Accidental Critic: True Confessions
Reviewed by Kim Kishbaugh
Despite the fact that John Guzlowski’s poems have been featured more than once on Escape into Life, it was through Twitter that I first encountered his poetry. He’s a prolific tweeter, and I was captivated almost immediately by the power and intensity of his language, his ability to capture raw emotion in spare and plain words. His poems grab me by the heart.
So I brought high expectations to his 2019 poetry collection, True Confessions 1965 to Now. It didn’t disappoint.
It also wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
For one thing, there’s sheer quantity. There are a whole lot of poems packed into it. (146 pages, plus acknowledgements!) I paced myself through True Confessions. I didn’t read it in a week, or even a month. And of course, when I was “finished,” I started back at the beginning.
(Which explains, at least partially, why I didn’t manage to write about it before Christmas, which had been my plan because the book cover features the poet as a baby beneath a Christmas tree. Cutie!)
The book also surprised me by being something more or other than a pure poetry collection. It’s got work that was originally published as flash fiction, and it’s also an autobiography of sorts. It’s organized by decade, 1960s through the present, and each decade is introduced with a piece that summarizes that decade of the poet’s life. I read these as individual prose poems at first, and they are; but they’re also micro-essays (and let’s not get bogged down in labels – the poet would certainly disapprove) as well as autobiographical statements and chapter intros.
Call them what you will. Taken as a whole they remind me of the annual wrap-up letters that many of us, myself included, now send in Christmas cards in lieu of individual letters. For me, they make this book feel like the poet’s life update—one spanning decades, rather than a single year. Merry 50 years of Christmases.
(So it really is a Christmas book, and more’s my failure for writing this after Jan. 1. Sigh.)
The poems themselves are a mixture of personal and political, melancholy and joy, rhythm, thunder and melody. They juxtapose the mundane and the transcendent, and package powerful imagery and meaning in plain but moving language.
Guzlowski describes his own writing style more than once in the book. From “Sometimes I Wish I had a Theory of Poetry” (page 84):
“And I hide my poems
With their prairie plainness,
Their beets and trains and sparrows
And I wonder how I got
To this plain corner, this non-abstract
Joining of plain streets where my words
Are as simple as raisins
In the palm of my hand.”
Well, the words may be simple. Their impact is not. Unassuming, the poems are nonetheless beautiful.
One of the frequent features of Guzlowski’s poems is the sudden gut punch. Some of his most powerful pieces are dark, and he doesn’t always prepare you for what’s coming. It’s not unusual for the last line to be a knockout blow you didn’t know to expect. Read “Our Daughter is Outside Playing” (page 57), and you’ll see what I mean. To describe or excerpt it would be to ruin the experience.
The darkness of some poems is balanced by the gentleness and sweet imagery of others. Here’s a bit from “Ode to Our Daughter Lillian, born April 1, 1979”:
“You’re born to April
To its lilacs
Its silk nights
Its trees, kind
Guzlowski is able to show both the bleakness of this world and its transcendent wonder. The reader is reminded not just how terrible the world and its people can be—and there’s plenty of horror here, in war, in death camps and refugee camps—but also of the beauty of life’s everyday details and activities: the planting of beans, the holding of hands, the drinking of coffee and reading of books.
Two of the poems in this collection were published first here on Escape into Life, so you can read them to get a better feel for the book. They’re a couple of my favorites: “What Reading Means to Me” and “Grieving.”
A John Guzlowski sampler:
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.