Syrian Refugees at Railway Station in Budapest – Hungary – September 2015
Photo Credit: Daily Mail UK / Reuters
My Poetry Corner September 2015 features the poem “What My Father Believed” by Polish-American poet John Guzlowski. Born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, he was three years old when he came with his parents and five-year-old sister to the United States in 1951 as Displaced Persons (DPs).
In his poem, “I Dream of My Father as He Was When He First Came Here Looking for Work,” Guzlowski writes:
I woke up at the Greyhound Station
in Chicago, and my father stands there,
strong and brave, the young man of my poems,
a man who can eat bark and take a blow
to the head and ask you if you have more.
In 2005, Guzlowski retired from Eastern Illinois University where he taught contemporary American literature and poetry writing. His poetry deals with the experiences of his Polish Catholic parents as slave laborers in Nazi Germany.
His mother had witnessed her mother shot, her sister raped and murdered, and her sister’s baby kicked to death. In “What the War Taught Her,” he shares her trauma:
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
In an interview with Maureen Doallas (2014), Guzlowski describes his father as a “straightforward, uneducated, hard-working man who loved his family, people, and God. He was always ready to help a neighbor, help strangers…” The poet tries to convey this in his featured poem, “What My Father Believed”:
He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.
Through his poems, Guzlowski gives voice not only to his parents, but also to the thousands of forgotten, voiceless Polish refugees of World War II. Then, as now, Americans didn’t want immigrants taking their jobs and bringing crime to their neighborhoods. In an essay, “Polish Literature and Me,” the poet recalls: “We were regarded as Polacks—as dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, and drunken… [American] literature helped me run away from my Polishness and our past.”
In our times, thousands of displaced peoples are swarming Europe’s borders, seeking refuge from our Global War on Terrorism and oppressive regimes in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Will America and Europe—the battleground of World War II—open our homes and hearts to today’s displaced persons? Who will speak for them?
To read the featured poem, “What My Father Believed,” and learn more about John Guzlowski’s work, go to my Poetry Corner September 2015.