. I remember watching Schindler’s List with my mother and asking her at the end of the movie what she thought. She looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, “They can’t make movies about what really happened.”
I’m sure hope and courage were important in the camps, but probably what was most important was luck. I asked both of my parents how they were able to survive the war, and they both said they didn’t know. My father didn’t know why he didn’t die when so many of his friends did. He once told a story about being hauled out of his barracks with hundreds of other prisoners for a roll call. It was a January night, snowing and below zero, and the men were in rags. The guards started doing a roll call, and as they read the names men began to drop from the cold, falling to their knees. A man here and another there and then more. When the guards finished the roll, there were dozens of dead prisoners in front of the barracks. But they didn’t let the men go back in the barracks. Instead, the guards started the roll again, and more men collapsed. That roll call went on for six hours. At the end, garbage trucks came to pick up the dead. My father didn’t know what kept him alive.
What I’m trying to do in the poems is stay true to my parents’ experiences. My mother was especially unsentimental about what happened to her. As a girl, she had seen her family killed, and then she went on to suffer for two and a half years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany. After the war, she lived for six years in refugee camps, camps where they had mass graves for the babies that were born to the women following the war, women whose bodies weren’t strong enough to carry their pregnancies to fruition. I think it’s hard to believe in hope and courage when you have that kind of experience.
I hope you don’t mind but here’s a poem I wrote about my sense of what my mom believed:

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 chickens 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.

Of course, not everyone had the experiences my mom had. Some, I’m sure, survived through hope and courage. I’ve met and spoken to a lot of survivors over the years. What it’s taught me is that different people looked at what happened differently and tried to make sense of it differently.


To read the entire Rattle interview, click here.

The book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, about my parents and their experiences, is available from Amazon and most bookstores.