Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded
by John Guzlowski
Press: Aquila Polonica Press
Date: March 7, 2016
Reviewed by: Sandra Kolankiewicz
Lives Tattered by War
If you have read one of John Guzlowski’s poems about his parents’ Nazi work camp experiences, most likely you remember it, even if you don’t remember who wrote it. I still feel the anxiety of trying to give support to a man who is being crucified—a feeling created by his poem “What My Father Believed.” If you know Guzlowski’s work, you are in for a one-stop treat of familiar territory, a golden arc of experience, exquisite anguish, compassion, outrage, and love. If you have never had the fortune of exploring his, get ready.
The title “Echoes of Tattered Tongues” creates many images. First I consider the physicality of the tongue; in death it no longer speaks. Then I think of ‘tongue’ as language: WW II happened in so many languages that conveying the experience is blocked without translation. Finally, I understand that, upon their arrival to the United States, Guzlowski’s parents were forced to speak a tongue unfamiliar to them. Except for their small neighborhood and apartment, Polish was no longer available to express and to be understood.
The book is divided in four parts, some of them drawn from former collections. Structurally, the book begins at the end. The first piece is an essay about the “Wooden Trunk” that came with them from Poland. So many families have a trunk, idea vessel to cart your few belongings with you to another country. Guzlowski is also his parents’ ‘trunk.’ Without knowing or realizing it, he internalized their voices—and the stories and voices of all the people they had known. Through his description, we physically see the trunk, but when he writes his poems, we discover the nonmaterial contents of the trunk. Just like his father transformed the prison walls into a vehicle to carry their belongings, John has been transformed their pain into a greater purpose. He writes the story of the trunk, paralleling its existence with his mother’s death, like a coffin. Though the reader mourns the loss of the trunk, Guzlowki knows it was good to let it go.
How fitting that the poem which follows is about the destruction of the Polish Cavalry, which marked the beginning of the unraveling of his parents’ lives. Eventually, they retired to Arizona, but still we see in the poems the need not to waste things, born out of a poverty that few can imagine. The poems about his mother have an anger, a tenderness, an awareness of unforgiveable cruelty, the finality of death—we hear her voice dispensing wisdom, recounting mindboggling torture. Safe in Arizona, the sun shining above—but always the darkness beneath.
One of the most brilliant aspects of this book is that these poems are the poems of anyone who has suffered in war. Whether you were/are a Jew, a Pole, Syrian refugee or— you name the international disaster—John Guzlowski tells the refugees’ story. He writes of unimaginable terror from 70 years ago—but he might as well be describing our current world. This poem from “ IV. Liberation”: “But the British moved them again to another camp,/ and they had to leave the wood, even though/my father tried to carry some on his back./ And it was cold in the new place, and many of the babies died, and my sister was very sick,/ maybe from drinking the dirty water.” Or from “V. What the War Taught Her”: She learned that the world is a broken place/ where no birds sing, and even the angels/ cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.”
However, in Guzlowki’s work, there is always hope. For all the terror, the mutuality of sorrow creates an interdependence: “Maybe this was why my mother stayed./ She knew only a man worthless as mud,/ worthless as a broken dog, would suffer/ with her through all of her sorrow.” (“Why My Mother Stayed with My Father”) His father plants an orange tree when he is nearly too sick to move. Why is it hopeful when his dying father calls out for his own mother? Because love endures. And “Souls Migrating in the Rain”! When you are a middle aged orphan (which we will all be, unless we die first, when we lose our parents), you’ll be moved by his description of the sea’s “…moving first toward me/ and then away, toward me/ and then away” as your past dissipates with their passing.
Section II, “Refugees,” is a mix of short creative nonfiction pieces and poems. Like all of Guzlowski’s work, in spite of its focus on the Polish experience, his observations and ability to channel the refugee’s experience is astounding. Disorientation, expectation, relocation, finding a job and a place to live. His family ended up in Chicago—in an area where many had similar histories to the Guzlowski family’s. In a new city on the other side of the world, the past is ever present. Clearly Guzlowski’s parents were suffering from what we call PTSD, all wrapped up with memory, superstition, and grief. However, what strikes me constantly in his poems—which appear to have been channeled from his parents and their generation—is their decency, their sense of right and wrong, their moral compass in a world that appears not to have one, the drive to survive. Even in the poem “Fussy Eaters,” we see the mother trying to explain to her daughter the folly of restaurant food, reminding me of the mother in Ernest Gaines’ story “The Sky is Grey,” who beats her child for being unable to kill a redbird because it’s pretty. Mother knows that if he is going to survive, he is going to have to be able to do what it takes to get food.
On the second page of Book III, “The War,” Mrs. Guzlowski is quoted directly. When asked if she would like to send a message to the audience at one of her son’s readings about the war, she says “Yes. Tell them we weren’t the only ones.” You have to read only the titles to understand this section of the book: “Landscape with Dead Horses, 1939,” “There Were No Miracles,” “III. German Soldiers Stealing from the Dead.” Words like “Cattle Train” and “Boxcar.” I’m mesmerized, for this morning as I listened to the news reports from the Middle East, I was holding Echoes of Tattered Tongues in my hands and marveling that even when he writes about war sixty years ago, he’s writing about war now and its rules of decency: “If a German soldier comes to you/ and asks you to shoot the man/ next to you because that man/ isn’t even bones in his striped suit,/ tell the soldier, “No, you’re the Devil….We are brothers in death and brothers in death don’t torment each other….”
The epilogue presents one of my favorite stories about Guzlowski’s mother. She is 83 and dying, unburdening herself of memories, telling him one story after another, each worse than the one before. John stops her, doesn’t allow her to tell a story he knows will be “the worse thing [he’s] ever heard.” I don’t know if she was just angry that he wouldn’t allow her to speak or just aware that those of us who have not directly experienced war, will always be somehow immature, but she calls him “a baby.” I don’t know why, but I love her for it.
The last poem, “In Heaven,” makes me want to be with my dead friends and relatives, eating poppy seed cake. This is a peaceful poem, made more so by the flashes of darkness provided by the “cows dying suddenly in the field.” By the end of the book, John’s family are all reunited after death, catching up on lost time, telling stories. The last line of the poem, and of the book, is, “Did you miss us?” Love, most importantly sharing love, holding a lost one in your heart, is all that survives and matters.