John Guzlowski's 'The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald’
The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald
by John Guzlowski
Finishing Line Press, 27 pp., $12
John Guzlowski’s latest chapbook, The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, is a study in liminality: in these spare poems, the central father figure is constantly on the cusp between the dreams that make life endurable and the nightmare reality in which he finds himself. To say that these poems are filled with an awful beauty is cliché, and yet what makes these poems gripping is the calm and often lovely veneer overlaid on the obvious horror of their narrative content. Here we are reminded that what makes real horror so terrifying is that it is not populated with unknowable monsters, but with the things of everyday life—children’s songs, soft cheese and plums and cherries, a cow in the field. The strength of these poems comes from the poet’s denial of the easy image or a reliance on the tragedy to make the emotional center of the poem; instead, the fragmentation and frankness of the imagery and language create a way for readers to begin to understand what ultimately avoids understanding.
In the four lines that make up the poem “Prologue,” the poet establishes both the understated violence that reigns in the chapbook as well as an insistence that the reader is interior to, if not complicit in, the action of the poems:
My father’s hands are cut into pieces,
each piece small, pebble size.
If you are hungry at night,
You’ll put a piece in your mouth.
Guzlowski’s combination here of violence and nourishment, of a father’s experience mediated through a son’s recounting, of the reader’s distance and intimacy, typifies the collection. The 24 poems that make up the body of the book, framed by prologue and epilogue poems, are numbered with Roman numerals. This decision by the poet to focus on a logical order to the poems strives to set order to the chaos of experience. As we make our way through each poem, we feel as if we are watching a day slip away; as soon as we have apprehended an image, another one, equally striking, takes its place. We watch the poems accumulate with each number that follows—the ticking away of a morning, afternoon, evening—without knowing what precisely is gained. Juxtaposed with the ordering of the poems is the timelessness of their narratives; the poet’s lyrical use of language foregrounds the what of the poems rather than the when. In this unknowable time, the poet creates for us “a winter that will never end” (“XXIII” line 5), with all of its uncomfortable limitlessness.
With Guzlowski’s control of the time—or timelessness—in these poems, he recreates the at-once distillation and expansion of time that typifies experience in trauma. As is the nature of trauma to level past and future, for the father there is only a present, the now of the experience. Each poem in the collection is written in the present tense, and by grounding us in the present, Guzlowski ensures that each time the poems are read, the father’s experience is replayed, refusing to let us forget that the trauma is a human trauma and is of this time. As a result, the poems here purposely subvert of our desire to assign a lesson to what is learned from such horror—disallowing the perspective of time to reflect and make meaning. Here is a mark of Guzlowski’s genius, as he makes us focus instead on the human tragedy and strength rather than on the reader’s desire to find out the “moral” of the story. The collection reminds us of the perils of looking to horror as a vehicle for a lesson at the expense of understanding the inherent human strength and suffering.
So unwavering is the speaker’s focus that the reader is given no relief from the father’s experience. Fourteen poems in the collection begin with “He,” referring to the father, and in seven of those poems, the reader is told “He dreams.” By never letting the father out of the reader’s sight—and by making us watch him both from without and by seeing into his dreams— we witness how fundamentally his experience in the camp clouds waking and sleeping life: not even in his dreams can the father escape reality entirely. Already by the third poem do we realize the enormity of his situation, when the reader is told that even in his dreams “Nothing / will save him. He knows this and wakes / waiting to dream of the river’s bottom” (lines 12-14). Even when the father “dreams a comedy” (“XV” line 1), the poem comes quickly to the chilling conclusion that “He laughs until someone kicks him” (line 8). Far from tedium, the strict attention to the father requires the reader to push beyond an easy reaction of pity or horror, and move instead toward recognition of the nuance of the father’s experience.
The weightlessness of all the dreaming, and particularly “waiting to dream of the river’s bottom,” establishes the image of the falling body that pervades the collection. In “VIII,” a dream of falling is the poem’s impetus:
He dreams he’s one of the boy scouts
of Katowice, forced by the Nazis
to jump from the tower in the park
My father falls screaming.
His courage will not give him wings.
His dead mother watches and cries.
Waking, he remembers her love
for him and how he cried
when she died in the winter.
Her love couldn’t give her wings
This is the only time in the collection where a poem ends without punctuation, and so it leaves us suspended—falling—as we are denied the comfort of closure at the end. From this falling we find ourselves landing in a landscape that is markedly colder than the earlier poems, as if the day is already dimming; the reader is confronted by accumulating images of snow and frozen ground as the father becomes increasingly detached from the world around him and from his body. Early in the collection, “he feels trees are growing in him” (“V” line 1), an image echoed and complicated in “XIV” as he feels stones “pressing / against his skin, trying to burst through” (lines 2-3). Through this shift across the collection, hope that the changes happening to him are somehow generative is gone; burning stones now grow “beneath the skin on his arms” (“XIV” line 1) where trees once grew. With the increasing unnaturalness of imagery, we see the exhaustion that comes with such detachment and trauma, until the self becomes the Other. In poem XIII, we learn that the father:
[…] hates no one, not God,
not the dead who come to him,
not the Germans who caught him,
not even himself for being alive.
He is a man held together
with stitches he has laced himself.
Here Guzlowski presents us with a father who has been pushed beyond hatred of those who hurt him, pushed beyond considering his body as anything but a subject of objectification and alienation. This is a collection, after all, that is framed by the image of cut-off hands; and while these are disembodied hands, neither cupped nor supportive, the hands do provide nourishment (in the prologue) and have the potential, at least, to grow (in “Epilogue”):
If he plants his cut-off hands in the ground
will they take root, bring him the promise
of his mother and father, will a stem
grow from his wrist, leaves from his fingers,
will these be his children, will he know
how to water them, will his water be
enough to bring them the love they’ll seek
as they uncurl like roses before the spring sun,
will his tears be the holy, saving water,
or will they be a blasphemy against
his blessed lord, just the bitterness
of a cow disappointed with its field?
As this final poem illustrates, these poems defy easy definition as hopeless or hopeful; rather, Guzlowski perfectly positions the reader in a state of suspended hope, reminding us that what we see can as easily become the instrument of a person’s downfall as it can become his salvation.