The following interview of John Guzlowski by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission and thanks to producer Marlena Bond).
Born in a refugee camp after World War II, John Guzlowski came with his family to the United States as a Displaced Person. His parents had been slave laborers in Nazi Germany. Growing up in the immigrant and DP neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, he met Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. His poems try to remember them and their voices. He has written three books of poems about his parents and the world they came from: Language of Mules, Third Winter of War, and Lightning and Ashes.
Winner of the Illinois Arts Award for Poetry, short-listed for the Bakeless Award, and nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, Guzlowski’s poetry and fiction has appeared in such journals as Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Nimrod, Crab Orchard Review, Poetry East, and in the anthology Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Garrison Keillor read Guzlowski’s poem “What My Father Believed” on his program, The Writers Almanac.
Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, reviewing the Polish translation of Language of Mules, for the journal Tygodnik Powszechny, said, “This volume astonished me.”
Guzlowski blogs about his parents at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/
Garrison Keillor reads “What My Father Believed” on Writer’s Almanac: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2007/12/28
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?”
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.