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Lightning and Ashes

John Guzlowski


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Praise For John Guzlowski's Poetry

In [Guzlowski’s] poems the land of his parents and the work camps are always present, although at the same time they are only part of his poetic repertoire. In the volume which I have at hand, there are a lot of completely different poems, completely free of the burden of the past. This slim volume even astonished me with its doubleness. The first part summons precisely the camp images from the life of the author’s parents, who were treated by the Nazis like beasts of burden. Their awkward language, because they were both half-literate, was for the Nazis a language of mules. The second part reveals an enormous ability for grasping reality with some distance.
—Czesław Miłosz


Lightning and Ashes chronicles the terrible things that happened to the poet’s parents in the death camps of WW II. Of course, the atrocities perpetrated on the Jews (and others) have not gone unnoticed in our literature, but Guzlowski should join the annals of the great recording angels, not just for his unsparing yet compassionate language but also because he makes clear what is so easy to forget: that no matter how many years pass, such events never do. That what happened in the camps is like his father’s eye, fixed forever open. In Lightning and Ashes, which might as well have been titled Remembrance, Guzlowski shows us how his family might have lived had the war not happened, then describes unforgettably how they did.
—Lola Haskins


The poet’s father tells his son that in one of the slave-labor camps he had watched ‘a woman in the moments before she died / take a stick and try to write her name / in the mud where she lay.’ This book magnificently redeems that lost gesture. It brings us face to face with what we cannot allow ourselves to forget.
—Jared Carter

Awards for Lightning and Ashes

Honorable Mention for the 2009 Eric Hofer Book Award for Poetry

The Hoffer award is designed to "to honor freethinking writers and independent books of exceptional merit." Lightning and Ashes was one of three honorable mentions for this award.


Reviews of Lightning and Ashes

Lightning and Ashes: The Poetry of John Guzlowski by Thomas Napierkowski (Polish American Studies, 65.1, Spring 2008)

John Guzlowski is arguably the most accomplished Polish-American poet on the contemporary scene, a writer who will figure prominently in any history of Polish-American literature; and Lightning and Ashes firmly establishes Guzlowski's artistic standing not just in Polonia but in the world of American letters. A proper appreciation of Guzlowski's vision and achievement, however, requires some biographical background. 1 John Guzlowski is the son of Jan Guzlowski and Tekla Hanczarek, Polish nationals who were deported to Germany during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Born in 1920 in farming village north of Poznań, Jan was arrested by Nazi soldiers in 1940 and transported with other men of his village to the Buchenwald Concentration District where he worked for five years as a slave laborer on farms and in factories. Tekla was born in 1922 west of Lwów in eastern Poland; she was taken into custody in a roundup in 1942, after the murder of her mother, sister, and niece, and also relocated as a forced laborer. Jan and Tekla were married after the war and spent six years in refugee camps. John Guzlowski—properly Jan Zbigniew Guzlowski—was born in a displaced persons' camp in Vienenburg, Germany, in 1948.


For the full article, click on this link: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/pas/65.1/napierkowski.html


Review by Athanasios Drugas in Rhino 2008 (www.rhinopoetry.org)

In his second book, John Guzlowski reconstructs his parents’ time in the Nazi labor camps of Poland. His mother’s cancer, father’s drunken brawls and other familial secrets are treated openly by the narrator. Initially I was uneasy with the narrator’s directness, but soon became vulnerable to the patterns of healing in this work. There is a reverse chronological order to the narrative’s brokenness, an order that gives way to painful memory.


Everything I know of my own father, who died when I was two year old, comes from my mother’s stories. Her wistful retelling, however, virtually omits what my father believed spiritually. That mystery is what draws me to John Guzlowski’s experience with his father’s religiosity in this book, as in “What My Father Believed":


He knew living was hard

and that even children are meant to suffer.

Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,

“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”


The narrator seems struck that this father could hold on to God through such torture, though he seems to infer that his faith was no more than a naiveté to the world around him.


He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages

or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder

. . .

He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism

either, and didn’t know the purpose of life

was to love and honor and serve God.


Love compels the poet to write about parents’ misery, weakness, and shortfalls. It’s his way of making his parents into his own image, pained as it is. It’s as though he’s caressing his mother and father, holding them close–reconstructing the past, with each flashback making it easier to hanpe the pieces, which sometimes need reconciling.


In "My Father's Prayer" he pairs his mother who inflicts harm on others with his father who heaps harm on himself:


Dear Baby Jesus

If You have any pity left

bestow it, please, on my wife.

She suffers from the war.

. . .

When my sorrow is great

I . . . drink and fight with men who are bigger

and harder than me.

I thank them

for beating me

till I can't remember

the sorrow.

But . . . the pain she feels

has nowhere to go

so she beats our daughter

and is cruel to our son.


In "What My Father Believed" the poet wants to know why his father is compelled to do good though its effects lasts a short while. Faith, and doing good for its own sake seem to be the reasons as in “German Soldiers Come to My Mother’s Village”:


. . . Each man

and woman, each child is shot and falls

backward without a sound into the mud

like an iron rod. God doesn't love these people.


And later in the poem he says,


We soldiers are only human. We love

to kill. It is the hidden God in each of us.


Ultimately, love compels the poet to detail the uglier side of his parents, and humanity by extension. In speaking of his daughter, he tells us:


. . . she'd understand

their gray voices as I did

shaping a world of

lightning and ashes.


Review by Anna Gąsienica-Byrcyn, the Samaritan Review, January 2008

In this collection of poems John Guzlowski offers a voice to his parents Jan and Tekla and their war experiences. Deeply affected by his parents’ suffering and struggles during and after the Second World War, the poet retells their life stories, speaking for them and in the name of all the forgotten and voiceless survivors and refugees. The poems tell the story of the Guzlowski family’s remembrances of the crimes they witnessed, as well as recounting their years before the war and commenting on the hardships they experienced as Displaced Persons (DP).


The volume consists of three parts plus a prologue and an epilogue. In My Mother Reads My Poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” Guzlowski describes his mother as an eyewitness to the war’s madness. Tekla Guzlowski comments and reflects on the transport of war prisoners. Overwhelmed by emotions, she refuses to recollect all the painful events that she has seen and endured. The unsaid has to be filled out by the reader’s knowledge. We are left with the sense that the war traumas are beyond description. Part I: What It’s Like Now, Part II: When My Mother and My Father, My Sister Danusha and I Came to America, Part III: What the War Was Like interweave vignettes of war crimes and slave labor camps with the recollection of lost innocent years, gruesome occupations, and the family’s hopes of new life in the United States. Tekla Guzlowski talks about her home west of Lvov, her family being shot by the “hungry men” who were like “terrible and big buffaloes,” and her subsequent journey of sixty years. No one created a museum for this survivor. The war taught her that the world was a broken and cold place filled with worthless men, where one had to work hard to stay alive and where birds did not sing.


Her husband, a simple man with no knowledge of the world, knew only physical labor, pain, and death. The years of suffering in the slave labor camps brought them together. Jan Guzlowski dug beets, dragged fallen trees, and made bricks in order to survive in the German camps. After the war and an interlude in the DP camps, Guzlowski’s parents and their two children, Jan and Donna, arrived in the United States. They were “stiff like frightened ostriches” and recalled the beautiful Polish countryside while dreaming of their future in America. They were all deeply scarred physically and emotionally by their experiences. Their mother could not erase from her memory the German soldiers who shot her family and all the men, women, and children in her village. Jan Guzlowski could not forget his humiliation and the hunger that forced him to eat leaves off trees, bark, flies, leather buttons, cloth caps, roots, newspaper, and any seeds found in the dry dung left by the cows. He remembered his friend, an artist from Wilno who was castrated and killed by the Germans. He had nightmares of Germans changing into wild dogs. He thought of himself as a corpse that made its journey and was waiting for “the slumber promised by God in the bible and other books that lie.” Guzlowski’s volume ends with a lyrical epilogue in which the poet walks with his little daughter in the autumn garden, thinking about his dead parents and their world of “lightning and ashes.”


John Guzlowski writes in a concise and naturalistic language. His poems convey his parents’ voices with great clarity. He often employs strong words to emphasize the inhuman and primitive conditions of the war and the German slave labor camps. He softens the horrible scenes with the warm depictions of his mother, and he contrasts German terror with his father’s helplessness, and his dreams of pigeons, “the birds without chains.” This volume of poetry is a testimony, a document to the human drama that has not yet been absorbed by people outside Poland. Lightning and Ashes is an important literary account of the Holocaust of Polish Catholics. Guzlowski restores the voices of its forgotten survivors. He truly is a follower of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”


Review by Laurel Johnson, Midwest Book Review

One critic dubbed Guzlowski as one of the great recording angels of our age. This is apt praise for a true poet whose words are simple, straightforward, and sing with raw power. Guzlowski's parents met in Hitler's labor camps and survived to build a life out of lightning and ashes. This book is his testament to them.


In the prologue poem, My Mother Reads My Poem 'Cattle Train to Magdeburg' the poet's mother shares a few of her memories, but only a few:


Even though you're a grown man

and a teacher, we saw things

I don't want to tell you about.


My Mother Prays for Death is one example of that simple, raw power I mentioned earlier. The poem is best read in its entirety but I quote one excerpt here:


She is the poet of dead ends, old despairs

written in whispers, beads slipping between

her fingers like peas dropping into soup.

In her hands, the rosary is a ring of bones,

yellow as old ivory, hard as living.

Her wooden suitcase holds nothing.

She doesn't need what she leaves behind:

the empty house, the worthless bed,

the pictures she gathered over the years.


This excerpt from My Mother Talks About the Slave Labor Camps explains eloquently the lasting lessons that haunted her life:


She learned that the world is a broken place

Where no birds sing, and even angels

Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.


Guzlowski's father had no education and scant understanding of the world. He drank too much, had few skills. Why My Mother Stayed With My Father explains why a woman stayed with such a man:


My father was like that, but he stayed

with her through her madness in the camps

when she searched among the dead for her sister,

and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this is why my mother stayed.

She knew only a man worthless as mud,

worthless as a broken dog would suffer

with her through all of her sorrow.


Guzlowski's father labored in the work camps as a bony mule --starved by his captors, broken down from hard work and shattered hopes. This excerpt from Night in the Labor Camps presents a poignant picture of a young man who did the best he could in an unimaginable existence:


He 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 laced himself.


John Guzlowski is, indeed, a great recording angel. This record of life during and after World War Two is a masterful work and highly recommended.


Review by Jay Robinson, Barn Owl Review

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, deprivation, 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.


A Fine Review of Lightning and Ashes and Other Books by Children of World Wars

Of three recent books of poetry that explore the aftermath of that global convulsion of violence, John Guzlowski’s Lightning and Ashes tackles the subject the most directly and in the greatest depth. His parents, both Polish peasants, were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to forced labor camps in Germany. The poems in Lightning and Ashes fall into two categories – those that take place during the war and those set afterwards. As harrowing as those poems set during the war are, the poems showing the toll the war took even years afterwards are most heartbreaking. Guzlowski’s mother was a tough survivor(“What the War Taught Her”):


She learned that you don’t pray

Your enemies will not torment you.

You only pray that they will not kill you.


His father, on the other hand, was one of the war’s ongoing casualties (“My Father’s Prayer”):


When my sorrow is great

I go to the taverns

on Division Street

and drink and fight

In writing about them, Guzlowski finds his most powerful voice when the language is the most direct – the language of displaced people who end up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago half a world away from horrors they nonetheless cannot escape.


Read the rest of "Children of the World War: Marc Sheehan on Christine Gelineau’s Appetite for the Divine; John Guzlowski’s Lightning and Ashes and Christine Rhein’s Wild Flight" in Gently Read Literature.

Additional Radio and Press Coverage

The Writer's Almanac

Listen to Garrison Keillor read John Guzlowski's poem, "What My Father Believed," from Lightning and Ashes on The Writer's Almanac on December 24, 2007.


Rattle Interview

John Guzlowski is interviewed about Lightning and Ashes on the Rattle website.

About the Author


John Z. Guzlowski is retired from Eastern Illinois University, where he taught contemporary American literature and poetry writing. His recent book from Steel Toe continues the story of his parents which he began in Third Winter of War: Buchenwald (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Language of Mules and Other Poems (DP Press, 1999). A Polish-English edition of Language of Mules and Other Poems was published as Jezyk mulów i inne wiersze (Katowice, Poland: Biblioteka Slaska, 2002). In 2001 he won the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Award, and his poems have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. He has also published extensively on contemporary American fiction in journals such as Shofar, Modern Fiction Studies, Polish Review, Critique, Polish American Studies, Studies in Jewish American Literature, and Ascent. John can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can also read his blog


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