Sunday, December 31, 2023

Happy New Year

 Happy New Year

My parents loved New Year’s Eve.

They loved dressing up in their fancy clothes. For weeks, my mom would search the department stores and dress shops on Milwaukee Avenue and Chicago Avenue looking for the most beautiful gown and shoes she could afford. For days, my dad would polish up his shoes again and again and make sure his best suit was free of any wrinkles and tears. They wanted to look as fancy as the Americans they dreamt of being.

They loved the spectacular ballroom they went to on New Year’s, the one in Wicker Park, on Wood Street just north of Division. They loved spending a long evening celebrating the coming year with their friends. These people – like my parents – were survivors. They survived the German invasion of Poland in 1939. They survived the years in the German slave labor camps. They survived seeing their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and friends killed by the Germans and the Russians. They survived the hardship of coming to America with nothing more than a wooden trunk filled with the few possessions they were able to gather together in the years they spent in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany waiting for some country like Canada or Australia or the United States to say finally, “Sure, we’ll let you come in, but it won’t be easy on you.”

My mother loved to dance the evening away. My father never learned to dance growing up, and so my mother would dance with anyone who looked like he or she was in need of a partner. She danced polkas and waltzes and tangos. She loved to hear the band on the stage play the old songs like “To ostatnia niedziela” and “Ada, to nie wypada” and “Dobranoc, kochanie” as she swirled around the dance floor with her friends and even strangers. Dancing, my mother would once again be the little girl who loved to dance with her sister Genja. My mother would once again be the girl she had been before the war killed her sister and ended all of her childhood.

And while my mom danced, my dad would sit at his table with his friends and talk about the war. They would talk a little about what they themselves suffered, but that wasn’t at the heart of their conversation. Whatever suffering they experienced was nothing compared to the suffering of those who hadn’t survived. 

My dad and his friends would sit at the table drinking their drinks and talking about the friends they had lost in the war, about Andrzej and Piotr and Janus and Antoni, about their suffering and bleeding and dying.

And dancing and drinking and sharing stories, my parents and their friends said goodbye to the year that had passed and embraced the year that was coming.

Read more about my parents in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, available at Amazon and most bookstores.  

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Robert Creeley and Me

 Robert Creeley



I saw him read once.  In Chicago, in 1968 or 1969.  At a small private college.  North Park College maybe.  

He was brilliant.  One wow poem after another.  He was drunk.  He was sitting on a chair at the podium.  Drinking and reading and drinking and reading.  

I'd never seen a poet sitting and reading and drinking all at the same time hbut he was.  

And then he wasn't.  He had fallen down and wasn't getting up.  And then he was up again and reading.  And drinking.  And reading.  One wow poem after another.

Just like this one:

As Now It Would Be Snow

1

As now it would be snow

one would see, and in

the days, ways of looking

become as soft as shapes

under the snow, as dumb,

and the trees grey, in

the white light, he said: 


the mind is right to

fight the cold for the 

cold is not its cold, and

the sun is cold, the

nights as white as days,

against the mind, trying

to put the mind away.


2

As now it would be snow,

he could see the days

become another way which

he could not go back

to, and seeing trees

as sharp, still, in his

mind, he said: the mind is


right. The snow will go

and mind remain, and mind

as cold as snow upon the 

shapes of trees, to see

the trees as shapes as

sharp as cold, when sun

has put the snow away.


3


As now it would be snow

he would see, and the 

trees no longer sharp

but soft shapes, and for

the eye, a grey against

white, he thought, he

said: the time is right,


and the season cajoled,

and peaceful, what is

to do, is done in the 

coldness of the cold

sun, and in a night as

light, as white as day,

I put the mind away.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Milosz and Me

 Czeslaw Milosz and Czeslaw Milosz and Me

 


Milosz and I have had a stormy relationship.  For most of my writing life, I wanted nothing to do with him and the Poland he came from.  They represented everything that I wanted to get as far away from as I could.  I wanted to say to both of them what Jesus says to the devil, “Get thee hence, Satan.”  How did I come to feel this way?  

Well, let me explain.

I was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1948.  My parents were both Polish-Catholic who grew up and lived in Poland until they were taken to Germany as slave laborers.  My father spent 4 years there, my mother 2 and a half.  After the war, my parents refused to return to Poland and spent 6 years living in displaced persons camps in Germany.  My mother, my father, my sister and I came here to America as DPs in 1951.

When we landed at Ellis Island, we didn’t speak or understand English.  We dressed in black and brown wool that had been given to us by a UN relief agency.  My mother wore a babushka on her head, my father a cloth wool cap with a broken brim.  They both wore their best shoes, leather boots that came to their knees.  My mother’s brother made those boots. 

Everything we owned was in a wooden trunk my dad made with a friend who was left behind because he couldn’t pass the quota requirements to get into the US.  In this trunk, there were some plates, a wooden comb, some barley bread, a crucifix, two goose down pillows, a frying pan, some letters from Poland, a blue sweater my mother knitted for me in Germany, two letters from America.  We were as poor as mud, and prayed for little: We prayed to find my mother’s sister who was also taken into Germany, to work, to not think about the dead we had left behind, to live without anger or fear.

When we prayed for these things we said our prayers on our knees and in Polish.

Our lives were hard: America then – like now – didn’t much want to see a lot of immigrants coming over and taking American jobs, sharing apartments with two or three other immigrant families, getting into the kind of trouble that immigrants get in to.  We were regarded as Polacks, as dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, anddrunken Polacks.  

I felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP.  It was hard karma.  

I started running away from my Polishness as soon as I could, and for most of my life I’ve been running.   As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my Polish parents and their past.  I thought of it as all of that Polack” or immigrant past.  It was so old world, so old-fashioned.  I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Deancouldn’t spend a night without fighting with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation.  I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Polishness and what my mother sometimes called “that camp shit.” 

Literature helped me run away from my Polishness and our past.  But it was American literature.  

In high school, I started reading and studying American literature: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau.  What I learned was that the mass of men (all of those Americans out there who thought of me as a Polack) lead quiet lives of desperation!  I learned if I stayed true to the essential and existential me-ness of me, Walt Whitman promised me that not only would I be okay, but I would also be downright successful as a human being despite what all those Americans living their quiet lives of desperation thought.  I could both shrug off the people who called me a Polack and I could shrug off my parents’ desire and need for me to be “a good Polish boy.”  I could and would be free.

This was great news for me.

The writers I started discovering on my own confirmed all of this.  They were the beat writers:  The French Canadian American Kerouac and the Jewish American Ginsberg and the Italian American Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  These beats were mainly immigrant or the children of immigrants.  They were writers who had read their Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and figured out how to be free of their ethnicity AND free of all those Americans who wouldn’t allow them to be free of their ethnicity!

In all of that time, as I read Emerson and Henry James and Kerouac and worked my way toward that PhD in American literature that I would eventually receive, I never read Milosz or Zbigniew Herbert or Thaddeus Rozewicz or Wislawa Szymborska(wiswava shimborska).  They were part of that Polack world I wanted to leave behind with my parents and their sorrows and immigrant concerns.

Milosz was the writer I especially wanted to get away from.  He received the Nobel Prize in the year I completed my PhD and got my first university teaching job.  When he won the prize, my colleagues all wanted to congratulate me on this honor bestowed on Milosz, Poland, and (indirectly) me.  (They also, truth be told, wanted to ask me how to pronounce his unpronounceable name.)

But I didn’t want to tell them how to pronounce his name, and I didn’t want to talk about him or his poems or his Nobel lecture or his novels or any of that Polish stuff.  By that time, I had been working for almost thirty years on getting away from it and everything he represented to me.  

Get thee hence, Satan.

So why am I here at this celebration of the writing of Milosz and why am I writing poems about being the Polish-American child of Polish parents?

The answer is easy.

A funny thing happened after Milosz won the Nobel Prize and after I started teaching American literature in an American university in the middle of the heart of the heart of America.  

I got homesick.  I developed this need, a hunger to know about Poland.  I had gotten so far away from it that it was becoming unreal to me.  I lived among people who for the most part didn’t know where it was, or what it was, or what it had suffered in the war.  I remember one day introducing myself to a new class and having a student ask me if my name was Italian or Spanish.  When I said it was Polish, he seemed confused as if I had said I was a parrot or a prairie dog.

I think a lot of this hunger was also fueled by who my parents were. If my parents had been Illinois farm people raising soy beans and corn or if they had been Italian gelato sellers, I don’t think I would be writing about them. I would be like ever other poet in America: writing about the weather or what it’s like being driving a big car west or east on I-80. But instead my parents were Polish people who had been struck dumb and quivering by history, by the Second World War, by their lives in the labor and DP camps.

 

I grew up with people who had seen their families killed, babies bayoneted, friends castrated and then shot to death. My mom came home to find her mother raped and murdered by the Nazis. 

Even if people don't want to read what I write, I feel that I have to write my poems about my parents just to make sure someone does. Really, there just aren't a lot of people writing about people like my parents and the other DPs. And if I didn’t write, who would? Imagine all of those hundreds of thousands of Poles who came to this country as DPs. Who wrote for them? They couldn't write for themselves. I sometimes feel that I am writing for all those people whose stories were never told, whose voices got lost somewhere in the great cemetery of the 20th century, and I have an obligation to listen to those voices and give them a place to be heard.

I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DP's, and survivors that the last century produced.

All of history’s Polacks.

And to write about their lives, I had to know about their lives.  That’s when I started reading Milosz’s poetry and Reymont’s Cholpi and Isaac Singer’s novels and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy and Ryszard Karpucincki’s journalistic writings.  

I could never know the Poland my parents knew and had to leave, but I could know the Poland of words and literature, the Poland of sounds and images.  And these writers gave that to me—especially Milosz with his rich sense of recent Polish history, the war, the years under communism, his life as an émigré trying to make sense of a world that he was not born into, a language he never imagined as a small boy growing up.

It’s hard to talk specifically in prose of how much Milosz has meant to me so I would now like to read a poem I wrote about him.  It’s called Polish Poets.

Polish Poets

 

They have stood 

At the end of time

 

Hearing the wind

Moving the snow 

 

Hard and cold

cold and hard

 

And this is what

They’ve learned:

 

There are voices

In the wind

 

There are voices 

In the snow

 

That know poetry

Is only a bit of wood

 

But the shore

Is a long way off

 

 

 

Monday, December 25, 2023

Christmas Letter 2023

 Christmas Letter 2023

I was looking over my old columns for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy and realized I haven't written a Christmas column.  

For a couple hours, I sat banging my head against my computer trying to come up with an idea and nothing came to mind.

And then it did.  

I remembered the advice I always gave my students in the writing courses I taught for 35 years: WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU HATE AND WHAT YOU LOVE!

So that’s what I’m going to write.

Dear Friends, 

This Christmas I want to tell you about the things I hated and the things I loved this year. 

First, let me get the things I hated out of the way.

I hated the medical problems I ran into.  I have a rheumatoid condition called undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy. It consists of a series of problems.  I get back pain that radiates up from my buttocks.  I get a general painful stiffness all over my body that develops during sleep and gradually simmers down during the day.  I get swelling in my legs, feet, and hands.  I get joint inflammation throughout my body, and this inflammation often affects my eyes.  

And those symptoms are just the ones I want to tell you about! You wouldn’t want to hear about the ones involving my bowels and intestines!

I saw a rheumatologist for 3 years to solve these problems.  There wasn’t one in Lynchburg where I live, so I had to drive 75 miles to Charlottesville to see one there.

He tried out all of the medications available to solve the problems I was showing.  He put me on a variety of  medicines that I had to inject with a syringe into my stomach once a month.  These meds cost about $1500 an injection, but that’s no big deal for me.  I’ve got medicare advantage.  

At the end of my visit this February, he said none of the medicines I was taking had had any effect on my condition and that it would just continue to worsen and that I was wasting my time seeing him.  

He suggested I see a neurologist.  He wouldn’t be able to fix all my health problems, but he might be able to help with the nerve problems in my feet that were making it increasingly difficult to walk because my feet don’t seem to be aware of what it means to walk.   My rheumatologist then shook my hand and said goodbye.

So I sought out a neurologist.  There wasn’t a good one in Lynchburg, but I found one 110 miles away in North Carolina.  

He ran a lot of nerve and blood tests and told me that I have peripheral polyneuropathy. That means that the nerves in my feet and hands are dying and that there is nothing that can be done about it.  He told me this and then shook my hand and said goodbye.

That’s most of the bad stuff that I hate that happened this year.  So, let me now tell you about the good stuff, the stuff I love, that happened this year.

We moved into a spectacular new house on the edge of a forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We’ve got an enormous glassed-in back porch that’s like heaven to sit in. Everyday I see deer playing in our backyard and munching on our grass. 

But that’s not all.  If you’ve been reading my columns, you know that my wife Linda and I are cruise addicts.  This year we’ve gone on six great cruises.  The best one was the 12 day cruise we took around the Italian peninsula, visiting Venice, Ravenna, Sorrento, Naples, and Rome.  

We saw 1000 year old cathedrals with gorgeous mosaics, statues by Italian masters, marble fountains surrounded with great restaurants that served the greatest Pizza in the world, better than any pizza I ever ate in Chicago or New York or Brooklyn!

And finally, what I love more than cruising and statues and pizza was with me constantly during my bad experiences with my doctors.  My family was always with me, my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian and our granddaughter Lucy.

They made the pain from undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy and peripheral polyneuropathy just a blip on the screen of my life this year.

So wishing you all a most Merry Christmas full of family and love.

John Guzlowski

My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the Polish Daily News of Chicago.

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Thursday, December 21, 2023

Cruising

 CRUISING


My wife and I have been cruising for almost 30 years.  We’ve cruised through hurricanes that kept us awake for days with their rolling seas, and we’ve cruised tranquil seas that would put most people instantly to sleep.  We’ve cruised the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and the Panama Canal and the Fjords of Norway and the Baltic Sea and Iceland and Canada and on and on.  We’ve cruised young and healthy, and we’ve cruised old and sick and tired.  My wife has caught the norovirus 3 times on cruise ships and found herself quarantined repeatedly – once for almost the entire length of a 9 day cruise.  But really, that’s not that big a deal.  I once had a heart attack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The cruise line wanted to dump me and my heart attack on some island off the coast of Africa I had never heard of.  I fought it.

I hate to admit this, but my wife and I have spent more than a year at sea on cruise ships.  I think that’s more time than Ishmael the main character in Herman Melville’s great seafaring novel Moby Dick spent on a ship.  

We’ve been back from our last cruise for 4 days.  The next one is coming up in a couple of weeks.  The one after that is scheduled for the end of July.

I know what you’re wondering.

Why do these people spend so much time on cruise ships?

Good question.

I’ve been wondering about it myself for the last 30 years -- since I started cruising.

The answer – like all the answers to all the great questions of life – is not easy.

I know why my wife loves to cruise.  She loves not doing anything.  When she gets on a cruise ship, she sails away from all the things that usually call for her attention.  She puts aside cooking and cleaning and shopping and worrying about the things that she usually worries about.  She can then devote herself to the pleasures she most craves: reading, playing card games, drinking her favorite cabernet, gambling in the casino, eating way too much really good food, and the pleasure of my company.  

At home, I’m really not much fun to have around.  In the morning I typically exercise for about an hour, and then I start writing: poems, essays, novels, books of poems, more novels, letters to friends, and even letters to enemies.  My wife and I get together for meals and a little socializing in the evening, but other than that she’s on her own.  

So you see why she likes cruising.  

And me?  Why do I like cruising?

I think that what most keeps me cruising – other than my wife’s obsession with this sort of vacation – is the way it throws me together with lots of people who are genuinely interested in chatting.  

Like I suggested above, I don’t spend a lot of time away from my writing desk, and as a result I don’t often get a chance to chat with people, get to know them, find out what they’re reading or what they’re watching on TV.  I think I’m like a lot of people in this.  I live in a world that’s pretty isolated, a world that doesn’t open me up to a lot of people.  Cruising is, therefore, just about the perfect vacation for me because it gives me the chance to do what I never do otherwise.  

Cruising gives me the chance to ask you how you’re doing and whether you like to cruise and whether the book you have in your hands is really keeping you awake?





Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Holocaust is Not Myth

The Holocaust is Not a Myth

Recently, I gave a talk at a high school here in Lynchburg.  There were about a hundred students in the lecture hall.  They were there to learn about the Holocaust, so they could write poems about it for a contest that’s run every year by the Holocaust Educators of Central Virginia.  

Before I started talking about the war and reading poems about my Polish, Catholic parents and their experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany, one of the teachers who organized the reading asked the students if they knew about the Holocaust.

About two thirds of them raised their hands.  A third didn’t raise their hands. They admitted that they didn’t know about the Holocaust, didn’t know about why it happened or what it was like or who the victims of the Holocaust were.

I wasn’t shocked.  In my 40 years of writing about my parents and their experiences, I’ve given a lot of lectures about the Holocaust and World War II and what happened to so many people. I’ve had students and teachers and adults who weren’t either students or teachers come up to me after these readings to tell me that they had no idea that so many Jews and non-Jews were killed by the Germans.  

No, for a long time, I haven’t been shocked by how many people don’t know about the Holocaust and what happened to the Jews and those people like the Poles and the gypsies and the mentally handicapped who were also considered untermenschen, subhumans, by the Germans.

I wasn’t shocked, but I was disappointed when the students in that lecture hall said they didn’t know about the Holocaust.

I was even more disappointed this morning when I read an article in The Economist that said that about 20% of students in the United States believe that the Holocaust is a myth while about 25% feel that the Holocaust has been exaggerated.

I want to know why the parents and teachers of these students aren’t telling them about the Holocaust and the World War that resulted in an estimated 80 million deaths, 3% of the total population of the earth at that time.

80 million deaths, and most of the people who died weren’t soldiers. Although 25 million soldiers died, the rest of the dead were civilians, mothers and fathers and their children.  

The people who say that the Holocaust is a myth are most likely also saying that World War Two is a myth or an exaggeration.

What can be done about this lack of knowledge?

In 1979, Congress authorized an annual national commemoration of the Holocaust called “The Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust.”

I don’t think this annual commemoration is enough.  

I read this morning that last week a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to reauthorize the Never Again Education Act, an act that provides federal funding for Holocaust education.

I doubt if that will be enough either, but we can only hope that it will help.

My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.

https://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/felietony2/holokaust-nie-jest-mitem/


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Saturday, July 22, 2023

OUR DEATHS

 OUR DEATHS

A couple years ago, I wrote a column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy called My First Death.  It was about the first death I experienced. I was a kindergarten student at St. Hedwig Parish School.  One of my friends and his mother were run over by a drunk driver while waiting for a bus by the Congress theater on Milwaukee Avenue.  The death touched me a lot.  I was 5 years old and knew nothing about death and dying until that death.

What I didn’t know then was that my first death wasn’t going to be my last death.

Yesterday, I got a phone call from a good friend, a Chicago friend I’ve known for 60 years.  He is dying and wanted me to know. We talked about the books we loved back then, science fiction novels.  Those books brought us together, strengthened our friendship with their dreams for tomorrow and the world to come.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that call.  I woke up about 3 this morning thinking of all the people close to me who I’ve lost.  I never knew my grandparents.  They all died before I was born, but I’ve lost so many family members I’ve known: My mother and my father, my wife’s dad, his two brothers, my sister Donna’s husband Dennis who I knew since we were teens growing up near Humboldt Park, my wife’s sister’s husband Bill who loved to sing and play the guitar. 

And then there are my friends.  2005 and 2006 were bad death years.  I was in my mid 50s, and it was like the world wanted to teach me what was coming.  Three of my colleagues, people I taught with when I was a university professor, died.  Two died of cancer; one was a suicide. Then two of my best friends from childhood died.  

That was almost 20 years ago.  The dying hasn’t stopped.  Friends die, family members die. Writers who I’ve read and met and grown close to die. People I know only on social media die.

All those dead, and you and I both know they won’t stop.

Years ago, after my parents died, I wrote a poem of hope, a poem that spoke of my hope that someday I would be with my parents again.

Here’s the poem:

In Heaven

I will sit around the table

eating poppy-seed cake

and drinking coffee

with my mom and dad.


They will tell me all the things

they were afraid or forgot to tell me

when they were alive


But this will take only a moment

—real explanations never take longer

than that—and then my parents will turn

to the only questions that really matter

to the living and the dead.


Was the road hard?

Did you miss us?

The poem appears in my book about my parents Echoes of Tattered Tongues.


The article appeared in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, Chicago’s Polish Daily. 




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