Lightning and Ashes

John Guzlowski

Steel Toe Books

John Guzlowski's book, Lightning and Ashes, chronicles the lives of Guzlowski's parents in WWII and post-WWII Europe, where his mother and father were placed in labor camps and later filed away as Displaced Persons before eventually immigrating to The United States, where many of these poems are also based. In many ways the poems of this book are historical, political poems. Yet Lightning and Ashes also meditates on the connections between generations, from mother-to-son, father-to-daughter, and how the wires and signals of experience get crossed in good ways and bad. There's a temptation to consider or label Guzlowski's work plain, sparse, gray. But there's a reason for that. Because Lightning and Ashes attempts to answer a question not often posed by poetry nearly enough anymore: How does one utilize imagination in an effort to record terror, hostility, depravation, when experiences like those of Guzlowski's parents render metaphor and simile out of place, if not entirely useless? In light of this question, Guzlowski decides to let such devices take a backseat, not an easy thing for a poet to do, and lets the facts of the story do the work for him instead. Only on occasion do these poems employ tactful artifice. “German Soldiers Come to My Mother's Village,” for instance, marks a drastic shift in perspective as Guzlowski assumes the voice of a German soldier who tells us of a group of Poles:

There is no fat for their lamps. The sole light
you see comes from a candle in a cellar
where a woman in rags searches for roots.

This is the only world they'll ever know:
these huts, and the mud road that brought us here.

The opening to “There Were No Miracles,” however, embodies the tact of the majority of this book:

Men died where they stood

Children were left
for the dogs and the pigs

At its best, Lightning and Ashes is a book concerned with lessons learned. Sometimes the learning may have taken half a lifetime, however, and most often it isn't a political or historical lesson. In “Chores” Guzlowski reflects on an exchange with his mother:

One day I asked my mother,
“How about an allowance
for sweeping these stairs?
A quarter once a week?”

When his mother denies him, Guzlowski remember how:

She grabbed my broom
and went outside and stopped
the first kid she saw on the street,

a kid I hated from school,
and she gave him a quarter
just for doing the stairs
I would've done for free.

Perhaps this is Guzlowski reflecting back on a lesson learned decades ago. Perhaps it's a reflection of a lesson learned only now, decades later. Either way, the moment has stuck with him, and for good reason, just as many of these poems stick with the reader.

--Jay Robinson