John’s primary subject is the experience of his parents before, during, and after the Second World War. Both were taken into Nazi Germany as slave laborers. His father was captured in 1940 outside of Poznan, Poland. His mother was captured near her home west of Lvov, Poland, and transported in 1942. They worked in concentration camps and the associated factories and farms until the end of the war. Afterwards, they lived in refugee camps in Germany until 1951 when they came to the United States with their two children as Displaced Persons (DP’s).
“My poems give my parents and their experiences a voice. They had very little education. My father never went to school and could barely write his name. My mother had two years of formal education. I felt that I had to tell the stories they would have written if they could. For the last twenty-five years I have been writing poems about their lives, and I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten–voiceless refugees, DP’s, and survivors that the last century produced. These are the sorts of poems that I write and that I have published in Language of Mules.
“In terms of my treatment of their lives, I’ve tried to use language free of emotions. When my parents told me many of the stories that became my poems, they spoke in plain, straightforward language. They didn’t try to emphasize the emotional aspect of their experience; rather, they told their stories in a matter-of-fact way. This happened, they’d say, and then this happened: The soldier kicked her, and then he shot her, and we moved on to the next room. I’ve also tried to make the poems story-like, strong in narrative drive to convey the way they were first told to me.”
The title Language of Mules comes from something John's father used to say about the Nazis, that they treated the slave laborers and concentration camp inmates as if they spoke the language of mules and not the language of people.
What War Taught My Mother
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
the box cars
by Baltic winters
The rivers and the cities
she had never seen before
and would never see again:
the sacred Vistula
the smoke haunted ruins of Warsaw
the Warta, where horse flesh
met steel and fell
The leather fists
of pale boys
boys her own age
but different convinced
of their godhood
by the cross they wore
different from the one
she knew in Lvov
The long twilight journey
four days that became six years
six years that became forty
And always a train of box cars
bleached to Baltic gray
His Mother Asks Him to Forget the War
My father sits at the table listening
to the photos spread before him
the last one whispers I am your mother
hold me I am dying remember
that spring when your father died
before the war before my death
became mixed with your dying
I dressed in black sold flowers
in the village felt myself dying
in tongues and prayed for deliverance
for your birth for you to hold me
to remember me nothing else mattered
I knew it then and know it
still, just hold me, look at my face
make sense of the life I lived
just hold me, hold me, anything
My Father’ Teeth
Dying on this wind still October morning
he looks at the teeth in his hands
yellow, shrunken, his own, pulled by a guard
for some stupid infraction: smiling
at the beets, pissing out of turn,
dreaming of the way his mother spoke of mares
sleeping beneath the trees in the field
He wonders, how can he use them: bead them
for a rosary, sell them for souvenirs?
He knows God has answered all the prayers
He will, and tired of the camps even he
no longer looks for Magdeburg on the maps