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Father Ch., Many Years Later

Czeslaw Milosz, translated with the author by Robert Hass

I sit down now and write in my defense.
The witnesses are old things, undimmed, dense

With the life of human hands: the intense reds
In stained glass, stone lacework, marble heads,

The dark gold calligraphies of magic, traces
Of red in alchemical script, marmoreal laces,

Maps on which the lands of faery glimmer,
Globes wrapped in black velvet and a shimmer

Of stars, the slow spokes of a millwheel
By a waterfall, lute songs, a bell’s peal.

There I had my home, my refuge, my Exodus
From the Egypt of cosmic unreachableness.

* * *

All I have is the dexterity of my hands. I was homo faber, originator, maker, fabricator, builder. The sky above me was too big, its numberless stars deprived me of my singularity. And the line of time infinitely retreating and infinitely extending annihilated each moment of my life. But when I hit a log in its very center with an ax and saw suddenly the white of the split wood, when I carved close-grained pear wood with a chisel, or painted Ledum palustre or Graphalium uliginosum on soft thick paper that held the color, or boiled elixirs according to an old recipe, then the Dragon of the Universe, the great Egypt of inexorable galactic rotations, had no power over me, because I was guided and protected by Eros, and whatever I was doing grew immense and stood in front of me, here, right now.

* * *

And thus, willy nilly, you sang my song?
And gave me everything beautiful and strong?

What comes from nothing and returns to it? This:
Strength, exultation, abundance and bliss.

You danced a blind dance on the edge of a pit.
Blood gave you the rhythm. You chose to submit,

And it’s not true at all. It’s nothing but fever.
The earth is mine forever and ever.

* * *

That voice, persecuting me, to be honest, every day.
I am unable to imagine myself among the disciples of Jesus
When they wandered through Asia Minor from city to city
And their words were preparing the Empire’s collapse.

I was in the marketplace between amphoras of wine,
Under the arcade where tasty flitches of meat sizzled on a spit.
The dancers danced, the wrestlers gleamed with oil.
I was choosing among bright fabrics sold by merchants from overseas.

Who will refuse to pay homage to the statues of Caesar
If by his grace we are granted a reprieve?

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