When I taught Introduction to Literature I'd ask my students who'd often revolt against reading difficult texts, or by denying that life can be hard, even ugly, since their lives had been pretty sheltered until then: "What's the purpose of art?" Is it merely to make us feel better? Is it, as Oprah Winfrey would have it, to confirm our own beliefs and experiences? Or is it more? Think about the great Greek tragedies that called upon their audiences to feel terror and pity for the tragic fate of blind Oedipus, among others. Think of Dante's Inferno, which is literally meant to scare the Bejesus into us about our ultimate fate? Think of the bizarre, brain wracking, often ugly conundrums in almost any Kafka story. Think of the huge body of work about the Nazi Holocaust or any of the other killing grounds closer to our own age. Do these console? Do these reaffirm our beliefs and experiences? I'd argue their purpose is to bear witness to the horror that our lives can all too often devolve into when humans turn into devils and self-appointed executioners. These works are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, to question our assumptions, our values, how we live our lives, to rub our noses in the filth and excrement of existence.
And that, I would argue, is the purpose of John Z. Guzlowski's magisterial collection of poems, Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded: The book shakes us up, gets us out of our middle–class American complacency, and makes us see just how horrible the world can be, and yet people do survive and make decent lives for themselves, even if they're scarred for life. Guzlowski's Polish parents were the victims of Nazi horror, both of them were interred in slave labor camps in Germany, tossed starvation slops for food, physically beaten, brutalized in all sorts of ways, and yet they both survived. Still, once one has spent time in hell, that becomes one's sole reality, and Guzlowski's parents bore the scars of their torment for the rest of their lives.
This tripartite collection begins with his parents in retirement (and depicts their deaths) in Arizona, then works its way back to Guzlowski's birth in a Displaced Persons' Camp after the War, and concludes with the horrors of his parents' capture by the Nazis and their being put to "work" in a slave labor camp. Somehow, this reversal of what we'd normally expect as the traditional beginning, middle, and end of the story–telling process works perfectly. Each segment is introduced by a prose piece, to set the scene for what the reader will experience. The collection is also prefaced by a prose piece and at the outset, the introductory poem "My People": "My people were all poor people,/the ones who survived...//They keep going—through the terror/in the snow and the misery/in the rain—till some guy pierces/their stomachs with a bayonet." This almost casual depiction of violence is, to a large extent, Guzlowski's modus operandi for telling his story throughout. He has no need for flowery language, the plain facts plainly told are more than sufficient to his task.
"What My Father Believed" comes as close as any poem in this collection to depicting the almost despairing, but poetically breathtaking, philosophy of a camp survivor:
"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."
But Guzlowski is quick to tell us that his parents were far from saints: his father drank up paychecks, so his mother often resorted to smacking her husband for being so irresponsible, and beating the kids too, especially his sister, for not being tough enough for the savagery of this world. How could she have been anything but hard, to have survived seeing the Nazi–slaughtered corpses of her sister, mother, and baby niece, when she returned home, before the butchers dragged her off to the camps? So, the question Guzlowski asks, is why they stayed together. Here's his answer, in "Why My Mother Stayed with My Father": "She knew only a man worthless as mud/worthless as a broken dog, would suffer/with her through all her sorrow."
Book Three, "The War," plunges us into the hell of World War II, with its depiction of the slave laborers' trials and the often gleeful torments their guards inflicted on the internees. Here's an overview of one of the many ways people can be wolves (though that's giving wolves a bad name) to each other, "What My Father Knows About Killing": "A man/will kill a horse or a cow or a pig/with respect he'll never show a man.//He says that suffering is the sauce/we reserve for men and women."
And here's a depiction of the casual, horrible cruelty that women guards inflicted on the innocent, in "A Life Story": "She was born/in a concentration camp/in 1944. She was one pound/eight ounces. She was/a leaf of grass. She was lovely.//And the women guards/smashed her into the wall/and wrapped her in newspaper/and threw her in the garbage/with the others." To quote Eliot, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" And yet here's Guzlowski's father, addressing the camp guards, in "The Work My Father Did in Germany": "Sirs, we are all/brothers, and if this war ever ends,/please, never tell your children/what you've done to me today."
What makes these poems so astounding, so powerful, is not merely the horrors Guzlowski depicts, but the matter-of-fact, deadpan language he employs. This relatively flat affect allows him to portray the horrors humans can inflict on each other. Had he resorted to editorializing and overdramatizing the horrors of the camps, the gravity of these events would not have been nearly as telling.
Which is not to say there aren't moments of peace and tranquility here. In the collection's final poem, "In Heaven," Guzlowski offers us this consolation: "I will sit around the table/eating poppy-seed cake/and drinking coffee/with my mom and dad." There's such understated tenderness in those lines, though we have to face the inescapable proof that to reach that tenderness we have to be dead and in heaven, which may or may not exist.
Back in the late 60s, when a friend and I would rate songs we loved, we'd categorize some as beautiful, others as great, in that they transcended beauty into some sort of universal truth (though we may have been so stoned we perceived the truths). But in all sobriety, I can say that these poems are great, and Echoes of Tattered Tongues is a great book. But it's even more than that; it's an important book, a necessary book. And if it makes the reader uncomfortable, then so be it. That's what great literature is for.