Appetite for the Divine, Christine Gelineau, Ashland Poetry Press, 2010
Lightning and Ashes, John Guzlowski, Steel Toe Books, 2007
Wild Flight, Christine Rhein, Texas Tech University Press, 2009
Here in the United States, as elsewhere, war as a subject for poetry is with us to stay. In the past 40 years we have fought in Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. And for the previous generation, World War II played an inescapable role in shaping the sensibilities of American poets. Today, WWII haunts another generation of poets who bring a longer perspective to how that global violence continues to ripple out over time.
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. For example, in the poem “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father,” the poet honors his parents’ experiences by not sentimentalizing or idealizing them:
She knew he was worthless the first time
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried
the smell of the dead men who wore them before.
In the poem we see the father’s drunkenness, superstition and lack of education, and yet
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 was 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.
In the very first poem in Lightning and Ashes, Guzlowski tackles a fundamental question of writing that is drawn from someone else’s experience – how much can we really know? There are fine poems in this collection that come directly from the poet’s own experience, but some of the most terrifying depict actions that took place before his birth. His poem “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg,’” begins
She looks at me and says,
“That’s not how it was.”
Facing the limits of reconstructing the past leads the poet, early on, to adopt the stripped-down, unsentimental language that is the hallmark of the collection’s best work. This first poem continues
What I remember
is the bodies being
pushed out – sometimes
women would kick them out
with their feet.
Even though you’re a grown man
and a teacher, we saw things
I don’t want to tell you about.
Perhaps because the experiences are not as grim, telling is an important aspect of the poems in the opening section of Christine Rhein’s Wild Flight. The poet’s father was born and raised in Silesia, which went from German control before the war to Polish and Czech control after. Rhein’s father, like Guzlowski’s, also becomes a displaced person (“My Father Talks of 1946”),
The Poles loaded us into the same cattle cars
the Nazis had sent the other way.
Where the poems in Lightning and Ashes are intensely individual and particular, there’s more of a sense here of the larger displacement of whole populations caused by the war. The father’s apparent willingness to talk of his experiences has about it a larger historical context (“My Father’s Geschichte”):
They stole my childhood and my future.
Silesia had been German for 700 years.
I’m one of the last to speak the dialect.
To make poppy seed dumplings.
To tell the story.
Remembering, telling the story is the central impulse for both Rhein and Guzlowski. However, Wild Flight has a much more political response to injustice. In the sections that follow the World War II-era poems, there are poems inspired by a newspaper account of an atrocity in Sierra Leone, violence in the poet’s native Detroit and the flood in New Orleans, among others. In the poem “Flight Path,” Rhein conflates the senselessness of 1940s Europe with the senselessness of the current conflict in the Middle East. On a flight back from Germany where she and her father have been visiting, the poet sits next to a young woman whose army husband, based in Germany, is being redeployed to Iraq–
I don’t explain about hidden layers
under the map of Poland, the farm
that had been my great-grandfather’s,
how we visited there also, all the German
headstones gone, toppled after World War II.
As her baby drinks another bottle,
she fills out the customs form, and wonders
aloud if her place of residency
is Germany or the United States.
In front of us, a woman wears a burka.
What is the view like, cut and hemmed
into fabric, a tiny window to the world?
Wild Flight is a strong collection and the poems are at their best when they manage, like the title poem, to break through the comforts of a middle-class American life. This is the appeal of looking back at the experiences of a father who survived the war. Those experience are more direct and visceral, the injustices concrete and existential. In her remarkable poem “Ourselves or Nothing,” Carolyn Forché wrote that “we hover in a calm protected world like/netted fish, exactly like netted fish.” Breaking through that first-world middle-class net of comfort is not easy. Rhein takes her father’s experience as a starting point and transfers the directness of that experience to the other poems in her collection.
Of these three books, Christine Gelineau’s Appetite for the Divine has the fewest number of lines dealing directly with WWII. It is also the least traditionally narrative as well as the most hopeful. Although broken up into nine sections, Appetite for the Divine can be read as one long poem. Despite the book’s more adventurous structure, Gelineau faces the same obstacle as Guzlowski and Rheim – the challenge of authenticity. Here the poet overcomes this by making herself a part of the story. The connection to WWII here is that the poet’s father helped liberate the Mauthausen death camp and took photographs to document the experience, just as he would later document the poet’s childhood:
the eye the hand which photographed me
in my mother’s arms my bassinet my bath
That eye that hand connect me still to the sunlight
disinterestedly soaking the orderly stacks of corpses as
my father photographs Mauthausen
There are several threads that weave their way through Gelineau’s book, the two most elemental are birth and death, which are nicely wedded in these five short lines.
We are at that point where WWII is increasingly tenuous as an event within living memory and becoming history. As a result, there is an aspect of myth-making in all three of these books. Unlike a previous generation of works (Wild Flight references the astonishing and scarifying documentary Night and Fog), these books are less concerned with driving home the scope of the horror (although Lightning and Ashes contains plenty of the horror) than with what meaning, if any, can be wrung from this spasm of global violence.
Appetite for the Divine tries harder to transform the experience than either Lightning and Ashes or Wild Flight. In the book’s final section, “State of Grace,” Gelineau wonders
shouldn’t the antiquity of our suffering
account to more?
distracted by hope
while Lightning and Ashes is more pessimistic (“The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald”)
He is the corpse that has made
its journey and now waits only
for the slumber promised by God
in the bible and other books that lie.
In between is Rhein, who recounts how as a child her father left bread behind a tree for a Russian prisoner of war who left a hand-made toy in return (“Gift”),
I like to think the Russian saw
my father smile, that he lived
to carve another make-believe
pistol, to watch his son fit
a rubber band into the careful groove,
around the bent nail trigger, and just
as the German boy had, aim freely
into the air, firing pebbles or bits
of twig, bullet after unwitting bullet.
The imagined Russian child’s bullets may be “unwitting,” but these three poets strive in very different way to make the war’s bullets “witting.” More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkans wars and new political dynamics from the Middle East to Latin America reflect how history is trying to catch up with the years it was frozen by the Cold War. A decade after World War II’s end, Americans were pretty sure the war had been a morality play – part tragedy, part romance – in which the United States played a crucial deux ex machina role. Now, as the world’s remaining superpower, this is less clear, renewing the fight for the war’s meaning and giving rise to some very good poems in the process.