My Father Tells Me How He Met My Mother
We came upon a small slave camp in the woods, three or four buildings, a fence of barbed wire, a closed gate.
Some of us were dying and fell to our knees right there. Others kept walking and stumbling toward that gate. There was no one around, no German guards, no soldiers. They must have run away because they thought the Americans were near. There were no prisoners either that we could see in the barracks beyond the fence. We thought that maybe the ones who’d been there had been taken like us on a death march.
It was so quiet.
One of the men, a Frenchman, stepped up to the gate and shouted hello. That’s all he said. He said it in German first and then French, but no one answered. It sounded funny in French, “Bonjour, bonjour.”
An army truck stood in front of one of the barracks buildings, and I thought I saw some movement there. Even with only one good eye, I could see it. Someone moving near the back of the truck. I pointed this out to the Frenchman, and he saw it too. And we both shouted then, him in French and me in Polish. I shouted, “Dzien dobry, dzien dobry.” I felt foolish saying, “Good day.” There had not been a good day for a long time.
A woman then came out of one of the barracks.
Like us, she was dressed in rags, striped rags. She stumbled to the gate and stopped there. She looked at us, and we looked at her. No one said anything for a while. I could see she was weak. She held the gate so tightly with her hands so she wouldn’t fall.
I couldn’t speak. I had not seen a woman for months and had not talked to one for years. The Germans would kill you for talking to a woman.
Then she spoke, in Polish, slowly. She said, “Co teraz?” What now?
I didn’t know what to say. My tongue was like a rock in my mouth.
She said it again, “Co teraz?” And I still didn’t know what to say, or what would happen, or if the world would end that day or not. I was hungry and spent, and I didn’t know anything.
I looked at her and felt so weak, felt like I was going to fall and join my brothers dying behind me, and your mother pulled the gate open and said, “Proszę wejdź.” Please come in.
And I did.
This is something I wrote for Dziennik Zwiazkowy. If you get a chance please go there and leave a comment.
British mystery writer Danuta Kot reviewed my book for CrimeSquad.com.
(Follow the link below if you're interested in mystery novels. Crime Squad is a great site for finding out about what's new in the genre.)
John Guzlowski - Suitcase Charlie
"...a true noir book with a convincing 50s setting and characters. "
Set in the mid-1950s in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago, the book is loosely based on a real-life murder, the Schuessler-Peterson murders, which were not solved for 40 years.
One night, a suitcase is found, dumped in the street. Inside is the dismembered and exsanguinated body of a child.
The case comes to detectives Hank Purcell and Martin Bondarowicz, both experienced police officers – Purcell, a married veteran of the recent war, Bondarowicz a chance-taking, heavy-drinking man, very much in the style of the traditional noir detective.
As further suitcases with their gruesome cargoes turn up on the streets, people become more and more terrified. Purcell and Bondarowicz are determined to find this killer, though the city authorities are more interested in making a quick arrest than coming up with a real solution.
The tropes of noir crime are well known to the point where they can easily be parodied or satirised, but Guzlowski plays is straight. This is a true noir book with a convincing 50s setting and characters. It is also a dark book with dark happenings among a poor and deprived population. This darkness is relieved by touches of real humour, and by the life-affirming portrayal of Purcell's dedication, his home life and his marriage.
Guzlowski portrays with real conviction the social deprivation and racial prejudices that plagued 1950s America – the racism that allows the murder of a black girl child to be ignored, the anti-Semitism that has followed the wartime refugees to their new home. He has a clear eye for the grotesque, and his depictions of nuns in a nearby convent, and a professor locked away in fear behind his own front door from marauding neighbourhood children create a vivid and convincing world. These people are served by a corrupt and inefficient law enforcement regime where men like Purcell have to fight not only the criminal world, but all too often their superior officers in order to do the work they are supposed to do. The combinations of horrific murders, the social upheaval of 50s Chicago and strong characterisation make this book a real page-turner.
Guzlowski presents the horror of his story without any grand guignol embellishment. The story he has to tell is dreadful enough, and Guzlowski wisely allows it to stand on its own. Those readers who are familiar with his poetry, will know that he is a writer well-able to record the worst that humans can do to each other, as well as the factors that lead to redemption and hope.
The ending is unusual – this may be the one place where Guzlowski moves away from the tropes of noir fiction. He also leaves the possibility open that Purcell and Bondarowicz may investigate again – if so, it will be a book worth waiting for.
I'm happy to report that a new edition of Suitcase Charlie has come out, and it's now being published by Kasva Press, one of the best new publishers around.
The expanded new edition has been receiving great reviews from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Jewish Book Council.
My favorite review I think was the one in the WSJ because it talked about the "lyrical anxiety." I think it's the perfect way to describe my writing.
Here's the review -- links to where you can read the other reviews and buy the book (Amazon) follow.
Thanks for reading and have a great holiday."Suitcase Charlie” (Kasva, 321 pages, $14.95), a tough-as-rusty-nails police procedural by John Guzlowski, is set in Chicago in the spring of 1956—when the radio is playing hits by Frank Sinatra and Chuck Berry, many citizens are smoking Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes, and “Dragnet” and “General Electric Theater” are TV favorites. In Mr. Guzlowski’s book, the “second city” is being terrorized by a series of child killings in which the small victims are drained of blood, dismembered and stuffed into luggage left in public spaces.
Among those investigating these crimes is police detective Hank Purcell, a World War II veteran who takes his job to heart to an extreme degree: “He was the great remembering machine for all the fear and horror in the city of Chicago.” Purcell, with his heavy-drinking partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, scours the city in search of clues.
The duo visit the musty apartment of a reclusive language tutor, the elegant suite of a physicist in the employ of the U.S. government, and the shadowy ghetto lair of a brutal young hoodlum. Each environment seems spookier than the last in a narrative driven by lyrical anxiety.
Little by little, Purcell—treading the blurred line between burnout and breakdown—perceives these sickening new crimes as the fruit of diseased notions and lingering hatreds from earlier decades and even centuries. “I thought all of that bad s—would just disappear when the war ended,” Purcell tells his wife. “And it didn’t. It’s still here.”
My experience with Emily Dickinson isn’t like other people’s in this series of essays by poets writing about how they discovered Dickinson. I didn’t read her when I was a child. In fact, there wasn’t much poetry in my house. My parents, my sister, and I were Displaced Persons, refugees. My parents were Polish survivors of Nazi slave labor camps who had somehow found themselves in Chicago after the war, and they were busy trying to make something of life in Chicago in the 50’s. We weren’t passing poetry around the dinner table.
The only things that came into the house that resembled poems were the songs my father would sing when he would have a few drinks. He would sing Polish soldier ballads. I remember one about a young girl waiting near a deep well for her lover to return from the wars. He never returns. There was another about how the red poppies on Monte Cassino (a Benedictine abbey on the spine of Italy that stood in the way of an Allied advance toward Rome) will always remind people about how the Poles bled and died there. You get the picture.
And my poetry reading in grade school and high school was shaped by the nuns of St. Francis in the former and the Christian Brothers in the latter. In grade school we read Catholic poets. The one who struck me most was Joyce Kilmer, the author of “Trees,” a good man who died in the trenches of France in World War I. My first poem used his rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. In high school, we read lots of Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas. I had a teacher who began every class for a year reading out loud either Frost’s “Birches” or Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” It was boy’s poetry and young man’s poetry with a tinge of the brooding existential grayness of the early 60’s.
When I did finally start reading Emily Dickinson in college, the experience wasn’t one that touched me deeply or transformed the way I thought about poetry then. I can honestly say that I didn’t much care for her. Part of this, of course, may have come from the way she was presented back then, in the mid-60’s. One of my Profs referred to Dickinson as the “poet of minutiae”; another talked about her “domestic concerns.” Neither teacher was making me want to thumb through a volume of her poems. The feeling I was getting was that there were poets who said big things and poets who said small things. Looking back on all that now, I can see that a lot of what was going on was a dismissal of Dickinson on the basis of gender, but at that time I just didn’t see it.
The first time I actually read her was in an introduction to poetry class. We read one of her “minutiae” poems, the one about the snake, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” The poem didn’t move me at all until I got to the final stanza when she started talking about how she never ran across this snake “Without a tighter breathing / And Zero at the Bone.” I thought, there’s a great image, what a way to talk about fear: Zero at the Bone. Yes, she’s got that down, but the rest of the poem for me was a “so what.” I thought, one super image but where’s her philosophy, her worldview, and how about the zeitgeist? The big things? In this class, I was also reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Yeats’s “Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Xanadu! Brooklyn Ferry! Byzantium! These were poems doing everything a poem should be doing. Structuring the world. Explaining the unexplainable. Revealing truths that would remain truths for always, and for everyone. Tossing around exclamation points and rejecting dashes entirely!
What that introduction to poetry class taught me was that I preferred Yeats, Whitman, and Coleridge to Emily Dickinson and her simple matters. Yes, she was giving me a snake in the grass and “Zero at the Bone.” And she was giving me Eden, of course, but what about Leda and the Swan, the Cosmos, future generations staring me in the face, Khan’s Pleasure Dome? If I could have spoken to her, I would have said, “Give me the big picture, Emily.”
My next encounter with Emily Dickinson was in an American Literature survey, and it was about the same. She was sandwiched between Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. I can imagine the three of them sitting on a bench waiting to be called into the game. The Whitman of Manhattan on one side, a lusty, big, brawling figure waiting for somebody like Carl Sandburg to describe him as the Poet of the Big Shoulders. And on the other side, the magnificently rotund and socially imposing James the First after whom there are no others, a writer for whom every sentence is encyclopedically complex and raring to go.
And what about Emily? She sits in the middle, in white of course, quickly fading to a gray, dusty shadow, then little less than a shadow, then nothing, just a silence. She vanished for me. I’m sorry, but there it was. The professor who taught the class was working on a book about roaring radicals in American literature from 1850-1900, and he couldn’t see Emily Dickinson either. Amid the gas and bellowing of the second half of the 19th century, there were only about 15 minutes for Dickinson and her domestic concerns. We read her poem about the porcelain cup on the shelf (“I cannot live with you”) and scratched our heads. A poem about a cup? Students looked around at each other and looked again at the poem, and by then the 15 minutes were up and we were deep on the track of the Henry James Express! My poem “Midnight” in part comes out of these early experiences with Dickinson. At that time, I did feel that all that her poetry was good for was cattle fodder, something to feed the cows.
When was it that I started looking at Emily and liking what I saw? I guess it was in the middle of my teaching career, about fifteen years ago. I was teaching the second half of our freshman composition sequence, a course yoking literature and writing, and I wanted to do a unit on poems about death, so I was going through the anthology searching for appropriate poems. I found “Because I could not stop for Death,” “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” and “There’s a certain Slant of light.” When I read these poems, I stopped looking for others. These poems became the whole unit.
What moved me about them then, and still moves me, is her absolute clarity. Maybe clarity isn’t the right word, but I don’t know how else to say it. She’s talking about death, she’s talking about her shifting attitudes toward it, she’s talking about fear and expectation and despair and God and love, and she does it all with words so straightforward and so clear and so welcoming to me that I feel as if all poetic artifice is gone from the poems, and it’s just Dickinson talking to me in a darkening room about what it is she felt when she thought about death. I’m not saying that the poems aren’t complex and carefully crafted and deliberately shaped in such a way as to inspire deep and serious and critical readings. They’re clearly all that, and they express a worldview besides! All I’m saying is that she writes with such humane forthrightness that, for me, she becomes fully real and alive. When she says, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” I have to look at a window because it’s like she’s standing next to me and pointing. “Look there,” she’s saying, “do you see it, John? I have to tell you, it makes me feel so cold. So cold. Do you see it?”
When I read her and feel this, I know it’s exactly how I wish I could speak in my poems.
The best part of deer hunting was of course the long night of drinking that always followed.
Out in a cold november night, drinking wild turkey under the stars, chasing the turkey with ice cold beer, lying about who we were when we were kids. I always liked that part of hunting deer.
The part that I didn't like was hauling the deer back from where we killed it.
Sometimes even for a medium size buck, it would take four of us to drag it through the woods and the mud. And then the cleaning. Flushing out the deer's insides with a hose. Too much dirt work.
But some people liked it. One of my friends always got philosophical as he washed the deer out. He'd start talking about his dad and his grandfather, and what they said to him about life before they died.
I guess that was a part of deer hunting I liked too. I liked listening to my friends soften up, become the kids they were a long long time ago.
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