Czeslaw Milosz once said that John Guzlowski has “…an enormous ability for grasping reality” and while I couldn’t agree more, what I find especially striking about Guzlowski’s poetry is their remarkable blend of academic scrutiny with stark, uncompromising humanity. Guzlowski is largely known for writing about his parents’ experience in the Nazi concentration camps. While poets have always been drawn to and often feel an inexplicable affinity for tragic events—the Holocaust in particular—what I find fascinating is Guzlowski’s ability to always say something new, I think by balancing overarching social commentary with the smallest, heart-wrenching details.
For instance, in “Brief History of Sorrow” Guzlowski deftly balances stark but abstract statements like “Sorrow is the gift/God gives to teach us/what won’t last” with images of bronze shoes, a lost photograph, a lost penny, and most chilling of all, a scream “that ends in screaming.”
Consider as well how the horror of what’s happening in “The Bakers of Auschwitz” is made all the more poignant by the connotation of Guzlowski’s word choice (a duality that surely must be intentional). Taken by themselves, lines like “the sighs of dough/rising” and “a jelly of dreams” might be psychologically lulling … until we remind ourselves what he’s actually describing. Then, we snap out of our complacency just as surely as we would if we were watching Schindler’s List and found ourselves feeling alternately numb and horrified, numb and horrified. In that way, “The Bakers of Auschwitz” speaks to a historical collapse of morality of which we can never say too much; more subtly, though, it speaks to the alternating feelings of horror and cognitive disconnect that often go hand in hand.
When I first read the next poem, “The Death of the Poet John Milton, Nov. 8, 1764,” I immediately remembered hearing a doctor say that family members who are at the bedside of dying loved ones, family members who have been tirelessly keeping the vigil for days, will often find that their loved one dies during the couple minutes when they left to stretch their legs or use the restroom. For the living, it’s often a source of shame; for the dying, it’s a final gift (either for their loved ones or, just as often, for themselves). This poem reminded me intensely of how I felt after my mother died—from a heart attack, alone, literally minutes after I said goodnight and went to sleep—but by shifting the perspectives, it filled me with a feeling of peace and catharsis for which I am eternally grateful.
The final poem, “Melon,” also won my heart—not just for its demonstration of a writer’s Zen-like fixation on a simple object, and a realization of beauty for beauty’s sake, but the remarkable turn of its final line (which I won’t spoil for you). So check these poems out, and when you’re done, cruise over to Amazon and buy Guzlowski’s wonderful book, Lightning and Ashes. Best ten bucks you’ll ever spend.