Thursday, July 19, 2007


My chapbook about my father’s experiences in Buchenwald has just been published by Finishing Line Press, and I wanted to say something about how I came to write the book and why the book is the way it is, focusing solely on my father Jan Guzlowski.

When I wrote Language of Mules, my first book about my parents, I felt that it was mainly about my mother. Poems like “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” and “My Mother Talks about the Slave Labor Camps” carried a lot of the weight of the book. For me emotionally, they were the points in the book that I always came back to. The last poem I wrote for that book was the long, four-part poem “My Mother Talks about the Slave Labor Camps,” and that poem seemed to make all of the other poems about my mother coalesce around it. They were the poems that I always read when I did poetry readings. In fact, a lot of times at those readings, I would mostly read the poems about my mother in Language of Mules. They had a psychological and emotional unity and power that spoke to me every time. And they seemed to speak to my audiences too. People would invariably ask questions about my mom, but seldom did they ask about my father.

In Lightning and Ashes, my second book about my parents, I wanted to talk about both my parents. They had been together for forty-two years when my dad died in 1997, and I wanted to write about what that life was like, the war that brought them together and the memories of shared suffering that had kept them together despite their differences and their antagonism. The book feels balanced to me. In fact, I sometimes think that my parents are almost having a conversation in that book. My mother talks about her experiences, and then my dad talks about his, and I’m once again a child listening to their talk and trying to make sense of the lives they lived.

I feel that Third Winter of War: Buchenwald is my father’s book. He was a man who could never be quiet about the war, a man who could never put it aside. My mother could, and frequently she’d tell my father he should too, but he couldn’t. The war was always as present as it had been in 1943. He was a man who could talk for hours about the war, with me, if I was around, with strangers if I wasn’t, with himself if no one was around. Sometimes, I would come into a room where he was sitting and he would be having silent conversations. He would be gesturing, grimacing, turning his head this way and that. His lips would be moving, but he wouldn’t be talking. I would ask him what he was going on, and he would relax and smile, and say something like, “I’ve been thinking about the Germans.”

He was a man who prayed every day for the people he knew who died in the war, and he was a man who dreamt nightmares about the war. When I was a child living at home, I would hear his screams. They would wake us all. I don’t think I’ve ever heard screams like that. They were muffled in an odd way. Screams, in my experience, are usually accompanied by an explosion of air. My father’s nightmare screams were drawn in. Even in his sleep, it was almost like he was afraid to scream. I would come to my father’s bedroom, and he would be asleep and screaming and struggling with the Germans who were beating him.

I wanted to write about these nightmares, and by writing about them, I wanted to understand and capture what the war must have been like for him. I wanted to capture the thing that caused his nightmares and the nightmares themselves. I wanted to write about his hungry days searching through the bricks of the bombed cities he was forced to work in, and the threats and beatings he received. I wanted to know what he felt in the third winter of the war when he was in Buchenwald and felt he would never get out.

That’s what I wanted, but what I realized finally was that I could never understand his war or capture it. I would always just be a tourist walking through his experiences with a sketchpad and a pencil.

Third Winter of War is available from Finishing Line Press


Urkat said...

What does it feel like to believe oneself doomed, struggle each day to stay alive, not knowing if you can tolerate another day of pain like that and then survive and go on living, and reliving? Hard to say, except perhaps in an anecdote or brief phrase that seems to crystallize such moments. Sometimes such things can be captured in a way that conveys their essence.

I'm interested in your parents' relationship, why they stayed together because I know couples like that who stay together not purely out of love, but out of a mixture of love, devotion, loyalty, sympathy and perhaps understanding at a very deep level what the other person has suffered, and tolerating their differences so the other person doesn't suffer even more. Perhaps afraid that if they leave, the other won't have anyone who understands that person as well as they do, and who therefore might not be as tolerant, and thereby increase that other person's suffering.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Matt, my parents had a strange and troubling relationship. I've spent a long time thinking about why they stayed together because they argued and fought and cursed each other, and I even saw my mother knocking my father to the ground and kicking him, more than once.

I wrote about it in a poem called "Why My Mother Stayed with My father."

I was going to paste it in here but the lines fell the wrong way.

So here's the link:

Urkat said...

I remember the poem, and I will look at it again, possibly tomorrow when I'm not so tired. Their relationship was troubled but you posted a picture of them sitting together smiling. They must have cared about each other. Despite their differences, they probably had a lot in common, enough to keep them there.

John Guzlowski said...

It got easier as they got older. My father stopped drinking, cold turkey, when he was 55, and that made things go more smoothly.

My mother also had more and more health problems, and this seemed to quiet down her anger at him and the world.

Urkat said...

I've heard of Cold Duck, and Wild Turkey, but never Cold Turkey. Are you sure that's a drink--haha. Just kidding.