A Year of the Hunter
Facing the River: New Poems
I spent an autumn day with Czeslaw Milosz in 1991. He was teaching in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was there with a camera crew to interview him, and I realize now that I probably asked him the wrong questions: about politics, when I should have asked him about his love poems; about the end of communism, when I should have asked him about language; about the Baltics, when I should have asked him how he continued to write with such passion.
He was smaller than I expected and sturdier too: he didn’t seem eighty, more like sixty-five. His eyes, as I remember them, were gray-blue beneath magnificently overgrown brows. His gaze was intimidating and, when pausing to reply, there were intense, inward silences. He did not seem a man for jokes or small talk, at least with a stranger. I wondered what he would be like among Polish friends. His poems made it clear that there was a lot of exuberance kept well hidden:
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
His eyes only lit up once, when I asked him about the time he was crossing a street in wartime Warsaw and bullets began flying, and he flung himself down and then noticed that he was still holding in his hand T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems in the Faber and Faber edition. Wasn’t such selfpossession an essential precondition for his kind of poetry? He found my naiveté amusing: “Now you are reaching dangerous levels,” he laughed. All art involved pretense, he said, the invention of personae, and I should not expect a poet to talk about whether the “I” in his poetry was really him or not. I felt gently mocked.
In his new collection of poems, Facing the River, I can see that he had more of a sense of humor about himself than I realized. In “At a Certain Age,” he admits that old men “used to see ourselves as handsome and noble”
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”
He seemed a warmer-blooded creature than that, an intense and watchful man with an enormous inner territory of his own, observing my tentative approaches into his domain with lordly reserve.
The Soviet Empire had collapsed and I was there to interview him, not as a poet, but as the author of The Captive Mind. It ranks alongside Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon as the most penetrating account of the temptations of total belief. It was, he told me, “a book written against myself,” against the self-censorship and self-mutilation he had experienced during his own period of service to the Communist cause. Having worked with Communists in the postwar coalition government in Poland and then in 1950, having moved to France, he found himself, on the book’s publication, banned not …