October 10th, 2010 10:36 EST
Nazism is Alive and Well and Partying in Cyberspace
The tear-stained poems of John Guzlowski
(Lightning and Ashes, John Guzlowski, Steel Toe Books, 2005, 86pp, $12)
This is how an innocent project turns into a horror show.
I read many books of poetry that I enjoy and often admire. But I`m not moved to write something about them unless I think I have something illuminative to say. Lightning and Ashes is one of those books that riveted me but did not move me to write about it, not at first. It sat on my coffee table with several stacks of books until I picked it up again and began reading it from the back to the front, a perverse habit formed in childhood.
This time I understood why John Guzlowski`s poems called me back to them. They have an innocent fragility about them, the kind of fragility that moves you to fear for certain children, for young adults whom you fear may not thrive in the hurly-burly of life. On first or second glance, that is. But closer consideration reveals a fibrousness that would stop a scythe. They are fibrous when living them, but reflecting on them is like opening a tear-stained book.
The poems called to mind an encounter years ago in New York City with an Auschwitz survivor whose luminous beauty came of having survived evil and finding each moment precious. The poems are celebrations of survival "and the triumph of human nobility.
I can`t explain what happened at this point. I had read the book twice. There was nothing in it, nothing overt, to prompt me to do what I did next, but I began searching the web for information about Nazi marching bands, bandmasters, drummers, haughty Glockenspielers, the whole goose-stepping cast of characters from a March of Times newsreel. I wanted to know what had happened to these strutters who had intimidated capital after capital. What were they thinking then? What were they thinking later?
Some of them, of course, were killed, like the millions of people their armies, political police and Einsatzgruppen killed. Why did I want to know this? It had nothing to do with the book. Or did it?
I remembered particularly the German drummers on the Champs ElysÃ©es when Paris fell. Is this what they had wanted for their musicianship? Did they see the fear and despair in the faces of their onlookers? Did they care? And, finally, why should I give a damn about the awful lot of them?
As I searched the web I found a horrid answer. There are thousands, perhaps millions of people who care, a vast, fetid swamp of people who feed on Nazi nostalgia, who buy and trade Nazi paraphernalia, who yammer about how wonderful were the SS, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe (curiously, little mention of the Kriegsmarine). And floating in this swamp are filthy, racist words: We`re coming back to rape all the frog whores ".we`ll take care of the sand niggers ".we`ll straighten things out ". "
We? I doubt they`re all German revanchists. But they`re all haters, they`re all drunk on venom, and they all approve of murder. Carl P. Paladino, the thuggish Republican candidate for governor of New York, had just threatened to take out " a pesky reporter "a death threat in public, and no prosecutor is stepping up to the plate. What would have happened to me if I had told a reporter I was going to take him out? Would people have thought I meant to an Italian restaurant? Where is our public decency?
I wondered if this decadent obsession with Nazism is merely coincident with our American retreat into a la-la America that never existed "a whiter, more unjust America "or whether it is part of a white and racist response to successive waves of immigration that have transformed European and North American demography, a change embodied in the election of an African-American president.
The ascension of the Nazis in 1933 was the result of a longing for a wholeness and purity of purpose that Germans felt they had lost as a result of their defeat in World War I, a national wholeness they`d never really had. They came to believe all too willingly that broadly assimilated Jews who had shared Germany`s destiny for a long time stood in the way of this identity with a purpose. Isn`t this exactly what underlies much of the Tea Party speechifying? And isn`t it even more bogus than it was in Germany? Germany was, after all, far more homogeneous than we are. African-Americans, Jews and many other peoples were present at the birth of European America, albeit the African-Americans unwillingly. But there was from the outset an impulse to anglicize the country, to ignore multiethnic and tolerant New Amsterdam and to mythologize intolerant and homogeneous Plymouth and Jamestown. And this impulse is today resurgent in spite of our obvious diversity, and the impulse`s survival depends on the silent acquiescence of our most assimilated minorities "the Irish, Italians, Slavs and others. It even depends on the silence of African-Americans who remain anything but assimilated. Without the tacit approval of these minorities this revival of ethnocentrism masquerading as a popular movement will fail at the polls. And as for New Amsterdam, well, New York City is still demonized in parts of the nation as something apart and not quite American.
So here in my head, with my fingers turning the pages and my eyes sorrowing, was this nexus of poetry, hatred and today`s politics. It was to me an example of the power of poetry to project us towards astonishing speculations. A poem sets off a sequence of events in our minds and there is no telling where we will wind up. Guzlowski`s elegiac poems stand in stark contrast to today`s vogue for sentimental, intellectually flaccid poetry.
He had not meant to sound political alarms, although his book was published in 2005, an alarming time. What times are not alarming these days? But I`m sure he would not be surprised that a reader should think of the Nazis and the shadow they cast over today`s events. We know, after all, that when all rhetoric is parsed the Tea Party and the fabulously funded right-wing revanchism we are witnessing is about racism, not taxes or big government or big spending. We know the ascent to the presidency of an African-American set it off. (What we don`t know is why our minorities are strangely silent about it.)
It`s probably not fair to turn an appreciation of a book of poems into political discourse. On the other hand, it might be a tribute to the poems, which in their elegant progress from one song to another, one elegy to another, inspire such speculation. Poetry, art and performance are much more current than the news, more cogent. They put our minds to work, the last thing politicians want. The state of our culture is not in the news, it`s in the arts.
John Guzlowski`s poems are naked, as were the gas chamber victims, and in their naked, plaintive beauty they call into question everything that shouts, dolls up, sneers and bullies. The Nazis were masters of deceit and disguise. Even vanquished they looked victorious. A booted and buckled fool with his assortment of variously propelled junk, " Vladimir Nabokov had memorably called the Nazi in That In Aleppo Once. I concur with him on Monday, but on Tuesday I see the Nazis as superb actors. I begin to fall into the Stockholm Syndrome thinking about them, the syndrome into which our right wing would like the rest of us to fall. Charlie Chaplin gave us the comic-opera Nazi, but the Nazis gave us an enduring metaphor for menace, and it is celebrated today on the web with a vengeance.
As I studied the faces of those booted drummers and their godlike bandmasters I remembered the story of a German soldier who every day for weeks escorted people to the gas chamber, and then one day he undressed and marched to his death with them. How many of those Wehrmacht and SS musicians were like him? How many were killed? How many suicides? How much evil can we (for we are them) stomach? And are we about to find out here in America?
I read and reread John Guzlowski`s poems about the war coming to his native Poland, the slave labor camps, the death camps, the starvation and brutality, and finally a new but haunted, broken life in America. And I kept thinking of church liturgy; it`s beautiful and memorable, but Jesus would have preferred these honest poems whose astonishing beauty comes from witness, from unutterable pain, the pain of the cross. This is the way we should speak to God, I thought. This is what God will hear. Guzlowski`s poems stand out like the red letter passages of the New Testament compared to what we must attribute to others.
I have always thought the act of writing a poem, the work, is prayer. John Guzlowski has affirmed me in this conviction. Listen:
Dear Baby Jesus,
If You have any pity left
bestow it, please, on my wife.
She suffers from the war.
".So the poet imagines his father`s prayer. This terrifyingly honest poem gets even more harrowing.
But my wife Tekla "
she is one of your sparrows
and the pain she feels
has nowhere to go
so she beats our daughter
and is cruel to our son
who she also loves.
God then is cruel to us because we are loved? It`s tempting to make that our sardonic refrain, but more likely we are witnessing the crux of the psychiatrist Alice Miller`s writings, that cruelty is a generational legacy and the horrors perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler can be traced to a brutal parent.
Hope is/the cancer no drug can cure, the poet writes in My Father Dying. " My mind ranged over the terrible suffering his parents had endured and witnessed, suffering he had had to glean and process as one who loved them but had not shared their time on the cross. The Germans came and six million Polish Jews and Catholics were to die in the camps. The half-human politicians who had ignited the war "those who started it and those who were slow to act "fell silent as ordinary people, housewives, foresters, farmers, tradesmen were consumed in the conflagration.
And now once more the politicians are talking far too much, stealing our money, pandering to the oligarchs while a vast tide of sentimentality for the awful Nazis rolls across the web "fellow human beings whose hearts are stirred by unspeakable cruelty and wanton murder. This too is what the cross symbolizes, and this too is a crucifixion.
And indeed John Guzlowski does recall Saint John of the Cross. Mysticism is not mumbo jumbo, it is the very plaint of our inmost selves, and it may speak as plainly as barroom palaver or as hieratically as a Delphic oracle or as enthralling as Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Guzlowski`s poems are lyrical, stanzaic and unrhymed. But plainspoken as they are, they take on the aspect and sound of plainsong and therefore we experience the odd sensation of remembering them as rhymed. In this sense, whatever their salute in the direction of formalism, they are thoroughly modernist. They rely on the reader`s knowledge of rhyme, the reader`s memory of rhyme as their own device, and so the reader unconsciously supplies the rhyme.
The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald " appears in Part Three of Lightning and Ashes and is the most extended poem in the collection. The Germans, as in other poems here, appear as specters. Their indifference to the suffering of humans is ghoulish. I think it is this facet of the book that turned my mind towards the Wehrmacht musicians. I was searching for humanity in dark places. Perhaps I even felt resentful that an entire race should be cast so uniformly, as it were. But the poet was constrained to speak of what he knew, and what he knew was what Germans had inflicted.
We soldiers are only human. We love
to kill. It is the hidden God in each of us.
This chilling coda concludes German Soldiers Come to My Mother`s Village. " It could hardly be more current as our own army investigates allegations that five American soldiers, coming to an Afghan village, had murdered Afghan civilians for the sheer fun of it.
But not just Germans, it should be said, because life in Chicago after the war wasn`t easy. There was yet another language to contend with, other mores, other prejudices.
I see long lines of people "never mind their nationalities "holding candles and chanting these poems. No liturgy, however magnificent, ascends to this witness.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com