Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas and Forgiveness

I once gave a talk about my parents and their experiences with the Nazis to Narci Drossos’s class at Valdosta High School in Georgia. I talked about my father who spent 4 years in Buchenwald and other camps around Buchenwald, and I talked about my mother who spent 2 and half years in various slave labor camps in Germany.

During the discussion after my talk, a young man asked me a question. I’m sure it was in part sparked by the Christmas season, the talk that you hear at this time of year about “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men.” He asked me whether or not I forgave the Germans for what they did to my parents. 

The question stopped me. I haven’t thought about it before. 

Of course, I had thought about whether or not my parents forgave the Germans. My father never met a guard he would forgive. They were brutal men who beat him and killed his friends for no reason. One sub-zero winter night, these guards ran roll calls over and over. Hundreds of prisoners in pajama thin clothes stood outside in the cold and snow. By morning, about a hundred prisoners were dead. 

He felt anger toward all the Germans.
My mother seldom talked about her experiences during the war. If you asked her what they were like, most of the time she would just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away."

A lot of people say, forget it; it was all a long time ago. For my parents, it was never a long time ago. 
My parents carried the pain and nightmares with them every day. 

When my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he was sure that the doctors and the nurses were the guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. There were also times when he couldn’t recognize me. He looked at me and was frightened, as if I were one of the guards. 

I don’t think he ever forgave the guards for what they did to him.

I remember asking my mom once toward the end of her life if she forgave the Germans. She thought for a while. I’m sure she was thinking about her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. They were killed by Germans who came to her farm house in eastern Poland. My mother saw this and escaped, at least for a while, by jumping through a broken window and making her way to a forest.

What my mother finally said surprised me. I thought she was going to say what I had heard my father say over and over that all the Germans were evil. But that’s not what she said. She told me a story about when she first was brought to Germany. She was taken to a camp where they worked the women just like they were men, making the women work sixteen, eighteen, twenty hour shifts, six days a week. She said that she knew she couldn’t survive that for long, maybe a week, maybe two. 

She was saved by a German, a guard in a concentration camp.

For some reason, this German guard took pity on her. Who knows what his motives were? My mother often said that Germans thought she looked like a German, a niemka in Polish. Maybe this was what got her saved. Maybe not. Whatever it was that motivated this guard, he succeeded in getting her transferred to a different work area where the work was not killing work. She survived the war.

After telling me this story, she said, “Some Germans were good. Some bad. I forgive the good ones.” 
All of this went through my head when the student asked me if I forgave the Germans, and here’s what I said to him, “I don’t forgive the stupid ones, the ones who think that what happened to my parents didn’t happen or it wasn’t as bad as people say.”
And I told this student why I was saying this. I told him how I had gone to an academic conference in Paderborn, Germany, in 1989, and I met a woman, a professor, there. We were chatting, and she asked me if I had ever been in Germany before. I said, “Yes, I have. I was born in Germany in fact, in Vinnenberg.” 

She was surprised and asked me about this. I told her my parents had been kidnapped by the Germans and brought to work in the slave labor and concentration camps in Germany, and that I was born in a refugee camp after the war.

She said, “Your parents were lucky they were brought to Germany during the war. It was better for them here than in Poland. Here they got good food, shelter. Here they got to escape the chaos of the war.”

I looked at her and couldn’t believe that she could say such a thing. I thought about my father and mother and what they lost and suffered during the war, and I thought about how their lives after the war never shook the scars of the war. I thought about my father’s nightmares and his dead eye, the one blinded by a guard; and I thought about my mother’s coldness, her inability to feel much beyond grief and anger and hatred. I thought about how she directed that coldness and anger and hatred toward my father, my sister, and me. 

didn’t know what to say to this German professor, and didn’t say anything. 

She was not the kind of person I could forgive. She was one of the stupid ones. 

This is what I told the student who asked if I forgave the Germans. Some I forgave, the smart ones who recognized what had happened during the war. Some I didn't forgive, the ones who didn't recognize what had happened. 

But later as I kept thinking about what the student had asked and what I had answered, I started thinking more and more about my mother. With all she had experienced in the war and with all of her coldness, anger, and hate, she was still able to find some human warmth in her heart. She was still able to forgive some Germans.
This makes me think that I should be able to do more than condemn the stupid ones and forgive the smart ones, that I should be able to feel more of the good will toward all of them than I do.

(The photo of the Buchenwald prisoners above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, one of the first photographers to come to this concentration camp after the liberation.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Death and Poetry

My poem "Death and Poetry" is the featured poem of the day at Rattle today. The title makes the poem sound gloomy but I don't think it is -- but maybe I have a high gloominess threshold. Anyway, you can read the poem here and also hear me read it. There's a link after the poem for the audio version of the poem. Just click on it and my voice will come booming through. Thanks to the editor Timothy Green for setting all this up.


Somewhere there are shadows,
My mother in a doorway, my father
Standing by a fence. You must have
Your own shadows. The dead in one
Another’s arms. The black hearse.
Someone you love behind the curtains.

I remember Abbott and Costello,
Two dead comedians, joking about curtains:
“It’s curtains for me, curtains for you,”
Then the curtains part and the killer
Appears and says, “Slowly I turn,”
But it’s never slowly enough,

And suddenly you’re there
With your own dead and your own
Dying, and nothing feels closer to you
Than the wow moment when you won’t
Be you but some scattered, tattered
Discombobulation of purposeless ions,

The dust that suddenly is last week’s lunch
And this week’s memories of everything
That will not last, and you’re not laughing
Although you once did at Abbott and Costello
Or maybe it was the Three Stooges grinding
On about how slowly death comes.

Less carriage ride than bullet, it’s here now
And all of these words are so purposeless
That it’s a good thing I’m writing all of this
Down now because if I were to wait
Until the moment of my own death
I would just wave these words away.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

My Father's Birthday

My Father's Birthday

My dad was born on Dec. 11, 1920, in Poland on a farm north of Poznan.  By the time he was five years old, he was an orphan living on his uncle's small farm.  In 1941, he was captured by the Germans during a round-up and taken to Germany. He spent four years in Buchenwald concentration camp as a slave laborer. Every day he saw friends of his beaten, starved, and killed.

After the war, he spent another six years in refugee camps. When he came to America finally, he had nothing with him but his family and the lessons he learned as a boy in Poland and Germany.

Here is a poem that I wrote about what my dad's experiences taught him. The poem appears in my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.


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?"

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can't be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He'd seen men try the impossible and fail. 

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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Work My Father Did in Buchenwald

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When my father was dying of liver cancer, the doctors popped him full of morphine, enough morphine -- they thought -- to keep him drifting peacefully toward his death, but the morphine wasn't enough. Nothing was enough to make him forget what it was like in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He had spent 4 years there, a place where every year one out of every four of the prisoners was worked to death.

Dying and drugged up in 1997, he was back in the camps, starving and struggling to keep alive. He was convinced that the doctors and nurses were Nazi guards. He was also sure that my mother and I had betrayed him to the guards. There was nothing we could say to make him realize the war was over and he wasn't working in the camp and that there was no reason to be afraid.

He was still afraid.

Let me tell you one of the stories he told me about working in Buchenwald:

I lifted the shovel, saw the dirt, the clods still heavy with snow, and I knew that this would always be my life, one shovel and then another shovel until my arms were shaking. I never knew what the guards would say to me.

Maybe they’d ask me for a song, one of the songs I knew in Poland that I sang when I was a boy leading the steaming cows into the woods early in the spring. And I would smile and sing, and then I would ask the guards if they’d like another song.

Or maybe they would tell me I was a fool and my mother was the kind of pig the farm boys fucked when their own hands were weak from pulling on their sore meat.

And I would shovel in terror and think of the words I would not say but wanted to say:

Sirs, we are all brothers, and if this war ever ends, please, never tell your children what you’ve done to me today.


(You can read a version of this story and other stories about the work my father and mother did in Germany in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.)

Friday, December 2, 2016

My Life in Post Modernism

My Life in Post-Modernism

by John Guzlowski
Postmodernism as a literary movement, as a thing of bolts and straps, chains and compartments, began on Tuesday, August 24, 1973 at 11 am.

At that exact moment, I walked into a class room in Heavilon Hall, Purdue University, and sat down before the standing Professor Chester E. Eisinger, author of Fiction of the Forties and an unpublished and unpublishable multi-volume history of fiction since January 1950. He and I and the fifteen or so other students were there to create something new out of the bits and pieces of contemporary fiction.

That semester was divided into two parts. In the first part, we read novels we had labels for: novels by Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, novels of the grotesque, the east coast existential, the southern agrarian, the Jewish Chicago intellectual sort. All safe country: this is the stuff I and the others in the class had been reading about on the front page of the New York Times Book Review or on the covers of the Saturday Review.

The second half of the semester was different—things we had no labels for, authors whose names were whispers, books that—if they were mentioned in the Saturday Review—were buried among the crossword puzzles and the ads for trinkets and knick-knacks from the Andes. Sooner you would hear moans from the grave and cries from the sky than you should read about Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, William Burroughs, John Barth, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Some of us, of course, had heard these names, others had not, some had heard these names and dismissed them, others had not.

So what was this stuff like? Well—it was funny, complicated, dangerous, difficult, annoying, surreal, absurd, stupid, excessive, amateurish, blue, low class, fartingly offensive, politically incorrect, politically left wing, politically right wing, and drugged.

So what did we call it? Well, it was easier to describe than to name.

We were grad students and we wanted something we could call it. Something we could feel confident about on a test or in a bar or in a corridor when someone asked what the hell is going on in the 900 plus pages of Pynchon'sGravity's Rainbow. Eisinger wouldn't let us name it. Oh, we used terms but they were never — he assured us — the right terms. We tried to call it the terms we found here and there: meta-fiction, maximalist fiction, the literature of exhaustion, surfiction, fabulation, black humor, the fiction of the absurd, etc.

But as I said, he wouldn't let us call it any of these things: we were allowed officially only to call it "recent fiction."

So where did it come from — this odd recent fiction? Well, Eisinger really didn't know. He talked about this and that, talked about the resurgence of the High Modernist impulse, talked about Samuel Beckett and the 6,000,000 Jews who died in the concentration camps, but really, he didn't have much of a clue. After all, he was only an academic, ready to tell you what the white whale was like once it surfaced, but less comfortable telling you where the whale had come from to get to this surfacing place and time.

But I knew where it had come from. I might not be able to tell you what it was called but I knew where it came from. I had been reading, living, talking where it had come from for the last ten years.

It came from the beats, from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from their hallucinated, spontaneous sense of "the what" it is we are talking about, a sense without breaks, or curbs: the ultimate bus ride through the canyons of the American night—without Keanu Rives and Sandra Bullock along to strap us down into the strait-jacket of American consumerism and —what Saul Bellow calls— "special effects."

It came from Science Fiction — from the zaniness of writers like Philip Jose Farmer, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Alfred Bester and directors like Roger Corman, Ray Harryhausen, and Ed Wood: Artists, all artists with a fervent belief that you could only get to this reality by getting out of this reality, writers with a fervent belief that you could take low-class junk and transform it into art, into something James Joyce could pick up or see in Trieste and say, Yes — this is something like it.

It came from a peace gone bad and a war gone badder, a peace gone to boosterism, babbittry, and blank faced blandness — a peace that would give us Ronny Howard in Happy Days, Penny Marshall in Laverne and Shirley, and the Mod Squad as the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King's Dream of having a Dream.

It came from a childhood wasted watching the 3 Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbot and Costello—all those Jobs with a comic hard-on. What is the famous routine about Who's on First but Wittgenstein writ funny? What is Laurel and Hardy's Music Box but Camus' Myth of Sisyphus in comic drag? What is any 3 Stooges comedy but a treadmill on which we experience the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune while drowning in a sea of slapstick. Auschwitz with canned laughter?

It came from drugs—nights and days of marijuana, Benzedrine, peyote, LSD, maybe heroin, but definitely hashish: what is this fiction I've been talking about but a series of mind-altered realities, irresistible munchies, and talk between me and Bill and Nancy and Mike and Bob and Jim that just won't stop.

Yes, I knew where this stuff came from—and even though I didn't know what to call it, there were one or two other things I knew for sure:

This thing was only the beginning!

During the seven years I spent in grad school thinking and studying this thing which I didn't have a name for, I became convinced that this would be the NEXT BIG THING, this would become the canon of the 21st century (even though at the time we didn't have the word canon). These writers were an avante garde that would drag everyone into a new consciousness, a new perspective, a totally new world order. (George Bush and the Unabomber were in Eisinger's class with me). All writers would be as mad, pretentious, cerebral, self-deprecating, verbose, wild, and difficult as Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow and Barth in Letters.

There was a force coming and I was a disciple of that force, and as a disciple I was there to prepare the way for the coming. I wrote a dissertation on Hawkes, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, I co-edited a bibliography on Kerouac, I published articles on all of them and others. I did presentations at regional and national conferences. And when I edited a little art and literature magazine called Karamu, I even snuck some of this wild stuff into its pages. If you don't believe me, go back and check it out.

Then something odd happened in the 80's. I realized that this force was dying. Barth rejected the wacky stuff he used to write, Pynchon fell silent, Gaddis started writing for sit coms (I exaggerate), Coover, Hawkes, and Vonnegut started sinking into the same old, same old.

I realized another thing: Now there was a name for what it was we could never find a name for in that graduate class I took so long ago: It was called Postmodernism.

I realized another thing: My students weren't much interested in this thing.

Oh yeah, they liked the idea of taking a course called Postmodernism, but reading a Postmodern novel, a 900-page white whale about a guy who gets an erection every time a V-2 rocket falls in London during the last days of World War II—well, it was a little much.

I've taught the Postmodern fiction class six times in my twenty years as a Prof at Eastern Illinois University (three times on the grad level, and three on the undergrad level) and what I've discovered is that every time I teach the class there is just a little less interest in actually looking at Postmodern novels. The first time I taught the class, there were eight Postmodern novels and two non-Postmodern novels; the next time the ratio was six to four; then five to five; then three to seven. Also, the Postmodern novels I chose for the class were changing, getting shorter, less Postmodern, less wacky, less what ever it was that those novels of the movement without a name had.

But this isn't to say that Postmodernism is dead. What I like to call the First Generation Postmodernists are still writing. For example, after almost an eighteen-year silence, Pynchon published a so-so novel called Vineland, pronounced vine-land, or maybe its called vin-land and another novel called Mason & Dixon (I own a copy but haven’t had time to read it yet. Maybe over the Christmas holiday). And there are American writers who I like to call the Second and Third Generation of Post-Modernists. The Second Generation Post-Modernists are working in a vein that Barth calls the “Literature of Replenishment” (a mix of postmodern and non-postmodern elements): here we have writers like E. L. Doctorow, Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien, and Isaac Singer. The Third Generation Postmodernists are attempting to blend the wild/wacky stuff with Marxist, feminist, anarchic, anti-sexist, anti-racist ideology: here we have writers like Criz Mazza in her short story collection IS IT SEXUAL HARASSMENT, YET, Curt White in his devastatingly funny examination of father and son relations and TV called Memories of My Father Watching TV, and Kathy Acker in her high school montage novel Blood and Guts in High School.

And then there are the British Postmodernists. As the Americans have been falling into a slump, the Brits seem to be picking up the slack. Just as 70 years ago, the American modernists took the torch from the British modernists, we now see a renaissance of Postmodern fiction in English. There's Salmon Rushdie, Martin Amis, A. S. Byatt, Peter Ackroyd, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge (and these are just the ones I've read about in the New York Times Book Review). And what these writers can do is something American Postmodernists are pretty much unable to do: reach a mass audience, both in England and in this country. This is a feat that (with the possible exception of Kurt Vonnegut) no American Postmodernist has been able to do since 1975 when Robert Coover's "unreadable and offensive" Public Burning destroyed the American market for the Postmodern novel.

But there are some hopeful signs that Postodernism in the novel may still reach a mass audience: note Alan Lightman's delightful Einstein's Dreams and the recent successes of David Foster Wallace whose Infinite Jest (A 1079-page maximalistic homage to and pastiche of the First Generation Post-Modernists) won him a full page-and-a-half in a recent TIME magazine. And I better mention Don Delillo’s Underworld here if for no other reason than the novel’s prophetic cover features the World Trade Center and a menacing airplane.

But in all of this talk of the rise and fall and possible rise and resurgence of Postmodernism, my life in Postmodernism seems to have gotten lost. You may or may not be wondering if I am still committed to Postmodernism. Well, I am and I'm not. I'm interested in Postmodernism but it isn't the consuming/burning interest I showed when I wrote my dissertation twenty and then some years ago on Postmodern fiction, radical psychology, and the disappearance of CHARACTER. I'm interested in Isaac Singer (who may or may not be according to my own definitions a Second Generation Postmmodernist), and ethnic poets and writers (primarily Polish-Americans ones), and the forgotten American poets (Archibald Macleish, Amy Lowell, Robinson Jeffers, and Vachel Lindsay). And I'm still reading the Postmodernists, checking in with them to see what they are up to, but not — as I said — with the same impassioned interest or urgency as my failure to read Mason & Dixon in a speedy manner suggests. And maybe my eclectism is also Postmodern. Probably.

And you may also be wondering what I've learned from a life in Postmodernism. Let me tell you what some of the things I learned are:

1. The printed word as a technology that demands respect or attention is finished.
2. People no longer think that literature (a reading/book based representation of life/reality) can change the world/reality/life.
3. People no longer feel that they have to read the latest novel, book of poetry, or play.
4. People no longer have to read literary criticism or take it seriously.
5. People no longer have to take seriously people who read the latest etc. or the latest etc.
6. People can make up their own cultures.
7. They don't need me or you to tell them what it is.
8. And finally, Postmodernism is a theory you make up as you go along.