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Return of the Native

The significance of this was touched on accidentally by Milosz himself in his essay “On Pasternak Soberly,” printed in the collection entitled Emperor of the Earth, published in 1977. Dr. Zhivago, he writes, has been misunderstood in the West because we have forgotten how to read and to recognize a primitive work. All those events and objects and people, the products of that hymn “Eternal Memory” which is being chanted in the first sentence—these are real, with the reality conferred by primary art; they are not the “web of symbols” ingeniously discovered by Edmund Wilson, just as they are not the soap opera, with the “Lara theme” and the sword-waving Cossacks dashing over the snow, into which the publicity agents of the West converted them. But Dr. Zhivago is a primitive tale about a society in an ageless state of barbarism now grown dynamic, full of the chances, the coincidences, the collisions that actually occur in such a society and thus in a story about it. Milosz points out, for example, that Yuri Zhivago’s half-Asiatic natural brother Yevgraf, who appears mysteriously from time to time to sort out his problems, and who has been taken as some kind of symbolic figure, is in fact just the kind of person you find both in Soviet and in primitive heroic societies—the archetypal Great One who offers some protection against perpetual threats and hazards.

Of course there is a strong element of pastiche in Dr. Zhivago, an element of fin-de-siècle fantasy, and The Issa Valley is not free from pastiche either. It could hardly be otherwise with a book written today about a boy growing up in the small valley, the countryside of the author’s childhood. But both Pasternak and Milosz are poets, poets of the first class though of very different kinds, and this difference is shown in the texture of their prose. In the case of Milosz experience emerges as a quality that overrides the impossibilities of translation. A poet so good that he can be translated is a supreme paradox, one which many poets today, and readers of poetry, would refuse to recognize, so strong is the tendency now for poetry only to congeal and inhere in the carefully exploited accuracies and idiosyncrasies of a language.

But if nobody thought Dante and Shakespeare untranslatable it was because of what they said; how they said it was of course another matter. The fact that what Milosz says comes across with such primary force and impact is itself an indication that, as a poet in the largest sense, he is an ideal kind of recipient of the Nobel Prize. It is possible that there are real differences here, though of a wholly indefinable kind, in the nature of languages themselves: some are more amenable than others to moving sideways, to acquiring a kind of international potential. Not for nothing, perhaps, was Esperanto invented in Poland.

In Native Realm Milosz writes with admirable humor and dispassion about the lightness of his native tongue, its adaptability, its centuries-old cultivated Westernness, as contrasted with the poise and weight, the inevitability, as it were, of Russian syllables and syntax. Observing that his countrymen are fascinated by Russian because it “liberates their Slavic half,” because in its menace and seduction it “is all there is to know about Russia,” Milosz tells how he and his friends used to perform a certain exercise which gave them “a good deal to think about.” First they uttered in a bass voice the Russian words for “A deep hole dug with a spade,” and then chattered quickly in a tenor the verbally very similar Polish equivalent.

The arrangement of accents and vowels in the first phrase connotes gloom, darkness, and power; in the second, lightness, clarity, and weakness. In other words, it was both an exercise in self-ridicule and a warning.

Be that as it may, it is certainly true that such Russian syllables, if they become poetry, are untranslatable in consequence. Milosz discovered Pushkin on his own, which is the right way to do it, and was captivated. “My native tongue was incapable of such power of expression, of such masterful iambs, and I had to admit it.” But as an embryonic poet he soon began to distrust the lyricism “which seemed to unfold from itself as if born of the very sounds themselves.” Pushkin doesn’t happen to talk about a deep hole dug with a spade, though if he did it would become poetry, as it does when he writes of “the sea where ships were running,” or “a forest on the banks of the Dnieper.” Such poetry is untranslatable because it says nothing, but exists merely and absolutely in its own tongue, and so in another language is flat and banal.

The poetry of Milosz, as of Mickiewicz, is not like that; it has a timbre, a clarity of desire, an urgency of sense which forces itself out of its own language into others. The Spanish of Neruda, the Italian of Montale, can today still do the same, availing themselves of the Latin camaraderie which is so immanent also in Polish religion and culture, if not in the language itself. In the lines of Mickiewicz’s “Forefather’s Eve,” which Milosz quotes, there is an acoustic forcefulness which proclaims itself as poetry in whatever language. The poet’s hatred for Russian tyranny contrasts with his sympathy for its victims, whom he sees not from the inside, as Pushkin and Gogol did, but with the brutally lucid incredulity of an outsider. He contrasts the faces of Europeans, an articulate record of intelligible emotion and feeling, with the Russian face.

Here, people’s eyes, like the cities of this country
Are large and clear; never does the soul’s tumult
Move the pupil with an extraordi- nary glance,
Never does desolation cloud them over long.
Seen from a distance they are splen- did, marvelous;
Once inside, they are empty and deserted.
The body of this people is like a fat cocoon,
Inside which sleeps a caterpillar- soul…
But when the sun of freedom shall rise,
What kind of insect will fly out from that shroud?

A poem written by the young Milosz, before the war, will serve as an example of his special quality, as well as of his extraordinary translatability. Written in 1936 and collected in Bells in Winter (1978), it is called “Encounter.”

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Even more striking than the fact that this poetry remains poetry in another language—with the advantage, it is true, of having been translated in collaboration with the poet himself—is the sense of a shared experience that Milosz manages to give, a limpid repose upon the way things are that is no less than our sense of wonder at them. What prompted the writing of The Issa Valley in 1955 was the same kind of emotion that found expression in this poem, and Milosz was then an exile in America, collecting and perpetuating the wonderings of his adolescence.

There is in a way nothing personal about them. Milosz’s world is collective—a place for everything and everything in its place. He is one of the few poets who do not give the impression of seeing something in his own special way. The self in his poetry is not impersonal but effortlessly manifold, like the emotions and sensations in its records. As he puts it in his poem “Ars Poetica?” which appears in Bells in Winter:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

We become our relations, our moments, each other, even our graves; at least we do so if we live in the kind of dense and populous relation with the world which Milosz records and celebrates. The relation to the past moment in his poem is the same as that to his grandmother’s grave in The Issa Valley. In The Issa Valley too we see the beginnings of the poem “Diary of a Naturalist,” however much later on that poem was written, in an experience of the young boy.

One winter Thomas spotted an ermine on the bank of the river Issa. Frost and sunlight made the twigs of the bushes on the steep shore of the opposite bank stand out like bouquets of gold, lightly tinged with gray and bluish purple. It was then that a ballet dancer of remarkable grace and ability would appear on the ice, a white sickle that would arch and straighten again. With a gaping mouth Thomas stared at it in bewilderment and ached with desire. To have. If he had had a rifle with him he would have shot it, because one could not simply stand still when one’s wonder demanded that the thing arousing it be preserved for ever.

The overwhelming impulse that wished to have the creature—shoot it if need be—later became the impulse of the poet. Milosz does not sentimentalize the adolescent’s worship of nature, as predatory as the beasts it moves among. The Issa Valley is full of hunting and hunting expeditions, as memorable as those in Pan Tadeusz, or Aksakov and Turgenev. Of particular note is the stalking of the capercailzie (the translation, in most respects excellent, calls it a grouse—quite a different bird) when that fabulous fowl of the spruce woods, as wary as a cat throughout most of the year, is temporarily deafened by the noise of its own ritual mating call.

The characters in The Issa Valley—grandfather, grandmothers, neighbors, the local forester, are all members of a household, even though the Lithuanian peasant shows at moments an atavistic hostility to the Polish pan, or local gentry. As in Tolstoy, the more closely integrated the members of a family, the more peculiarly individual they appear. In this pre-American melting pot the racial and social mix produces not uniformity but a matured exactness of distinction, of the kind found in nature itself and worshipped by Milosz when he writes as a botanist and ornithologist.

That habit of exactness explains the twin paradox of Milosz’s distinction as a poet: his sense of things as they are, and yet his power—almost a conscious power it sometimes seems—of projecting what he writes out of the absolute linguistic form which poetry usually demands. His own poetic temperament and upbringing again offer a clue. He has a sense of a poet as “not just one person,” an instinct akin to Keats’s perception of the poet as a man in whom personality has been exorcised in the intensities of negative capability. But Keats’s poetry, in all its richness, its vulnerability as language, is held down to the very words in which it was first uttered. Milosz’s seems to aspire to some ideal language, almost to Wordsworth’s “ghostly language of the ancient earth,” and not the earth only—the sky too, the steady rationale of a sentient universe.

It is the same with the novel. Despite its immensely local subject and setting there is nothing in the least provincial about it. A friend of Milosz, the poet Tomás Venclova, a native of Vilnius/Wilno, notes the same characteristic about it from the viewpoint of a native professional, a connoisseur, as it were, of the interplay of linguistic factors, and of their transcendence.

It always seems to me that this novel belongs to a certain conceivable, ideal Lithuanian literature. In that literature [as in the work of Donelaitis] we have these types and motifs, there are these landscapes and seasons, but, alas, we have no novel in which everything could be united into such an integral and beautiful entity. The novel belongs to Polish literature. However, from a certain point of view, this is ultimately unimportant.*

Unimportant because a true transcendence of nationalism is produced not by simplification and standardization but precisely by that linguistic interplay, rivalry and synthesis of which the background of Milosz’s writing affords such a remarkable example.

There is another factor involved. The whole movement of American and English poetic writing, of such writing in the West in general, has tended toward the linguistic justification of the individual, of the poet as self-explorer and self-proclaimer. In proclaiming himself, Walt Whitman gave a voice to America, but the modern poet has for the most part settled to invent only his own language and his own self. By belonging to themselves—and to the poet—so completely, his poems elude any authenticity other than their own personal one; they not only avoid any other and wider version of themselves but disown it. Their art is devoted to remaining just one person, one poem, one life-study. This is as true of Lowell and Berryman as it is of Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney. The Irish poet writes fondly and with devout precision of the nature of bogs, of their soft dark provenance in his soul; but this is bog as he owns it, as he has found it—as Yeats found and made his own Ireland. That bog so dependent on its personal verbal artifact (“The squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge”) is a far cry from the forest swamps of Lithuania, which, through Milosz’s mediation and advocacy, are an open place alive with invisible guests and no longer centered in his own self.

This is not to attempt a qualitative judgment. Milosz is not better than the best poets of the West, but he is certainly different, and the difference declares itself as a question of open poetry and an open mind, an openness manifesting itself out of a society now closed by the Iron Curtain. The formidable talent of an American artist in our time seeks in one sense relief from freedom: it needs the prison of its own self-creation, one suggested in that grimly revealing little exchange between the painter Edward Hopper and an admirer—“What are you after?” “I’m after me.” Perhaps one can pay too high a price for one democratic tongue and one democratic kind of solitude.

Milosz is not after himself but after that old European goal of cultivation and understanding, enlightenment and humanitas. Often, no doubt, his open poetic pronouncements upon that goal may look like cliché, to poets and their readers conditioned to come at it—if at all—through the honing and perfecting of the ego. And there is a certain irony in the fact that while a poet and critic like Donald Davie may have learned from Milosz and deeply understood his old-fashioned creative intellectualism, Milosz is also admired in America by an open tradition of poetry which is the reverse of intellectual. As Milosz himself has recognized by quoting it in his own poetry, Ginsburg’s Howl is paradoxically closer to his own poetic outlook than is that of the sophisticated and egocentric poetic styles of today.

Openness in Milosz as an artist is also rare in terms of his openness of genre. By writing in every form, he writes virtually in one: and he instructs in all. Native Realm and his earlier essay The Captive Mind, which first appeared in English in 1953, are among the most illuminating books to come out of recent history and its debate on ideology. It is so much an index of how good Milosz is as a critic, historian, and philosophical commentator that if one knew his work only in those reflective forms one would not guess that he is also a novelist and poet. Only very good poets and novelists have these comprehensive and Goethean abilities, though Milosz’s creative outlook has none of Goethe’s deliberative importance. He excels at the rapid focus, the quick glimpse that finds the inner dimension of a subject.

In one of his essays, “Brognart: A Story Told Over a Drink,” collected in Emperor of the Earth, he relates almost as Conrad might have done the story of a young Frenchman of peasant origins, who visited a friend in Poland in 1939 and was caught by the war. Because he remained bent, in his logical French fashion, on finding a consul and repatriating himself, because, in effect, he persisted in behaving as if he were not in a world where civilization had ceased to have meaning, he was eventually picked up by the Russians and shipped off to a camp near Archangelsk, where he lasted until 1951, still making efforts to get in touch with a French consul.

As a Pole, eternally caught between two incompatible power centers, Milosz profoundly understands the total incomprehension that exists between states and individuals of quite different provenance. No other phenomenon is historically more important, and its importance today continues to increase. It made any mutual understanding impossible between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in 1939, and equally impossible between poor Brognart and his persecutors. Incidentally, this terrible little true story has something in common with Conrad’s meticulous tale, “Amy Foster,” in which a shipwrecked immigrant pathetically attempts to adapt himself to life in an English village.

Milosz’s essay on Apollo Korzeniowski, in Emperor of the Earth, the doomed, tormented, and idealistic father of Conrad the English novelist, is more illuminating in a few pages than most of the critical books on Conrad’s novels. So, in a different way, is his passing reference to the fact that the Poles who would not let Jews join their first partisan detachments during the war would have been genuinely amazed if their behavior had been criticized as racial discrimination—not that this was any comfort to the Jews. Such things to them were facts of nature; and as such were intimately connected with the fact that prewar Poland had nothing resembling the fanatical and hysterical anti-Jewish policy carried out in Germany. The “gentrification” of that great Polish-Lithuanian respublica which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea may have been politically disastrous, as was shown in its easy liquidation by the servile empires of the Teutons and Slavs, but it also means that an idea of civilized behavior, of moral comme il faut, penetrated from above into the humblest reaches of Polish society.

And yet Milosz’s uncle, Oscar Milosz, himself half Jewish and a distinguished French poet, used to admonish his young nephew on his rare visits to the East to remember that “in Europe there is nothing more stupid or more brutal in its petty hatreds than the Polish gentry.” And that was true too. The remarkable father of this cosmopolitan poet, who became the first Lithuanian delegate to the League of Nations, had been a Polish landowner who saw a portrait of his future bride—she happened to be a beautiful Jewess—in a Warsaw shop. The fact that he determined on the spot to marry her was itself a manifestation of the proud independence befitting a Polish gentleman, but it also meant that his caste ostracized him and his family. For all his French domicile and reputation the son expressed as plangently as Chateaubriand a homesickness for what he regarded as his native Lithuania—“une vaste étendue de lacs obscurs, verdâtres et pourissants, envahis par une folie des tristes nymphéas jaunes,… O Maison, Maison! pourquoi m’avez-vous laissé partir?

Milosz regained that home through writing about it in The Issa Valley. He was conscious always of the precarious and provisional nature of the country in which he grew up, and how complete would be its extinction when the moment came. France, he points out, survived a German invasion and conquest without undue discomfort, and would have done so even if the Germans had remained the winning side. For Poland—the new nation—defeat would mean calamity and extinction. The young Milosz got the nickname of “catastrophist” from the tone of the poems he wrote in the years before the war, but, though history was to prove him altogether too accurate a prophet, his own survival during the time of apocalypse chastened him. He was too honest not to see that survival is its own form of humiliation, one that subdues not only the pride of the ideological visionary—and Milosz then was a believing Marxist and revolutionary—but the impulse to denunciation of such ideology, a counter-attitude.

Life itself, and the reverence for it, becomes then the precious thing to be explored and celebrated. It is this lucid humility which sets Milosz apart from Solzhenitsyn, a self-martyred soul who inhabits a country where conviction is more important than reflection, where the vowels are deeper, the shapes of speech more minatory. Solzhenitsyn’s power as a writer demands that life should be intensified, directed, and organized in the Russian style; Milosz’s provenance makes him conservative and freedom-loving in a wholly different sense. In his novels and poetry, life and time are caught in an unending study of awareness: the gesture of a man pointing to a hare that runs across the road.

  1. *

    Tomás Venclova, “Despair and Grace,” from the Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, Summer 1978.

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