John Guzlowski


What My Father Believed

He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
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.

He’d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.

The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life. 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?”

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He’d seen men try the impossible and fail.

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.



6 Short Poems about the Monk Ikkyū 


Ikkyū stands
at the edge
of the great sea—

there are waves
in his eyes
so he shuts them.



If Ikkyū falls asleep,
his dreams don’t. 

They live
in the river country
of trees and sunshine.


Ikkyū sits
in the marketplace
and tries to explain

Here’s what he says
to a soldier:

A tree is
the palm of my hand
and the face
of all there is
in the universe
to wonder about

It is the tree to heaven
and its roots start
in my heart and yours.


Ikkyū knows
Buddha can’t tell him 
why the rain falls
or why sin is a wide road
with many curves

or why he grows old 
when he has struggled 
so much to know 
so little of life.


Ikkyū watches
the snow fall
at night

He’s happy
it’s warm
and that others
sleep in the shadows
with him.


Ikkyū  eats
a black cherry
and remembers
a dead friend

how much he loved
their dark
early in the morning

the harvest
never lasted
long enough.



With Justin Bieber at the End of Time

He offers to sing “Amazing Grace”
Or “Shall We Gather at the River”
But we shake our heads
& say no thanks

He sings anyway

The slow crawl of “Amazing Grace”
Goes on and on
And we look at him
Like he's the fool
He’s always been

Somebody says
It's time for us to leave
But he doesn't listen

He does a stupid little dance instead
And starts singing something
We never heard about eagles
And the kids we raised

We look around for a priest
To hear our confessions
But all the priests are dead
Gone to some other heaven or hell

And we’re just left waiting
With Justin Bieber
And his slow crawl singing

Nobody much is talking
But somebody says,

This is not life
Life ended back there.
All of this
Is just us waiting
for the credits
To end.

We nod our heads.
What else can we do?




John Guzlowski's poems and personal essays about his Polish parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany and refugees in America appear in his memoir Echoes of Tattered Tongues.  It received the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer/ Montaigne Award.  He has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  He is also the author of the Hank Purcell mystery series.