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Tireless Messenger

Provinces: Poems 1987––1991

by Czeslaw Milosz. Translated by the author and Robert Hass
Ecco Press, 72 pp., $19.95

Beginning With My Streets: Essays and Recollections

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Madeline G. Levine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $30.00

The Poet’s Work: An Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz

by Leonard Nathan, by Arthur Quinn
Harvard University Press, 178 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was born in Lithuania in 1911 and has lived in California since 1960, is now writing, he tells us, from “a new province,” that of old age:

The course of my dying seems to me amusing.
Weakness of legs, the heart pounding, hard to go uphill.
Myself beside my refractory body.
In the clarity of my mind, as in a mountain nest.
And yet humiliated by difficulty in breathing,
Vanquished by the loss of my hair and teeth.

Still, by calling his commanding new book Provinces, he adjures us to remember that the new province of old age is only one of his subjects among others that are both real and metaphysical. We revisit in this collection many of Milosz’s central themes—including the strangeness of human life (where in the blink of an eye absurdity can turn to bravery, or tranquillity to war), exile, sensuality, memory, Platonic idealism, and iron disbelief. The poems have great immediacy, in part because of the idiomatic fluency of the translation, done jointly by the author and the poet Robert Hass. Although no translation can duplicate its original, Milosz’s ability to elucidate his poetic purposes and Hass’s familiarity with English poetic conventions combine to powerful effect.

In the boldest formal experiment of Provinces, Milosz appends to certain poems a second poem, a “Commentary,” which takes apart and contradicts, in dialectical fashion, its twin, reflecting it in a mirror that reveals the unconscious but fundamental distortion of truth in the first (indeed in any) aesthetic formulation. What the left hand gives, the right takes away. In “Gathering Apricots,” for instance, the poet represents himself happily reaching for a fruit; suddenly he remembers a woman, now dead:

I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence
And put aside the basket and say: “It’s a pity
That you died and cannot see these apricots,
While I celebrate this undeserved life.”

On the same page, the “Commentary” repudiates the way the poet had originally formulated the experience. He had not forgotten the woman; he did not “suddenly” remember her and feel her presence. No: the experience was different:

Alas, I did not say what I should have.
I submitted fog and chaos to distillation.
That other kingdom of being or non-being
Is always with me and makes itself heard
With thousands of calls, screams, complaints,
And she, the one to whom I turned,
Is perhaps but a leader of a chorus.
What happened only once does not stay in words.
Countries disappeared and towns and circumstances.
Nobody will be able to see her face.
And form itself as always is a betrayal.

If we wished, we could imagine yet another “Commentary” appended dialectically to the first “Commentary,” and perhaps beginning,

And is it not a kind of self-regard, this self-torment,
And is not tolerance of chaos a greater betrayal than form?

That is, the mere presence of a “Commentary” denies the historical self-sufficiency of lyric; the poet turns on the form he has made, and then on form itself. Form is thus revealed as a Möbius strip rather than a stable enclosing circle or equilateral triangle. As we watch, form generates its own asymmetrical contradiction in language.

In a second pair of such poems—“Conversation with Jeanne” and “A Poem for the End of the Century”—the first recommends a sensual repose in the present:

Nakedness of women on the beach, coppery cones of their breasts,
Hibiscus, alamanda, a red lily, de- vouring
With my eyes, lips, tongue, the guava juice, the juice of la prune de Cythère,
Rum with ice and syrup, lianas- orchids
In a rain forest, where trees stand on the stilts of their roots.

The second succumbs to an exacerbated perception of the world’s indifference to suffering and evil:

Alas, my memory
Does not want to leave me
And in it, live beings
Each with its own pain,
Each with its own dying,
Its own trepidation.

In a preface to these two poems Milosz questions even such apparently stable moments:

I alone know that the assent to the world in the first poem masks much bitterness and that its serenity is perhaps more ironic than it seems. And the disagreement with the world in the second results from anger which is a stronger stimulus than an invitation to a philosophical dispute. But let it be, the two poems taken together testify to my contradictions, since the opinions voiced in one and the other are equally mine.

In these remarks, Milosz makes it clear that he wants to allow sensual languor its say, as he wants galling bitterness to have its moment, without necessarily incorporating an undertow of contradiction. Moods, not consistent opinions, seem the proper stuff of poetry. The poems-with-commentary are powerful assertions of this aesthetics of alternating moods. And yet Milosz, for all his vocabulary of irony and alienation, has the unshakable Platonic convictions of any poet, as he confessed in Visions from San Francisco Bay(1982):

I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve,…one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my memory, and all I now assent to, dissent from.

The senses, memory, contesting opinions—these have always been the raw materials of Milosz’s poems, on splendid display in the Collected Poems 1931–1987.1 Milosz, like other modernists, has resisted sequestering poetry into a small plot of genteel “lyricality”—“set aside as its exclusive property, like a reservation for a vanishing Indian tribe” (as he says in the essay on Robinson Jeffers in his enthralling new collection of prose pieces, Beginning With My Streets). “Whatever has emerged in postwar Polish poetry that is truly significant,” he continues, “has broken with [orthodox lyric prescriptions] and does not easily submit to confinement within the orbit of the ‘lyric.’ “

Postwar Polish poetry is what it is in large part because of Milosz. The truth of his remark about that poetry’s inclusive scope is attested to on almost every page of Stanislaw Baranczak’s arresting anthology of Polish poetry of the last two decades.2 If the model for the opening of a nineteenth-century lyric is something like “My heart aches” or “I have desired to go / Where springs not fail,” the openings of these contemporary Polish poems cannot fail to convey a modernist shock. Here are some taken at random from Baranczak’s collection:

Sensible, sensitive people are doomed to
Mendacity
(Witold Wirpsza)
And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!
(Wislawa Szymborska)
Mr. Cogito will be numbered
among the species minores
(Zbigniew Herbert)
Truth has no eyes
(Urszula Koziol)
I’m one of the seven maybe eight basic foodstuffs
(Jan Prokop)
To go to Lvov.
(Adam Zagajewski)

These poems come at us bluntly and obliquely at once, with a disconcerting combination of roughness and irony, forcing the lyric form wide open. They are often allegorical, since they were written under totalitarian rule; and since lyric thrives on indirection, the tension of the forbidden stimulates a powerful inventiveness. Many who will read Milosz for the first time in the sixteen poems published here will be sent back to his Collected Poems and forward to Provinces.

Milosz’s genius is for the very small and the very large—the intensely sensual detail and the bleak interstellar spaces. His eye, at once microscopic and telescopic, has almost no middle range; it is this peculiar cast of vision that identifies a poem as his. It causes the fundamental contrast in his poetry between the tenderness of an eerily precise recollection and the wintriness of philosophical irony. When you read him, it becomes impossible to live in any comfortable middle distance yourself.

The artist, according to Milosz, literally cannot be one of a collective, a member of any group on earth, not so much because of cultural alienation as because of biological difference. As Milosz says in “Reconciliation,” the artist is “a mutation, variation”:

The poet: one who constantly thinks of something else…
Maybe he does not even have any human feelings.

Where other people can be unselfconscious in a group, because their sense of belonging perhaps outweighs their sense of difference, the poet (and other artist-mutants, each a species to himself) is always conscious of separation, and observes others from an aloof distance of which he himself is ashamed. Yet the alertness of his sensual apparatus means he also observes the material world from very close at hand, whatever his social distance from others.

In spite of his frequent lofty remoteness, Milosz is a poet with a sensual piety of remembrance, illustrated in the prefatory poem to Beginning With My Streets: this “Dictionary of Wilno Streets” enumerates, with the irrational compulsion typical of Miloszian memory, the long-vanished sights and people of the city of his birth. It proceeds like a dream:

I was running, as the silks rustled, through room after room with- out stopping, for I believed in the existence of a last door.

But the shape of lips and an apple and a flower pinned to a dress were all that one was permitted to know and take away.

Milosz’s instinctive Platonic belief in “the existence of a last door” gives his sketches of a lost apple here, a remembered flower there, their almost unbearable sadness. The last door is meaning, a conclusion, a stable value, a fixed cost for existence. The poet asks himself, Has the apple been given that meaning? Will the flower bear the value into the future? The poems are full of these stripped-down moments where final questions are asked. And yet behind these bare simplicities, there lies a mind of Manichaean tortuousness, brooding on its huge idiosyncratic inner library.

It is in Milosz’s prose that we see most clearly the fantastic and baroque variety of that inner library. In his collection of essays he moves with entire naturalness from Swedenborg to Robinson Jeffers, from Lithuanian scenery to Meister Eckhart, from the Seven Deadly Sins to Polish Marxism. The variety of his interests derives from his Catholic upbringing, his legal and philosophical education, his Marxist period, and his eventual moves from Poland to France to the United States. In his prose, he becomes a powerful presence, a vexed personality buttressing his obstinate opinions with sardonic asides. Testy pride, anger, irritability, and contempt share his pages with shame, self-loathing, pity, pain, and a grim love.

The first full-length work in English on Milosz’s career, The Poet’s Work, by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, is, as such introductory works about foreign literature tend to be, rather disappointing. (One would much rather send new readers to Donald Davie’s keenly intelligent Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric.)3 The authors of The Poet’s Work, both professors of rhetoric at Berkeley and acquaintances of Milosz, follow a chronological pattern, setting Milosz’s writings in dutiful order (although with a distressing lack of historical and biographical information). They even more dutifully paraphrase many essays and poems. The problem with paraphrases is that they are almost always thematic, and give rise to sentences like the following:

This fully ecstatic despair is the theme of “Trumpets and Zithers.”

Characteristically, Milosz finds grounds for hope in the midst of despair.

Thus we have the familiar juxtapositions of past and present, here and there, of momentariness and a sense of the eternal, becoming and being.

Such sentences could be multiplied many times, and indeed a sense of weariness sets in as the authors yet once more repeat their formulae of “ecstatic despair,” “juxtaposition,” and “polyphony.” They are hard put to differentiate one example of ecstatic despair from another, or, for that matter, to differentiate ecstatic despair from despairing ecstasy: “If there is a fundamental difference in this book from the earlier ones, it is the emphasis on the joy in ecstatic pessimism.” And yet again, in arriving at the Collected Poems, they haplessly write, “Here we also have the pessimism, added and added until the pessimism all but overwhelms the ecstasy”; and later, “Here all the strands are gathered, and there is a delicate balance between ecstasy and pessimism.” All this about ecstasy and despair could as easily be said of Shelley, whose ethereal texture is nonetheless wholly different from Milosz’s plangent historical commentary; whose subjunctive periods bear no resemblance to Milosz’s firmly and directly argued statements; whose volatile fluidity is at the furthest reach from Milosz’s solidity. Thematic analysis—and Nathan and Quinn offer little else—is simply too feeble a tool with which to do justice to poetry such as Milosz’s.

Nathan and Quinn are helpful in describing literary influences on Milosz (notably Simone Weil and his cousin Oscar Milosz, a Lithuanian diplomat and author of poems and other works with mystical religious themes), but one could not guess, from reading their book, to what capricious and original uses such sources are put in Milosz’s taunting mélange of different moods. “Juxtaposition” and “polyphony”—those tame words—will not do to describe Milosz’s very peculiar points of view. He put it much better himself in one of his most famous attempts at self-definition (“Throughout Our Lands” #3):

If I had to tell what the world is for me
I would take a hamster or a hedge- hog or a mole
and place him in a theater seat one evening
and, bringing my ear close to his humid snout,
would listen to what he says about the spotlights,
sounds of the music, and move- ments of the dance.

This hamster/mole is a bitterly comic 1962 version of “the guardian mole” of one of Milosz’s war poems, a well-known 1943 lyric called “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.” In an image of vivid moral urgency, the Christian describes the mole, who stands for history, prophecy, writing:

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a differ- ent part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.

Though the moral weight of such an image is self-evident, one must also remark the formal means by which the patriarchal mole is given relentless substance—the accumulation of phrases, the zeroing-in from the general to the particular (from bodies to ashes to a single man), the quasiscientific acumen first ascribed to the mole (as he distinguishes ashes by vapor, individuality by bands of the spectrum), and his ultimate aggrandizement into a recording angel, a Patriarch, red-eyed with congested historical woe. Milosz’s eccentric and darkly comic imagination, his gift for mordant surprise, his gloomy beauties and his elated perceptions, his wild leaps of scale, his naturalist’s powers of description (arriving when least expected in the midst of philosophical speculation), his peasant superstition, his insistent doubts, his flashes of the obscene, all deserve notice in patient and investigatory criticism.

Milosz calls himself, in his homage to Linnaeus in Provinces, “a gatherer of visible forms,” but this decorous phrase should not obscure what the poem preceding it (“Creating the World”) says about the hilarity of those forms. Milosz imagines “Celestials at the Board of Projects” bursting into laughter, “For one of them has designed a hedgehog, / Another, not to be left behind, a soprano.” It is true that Milosz has sublime moments, but he renders his homage to Being in mocking and trivial moments too.

In some of the poems in Provinces there is a striking gentleness as Milosz relinquishes his autocratic control, even over his art. He intended, he says in “Abode,” to consecrate his poems as private memorials to his vanished dead, but he finds that his anthology (“gathering of flowers”) of the dead is being used instead to nourish a new generation: in a cemetery, after twilight fades, he sees arriving “light prancing creatures”:

A doe and a fawn

Are here, as every evening, to eat flowers
Which people brought for their beloved dead.

Some of the fierce inner tension goes out of the poetry when Milosz declares, “I have learned to doubt philosophy / And the visible world is all that remains.” Yet the graphic terror which may remind readers of the War-saw war poems returns in the face of death:

Same glory of ordinary days and milk in a jug and crisp cherries.

And yet down below, in the very brushwood of existence, it lurks and crawls,

Recognizable by the fluttering dread of small creatures, it, implacable, steel-gray nothingness.

While the worldly and argumentative and mischievously humorous Milosz is still amply and energetically present in the splendid prose of Beginning With My Streets (memorable not only for its literary and biographical portraits, notably of Aleksander Wat and Witold Gombrowicz) and its reflections on poetry (“the abnormality and moral ambiguity attending its birth”), the most powerful piece in the prose book was, for me, Milosz’s entirely wayward and unpredictable meditation on the Seven Deadly Sins (“Saligia”), which should be widely reprinted as a classic statement of spiritual introspection. For Milosz’s critics, it is a mine of his sometimes concealed, sometimes open self-descriptions:

[Modern man, seeing the evil of society,] notices that yelling and banging his head against the wall hardly help; if he is a poet, he becomes convinced that making a lot of noise is not very useful. So his anger goes underground and emerges only in disguise, transformed into irony, sarcasm, or icy calm, from which it is often hard to deduce that fury lies concealed behind it.

The coloring and expressiveness of all “visions,” whether in dreams or waking, depend on a number of conditions; one of them is a high threshold of erotic energy.

Beginning With My Streets closes with Milosz’s 1980 Nobel lecture, in which he remarks that the poet’s vocation “is to contemplate Being.” He describes the poet’s dilemma: “How to be above and simultaneously to see the earth in every detail?” He has not ceased, even now, to wrestle with this impossibility, but he has always contended with another difficulty, as visible in Provinces as in the Collected Poems: How to permit, along with the subterranean fury and its icy calm, the simultaneous existence of luminosity, faith, and hope? After long insisting on alienation, Milosz emphasizes in his new book his perception of the biological and emotional human universal, all that he has in common with every other human being:

And yet we were so like one another
With all our misery of penises and vaginas,
With the heart beating quickly in fear and ecstasy,
And a hope, a hope, a hope.

And in spite of his long (and continuing) attachment to the Platonic world “on the other side of fire,” Milosz also feels, in these late books, a joy that the natural world will continue to exist after his own death: “I try to grasp what that joy signifies.”

It is painful not to quote the many perfectly realized poems from Provinces, among them “Blacksmith Shop,” “Evening,” “In Music,” “And Yet,” “Beinecke Library,” “The Thistle, the Nettle,” “A New Province,” “Youth,” “In Common,” “Gathering Apricots,” “December 1,” and “Meaning.” In the last of these, Milosz confronts the possibility of ultimate metaphysical meaninglessness, the absence of a God who could guarantee a final truth, and turns to his purpose the ancient figure of the angel (the word means “messenger”). If there is no “true meaning,” nonetheless

there will remain

A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

It is an unbearable image, the coursing angel of poetry uttering screams among the mechanically revolving galaxies. For those of us who know no Polish, the hours that Milosz and Robert Hass have spent putting these late poems into English guarantee that at least some of the cries, protests, and screams will reach our posterity.

  1. 1

    Ecco Press, 1988.

  2. 2

    Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule: Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun, edited and with translations by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (Northwestern University Press, 1991). I wrote the foreword to this book.

  3. 3

    University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

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