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Your questions about remembering and forgetting and “re-creating” are ones that I’ve thought about too as I’ve worked through my poems and essays about my parents. An interviewer, Okla Elliot, once asked me the following question: “In Lightning and Ashes, you make use of what seems like direct family sources (such as the poem “A Letter to my Mother from Poland, October 4, 1952″). What portion of these source materials is rooted in actual familial documents, what part from family lore, and what part poetic creation?”

The answer to the question wasn’t easy, and I hope you forgive me for going on so long, but here’s what I said to him:

It’s a central question. When I started writing my poems about my parents back in the late 1970s, I was in grad school and very conscious of the ways memory can be manipulated and tricked out for various literary effects. My wife was working on rhetoric and the art of memory, and I was doing a dissertation on the postmodern sense of the self and how it plays out in fiction. One of the books I was writing about was Pynchon’s V., and one of my favorite quotes in that book came from what Pynchon said about Fausto Majistral and this character’s autobiographical writing. Here’s the quote:
“Now memory is a traitor: gilding, altering. The word is, in sad fact, meaningless, based as it is on the false assumption that identity is single, soul continuous. A man has no more right to set forth any self-memory as truth than to say ‘Maratt is a sour-mouthed University cynic’ or ‘Dnubietna is a liberal and madman.’”

The first poem I wrote about my parents is called “Dreams of Warsaw,” and it deals with their memories of the war and my own oldest childhood memories of my father’s telling me about the war. Right there, as the literary analyst I was training to be, I could see a lot of potential for complexity, layering, and manipulation of memory. There’s my parents’ years in the camps, my father’s retelling of that story, my mother’s retelling of that story, my childhood memories of their retellings, and then my adult attempt to place all of that within the context of my life and of course in the context of a poem.

Over the next 25 years, as I worked up the poems that went into Lightning and Ashes, I’ve had to deal with this nexus of memories, and it’s hard to say that there is a certain definite portion that is from actual family history, family lore, or my poetic creation. All three come together to varying degrees in various poems. There are some poems like “My Mother Reads My Poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg’” that come almost completely from my mother’s telling in her own words about what actually happened. And the poem takes issue with my earlier poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg” (based on my childhood memories of what my dad said about how she was taken to Germany by the Nazis) so that she in large part in “My Mother Reads” is trying to get at her own truth of what happened. When my mother read “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” she told me what was wrong with my earlier poem, and I wrote it down. 90% of the poem is her words in
English about her experience.

There’s very little that I did to the poem beyond breaking her statements into lines and stanzas and cutting out one significant detail from her telling that I thought would cause the reader to ask unnecessary questions about what happened to her.

That’s one extreme. The other is the poem that is essentially fiction. The prose poem you ask about — “A Letter to my Mother from Poland, October 4, 1952″ – is not based on an actual letter. In fact, I never read any of the many letters written to my mother by her sister Sophie about what it was like in Poland for my Polish relatives after the war, after the Soviet takeover of Poland. I knew about these letters, of course.

As a child, I remember my mother receiving them. She was a private woman, and she could not share her grief with anyone. She would get these letters and take them into the bedroom and read them there, after closing the door. I would stand on the other side of the door sometimes and listen to her weeping as she read the letters about it was like in Poland after the war. I would beg her not to cry through the closed door. Toward the end of my mother’s life, when I would visit her to get her papers and things in order, I asked her where the letters were. I knew she had kept them and added new letters as they still occasionally came from Poland. I was shocked by her response to my question. She had destroyed them, all of the letters that came from her family in Poland.

The “Letter to My Mother from Poland” poem is my attempt to recreate one of these destroyed letters. The description of the hunger and poverty in the first stanza, the dreams of my grandmother who was raped and killed by the Nazis, the wish for reunion—all of that was invented for the letter, but the invention of course was never complete invention. My father would sometimes reference the letters when I was a child. He’d mention the poverty or the hunger or the loneliness of being separated from the family that my mother read about in these letters. These things were part of the truth of these letters, and I tried to get this truth into this poem and into the other poems I wrote about my parents.

There was a Polish writer named Jozef Mackiewicz who said that “Only the truth is interesting.” And I believe that, but the truth is sometimes hard to convey. Sometimes the truth has to get heated up (embellished, transformed, jazzed up).

For me, Tim O’Brien’s essay “How To Tell A True War Story” gets at something important about telling a war story. Sometimes the facts themselves just don’t convey the horror that you would hope they convey. Here’s an example: 50,000,000 people died in WWII. I can tell that fact to a hundred people, one after another, and they probably won’t react much, not emotionally at least, maybe not even intellectually. I need to tell them something more. I need to tell them about these dead people in a way that will carry the weight of 50,000,000. I need to tell about my mother and the letters she used to get from her sister and what they talked about, the death of their mother, the guilt they felt for being alive, the sense of emotional and physical hunger they were left with after the war, the yearning for some kind of spring that would give them peace from their memories.

I don’t know if this was what was actually in the letters my mother received, but it is the truth that they carried for her.
The entire interview appears at http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/12/25/from-the-ashes-an-interview-with-john-guzlowski/

One Response to “Guest blogger John Guzlowski re-creates the past”

  1. jim evans says:

    John, enjoyed your blog.. imagining your mothers pain…