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The Art of Witness

Ignorantly perhaps, I assumed that someone born in 1911 into a secure Catholic, Polish-speaking family should have had anti-Semitism running in his veins. From his student days, however, he was contemptuous of the reflexes of his faith and class. Wilno was the Jerusalem of the north to the shtetl peoples of Poland, a center of learning, commerce, Bundist socialism, and Zionism. Jewish life in Wilno may have been a world apart to Milosz, but it was not alien or hateful, and he must have realized that his awakening to language owed something to the Yiddish he heard in the crowded streets, where it jostled with Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish. For the rest of his life his poetry has returned to the Jerusalem of the north; indeed the prose writer he feels closest to is Isaac Bashevis Singer, another remembrancer of vanished worlds. In Berkeley, where he taught Slavic Language and Literature, he would, in the course of a poem recalling an early love of his, also remember the “little columns in the marketplace” of Jewish villages near Wilno, “the wooden stairs and the wig of Mama Fliegeltaub.” Throughout his poetry, there is a recurrent refrain of remorse “that we did not love the poor ashes in Sachsenhausen/with absolute love, beyond human power.” All his poetry of witness finds its power in such admissions of its own impossibility.

And yet, astonishingly, he was heard. After a lifetime writing against “History, the second name of which is Annihilation”; against the Nazi exterminations, the Communist tyrannies, the extinction of the Baltic states, he has lived to see his poetic refusals vindicated, and the “inevitable” tide of history roll back in the other direction.

His Nobel Prize lecture, delivered in 1980, expresses his astonishment at this turn of events. “My presence here, on this tribune,” he began, “should be an argument for all those who praise life’s God-given, marvelously complex unpredictability.” Yet in 1980, the Baltics were still Soviet republics, Polish Solidarity had not yet freed his native Poland, and the Soviet Empire’s sclerosis had nine more years to run. More astonishment was in store.

A writer, he told the Nobel audience, is an escape artist, working himself free of the clichés of his contemporaries, only to discover, when the ink has dried, that the work “which seemed to him the most personal, appears to be enmeshed in the style of another.” The struggle to escape never ends, and a writer must leave his own books behind like “dry snake skins.” He may still be struggling to escape when he steps up to the podium to accept a Nobel Prize.

This “enigmatic impulse” to go beyond himself has resulted in an astonishing burst of creativity since the prize: five (if I am counting correctly) new collections of poetry and several collections of essays, including A Year of the Hunter, a diary for the year 1987. This marvelous late outpouring is an inspiration, not to mention a rebuke to the cult of youth.

In 1991, when we met, Wilno/ Vilna/Vilnius had become the capital of the free republic of Lithuania, and he was already planning his return. Having spent his life pushing upstream against the momentum of History, he now found himself swept downstream by History’s unexpected return, borne back to the streets, meadows, and rivers of his childhood.

When I met him, he was already anticipating how strange his return was sure to be—that he would recognize streets, buildings, corners, cobbles, steeples—and he would still remember which way to turn—but there would be no one left. For they would all be gone, and he would wander, quite alone, even if in company, wondering to himself, “What did you do with your life, what did you do?” Having been a poet of exile, he had now become the poet of the impossible return of the past.

Hearing the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction,” he set out to bring the absent dead back to life, one by one, in all their aching singularity:

Her polka-dot dress—that’s all I know of her
Once, walking silently with my gun in a forest thicket
I stumbled upon her lying with Michael
On a blanket spread in the clearing.
A plump little thing,
They say she was an officer’s wife
Her name must have been Zosia.

And later, he remembers a young lady running down a path to the lake.

She pulls her dress off over her head
(She does not wear panties though Mademoiselle gets angry)
And there is a delight in the water’s soft touch
When she swims, dog-style, self- taught,
Toward brightness, beyond the shade of the trees.

The poems are made, sometimes by surrendering to remembered brightness, and sometimes by ironically observing the impossibility of return:

And this river, together with heaps of garbage on its banks with the
beginning of pollution, flows through my youth, a warning against the
longing for ideal places on the earth.

There were moments when coming home was pure desolation:

I asked the director of the collec- tive farm to show me that village;
he took me to fields empty up to the edge of the forest, stopping
the car before a huge boulder.

“Here was the village Peiksva” he said, not without triumph in
his voice, as is usual with those on the winning side.
I noticed that one part of the boul- der was hacked away,
somebody had tried to smash the stone with a hammer, so that
not even that trace might remain.

Yet once at least, return allowed him an instant of timeless recognition:

It was a riverside meadow, lush, from before the hay harvest,
On an immaculate day in the sun of June
I searched for it, found it, recog- nized it.
Grasses and flowers grew there, familiar in my childhood.
With half-closed eyelids I ab- sorbed luminescence.
And the scent garnered me, all knowing ceased.
Suddenly I felt I was disappearing and weeping with joy.

Facing the River is not just about a return to Lithuania, but also about an old man nearing the banks of Lethe and asking himself, before his crossing, what he managed to do with his life:

Early we receive a call, yet it re- mains incomprehensible, and only late do we discover how obedient we were.

Not every one will take to the solemnity of this. But the idea of a vocation may be intended more humbly than it appears—that poets are not so special—everyone is called to be true to something, although they may not know what it is until too late. Milosz himself knows that what he accomplished came only after many false turnings and much self-delusion, the hidden shape of his own work only becoming visible on the banks of the last river:

On the very edge. Just before falling:
Now, here. Before “I” changes into “he.”

A Year of the Hunter is an ironic chronicle of that strange objectification called fame, in which—like dying—an “I” turns into a “he.” With some amusement Milosz watches himself becoming a celebrity, “acutely conscious of the gap between the social roles of a ‘name’ and of the person as an individual human being.” He shrinks from the habit Poles have of “being photographed with me as if I were a bear.” He finds it strange that American high school teachers of humanities should adorn their house journal with a lapidary quotation from the “Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz.” About his growing list of honors, he recurrently feels that Groucho Marx syndrome: I don’t belong in a club that would have me as one of its members.

In A Year of the Hunter, he was in his seventy-seventh year: astonishingly vigorous, hardly ever off a plane or a lecture platform, never ceasing to write in airport waiting rooms, bus stations, or the lounge of the campus inn. As well as reading in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Denver, he returns to Paris, sardonically enjoying fame’s retaliation for the humiliations suffered after the publication of The Captive Mind. He attends the Pope’s seminar on the future of Europe at Castel Gandolfo, and recalls receiving his fellow Pole’s gentle reproach: “You always take one step forward and one step back.” To which, Milosz replies, “Can one write religious poetry in any other way today?

A Year of the Hunter is a successful diary because Milosz has not cleaned it up too much. Its randomness is a pleasure: the deer nibbling his flowers in his back garden jostle with reminiscences of Polish poets and philosophers, long dead; encounters with Joseph Brodsky or Tatyana Tolstoya give way to memories of Wilno 1939 or Warsaw 1945. The book has no narrative order beyond the succession of days, and yet one senses that the writing is easing some hurt, working out some obsession through its pages. It is not until well into the book that one discovers that Janka, his wife of fifty years, had recently died, after ten years of harrowing illness. Her presence haunts A Year of the Hunter, as it does one or two of the later poems:

You are for me now
The mystery of time
i.e., of a person
Changing and the same,

Who runs in the garden
Fragrant after the rain
With a ribbon in your hair
And lives in the beyond.

She was “not one of those writers’ wives who officiate, who light candles after supper and declare with adoring breathiness, ‘Kazio is going to read.’ She was too ironic for that, and that irony was good for me.” Theirs was a marriage of opposites: “Her yes-no mind was the direct opposite of my dialectical, tortuous mind.” Now alone, he finds himself lamenting his old “fanatical demands” and the “long hours of walling oneself off in the study from one’s surroundings—all extremely damaging to family life.” He thinks of his work “standing in place of happiness” and wonders at the inhuman nature of a poetic calling, not with selfpity but with something much sadder and more genuine, a sense of a price paid, not by himself, but by those he loved. On the anniversary of her death, he visits her grave in the hills above Berkeley, and anticipates their dust lying side by side, “if only as recompense for the way I wronged her by being incapable of loving her as she deserved to be loved.”

At times, the late poetry achieves an extraordinary serenity and detachment. In a poem written in Guadeloupe, looking out at the sea, he writes,

Death, you say, mine and yours, closer and closer,
We suffered and this poor earth
   was not enough.
The purple-black earth of veg- etable gardens
Will be here, either looked at or not.
The sea, as today, will breathe from its depths.
Growing small, I disappear in the immense, more and more free.

At other times, the note is plaintive, as if he cannot help wondering whether anything he did will be remembered. A Year of the Hunter concludes with a quotation from Maeterlinck:

Lord, I did what I could. Is it my fault Thou didst not speak more clearly? I tried my best to understand.

In one of the final poems in Facing the River, he seems to be asking for forgiveness:

If only my work were of use to people and of more weight than is my evil.

You alone, wise and just, would know how to calm me,
explaining that I did as much as I could.

That the gate of the Black Garden closes, peace, peace, what is
finished is finished.

Readers who love Milosz’s work can only hope that it is not finished. Those like myself who see the world differently because of him hope he will continue to stand facing the river, and tell us what he sees.

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