Loyal Toward Reality

Winter Dialogue

by Tomas Venclova, translated by Diana Senechal
Hydra Books/Northwestern University Press, 148 pp., $22.50

In the introduction to an anthology of Polish poetry that he published some thirty years ago, Czeslaw Milosz remarked that “a historical steamroller” had passed several times through his luckless country, yet Polish poets had frequently benefited from their trials, and had emerged “perhaps more energetic” than their Western colleagues and “better prepared” to interpret the human condition. It was a challenging statement at the time, but the intervening thirty years have shown that not only Polish writers but also writers from the other steamrollered countries of Central Europe have had something of their own to tell us.

Not least among them is Milosz himself. Preeminently a poet (with more than a dozen volumes to his credit so far, not counting the Selected Poems), he is also the author of powerful books that combine memoir with reflections on history (The Captive Mind, Native Realm), a fine autobiographical novel (The Issa Valley), and several collections of critical essays, including Emperor of the Earth, The Witness of Poetry, and Beginning with My Streets. Throughout his career Milosz has brought to his work a sense of urgency about people in difficult times and places. Beginning with the Polish anthology, he has also been a tireless translator and collector of works by other poets, and a generous promoter of the kinds of writing he admires.

Milosz has always seemed to have a clear purpose in everything he has undertaken, one usually related to the stoic way of seeing things instilled by his experience of living through one tragic period after another, beginning with his childhood in Lithuania. But his latest work,* an “international anthology” entitled A Book of Luminous Things, strikes the reader on first sight as somewhat eccentric, if not self-indulgent. Consisting of around two hundred short poems by more than a hundred poets, the anthology is explicitly personal and idiosyncratic, reflecting both Milosz’s activities as a translator and a taste, acquired during his long years in Berkeley, for the work of Californian and Asian poets. There are, accordingly, many Asian poets in this anthology, and considerably more Californians than one might have expected. The book includes not only a high proportion of Poles but a surprising number of Scandinavians, as well as a few French poets and occasional works by Greek, German, Spanish, and Portuguese poets. Only two English poets are here and one Russian; and there are no writers at all from South America.

The selections seem arbitrary, almost capricious, at first glance, and raise the question of what Milosz is trying to do. In the introduction, however, one discovers a purpose to his selection that is not so far from his traditional interests as one might think.

I have always felt that a poet participates in the management of the estate of poetry, of that in his own language and also that of world poetry. Thinking about that estate, such as it is at the present moment, I decided I would contribute to its possessions provided, however, that instead of theory, I brought to it something of practice….

My proposition consists in presenting poems, whether contemporary or a thousand years old, that are, with few exceptions, short, clear, readable and, to use a compromised term, realist, that is, loyal toward reality and attempting to describe it as concisely as possible. Thus they undermine the widely held opinion that poetry is a misty domain eluding understanding.

Milosz seeks “objectivity,” as defined by Goethe in his conversations with Eckerman: “Each manly effort… turns its force from the inward to the outward world. In important eras, those who have striven and acted most manfully were all objective in their nature.” Such objectivity, according to Milosz, is best achieved through removing oneself from life’s daily round and the cultivation of a faculty for intense contemplation. He is drawn to Schopenhauer’s idea of the artist as engaged in a completely “unpractical” activity, seeking to attain beauty by purging himself of all temporary urges and emotions. “Art,” he writes, “liberates and purifies, and its tokens are those short moments when we look at a beautiful landscape forgetting about ourselves, when everything that concerns us disappears, is dissolved, and it does not matter whether the eye that looks is that of a beggar or a king.”

For Milosz, Taoism and Buddhism, with their contemplative philosophies, have much in common with Schopenhauer’s ideas, and he is impressed by the ability of Asian poets to perceive the inner reality of the world through an intense scrutiny of its surfaces. In a note to a poem by the ninth-century Chinese poet Po Chü-I, Milosz explains that he has included so many Asians in his collection as “my attempt to jump over the barrier built by time between them and us. In this I behave like many of my contemporaries who discover that what had been, until recently, the trappings of exoticism has masked the eternal man.”

Proclaiming, as he has before, his preference for “classicism” over “romanticism,” Milosz would seem to be aiming his anthology against the extreme individualism of much recent American poetry. He is against the image of the poet as self-explorer and sole inventor of his universe and also against the fashionable infatuation of many poets with poststructuralist theory; he is evidently impatient with their appetite for abstraction, and their banishment of physical realities from poetry in favor of linguistic play. Not for nothing does Milosz compare himself to an art collector who, “to spite the devotees of abstract art, arranges an exhibition of figurative painting.” His favorite modern painter, he writes, is Cézanne, whose words he quotes: “Whatever I do, I have the notion that this tree is a tree, this rock a rock, this dog a dog.” And like Schopenhauer, Milosz deeply admires the Dutch painters of still lifes, who present to the viewer, in Schopenhauer’s words, “the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Milosz has divided his anthology into eleven sections. Each is equipped with a brief explanatory preface, and each poem has a short note telling us why it has been included. These comments are often so brief and general that they can act as an irritant to the reader, and to my mind are best ignored. Free to concentrate on the poems themselves, one discovers that they do indeed exhibit the qualities of immediacy, concreteness, objectivity, and contemplativeness that Milosz admires, and that abstraction is consistently held at bay. They also suggest an approach to art that Milosz nowhere mentions explicitly, but that I would call “commitment”—not political or ideological commitment in the sense that the term is usually used, but commitment to what, for want of a better word, could be called humanism.

This quality emerges from many different poems but it is best illustrated by the most explicitly programmatic work in the anthology, an unfinished lyric by Walt Whitman that starts off a section called “The Secret of a Thing.”

I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But that all the things seen are real,
The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed
of the seaAnd went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they seem to the child they are
[And that the world is not a joke,
Nor any part of it a sham]

The point of an anthology, of course, is not for the reader to like everything, but to understand its purpose, to encounter familiar work in a fresh setting, and to discover writers one was unaware of before. For me it was very enjoyable to revisit the poems of Whitman, Roethke, Szymborska, Dickinson, Frost, Denise Levertov, and Zbigniew Herbert, and particularly rewarding to read excellent poets that I didn’t know at all or knew only slightly: Jean Follain, Jaan Kaplinski, Anna Swir, David Wagoner, Al Zolynas, and the Chinese poets Po Chü-I and Tu Fu.

A Book of Luminous Things is a book that gives much pleasure and is genuinely moving. It is a wonderfully idiosyncratic anthology, full of works that are hard to find and have never before been brought together. “Luminous” is a word to be used with caution but is an excellent description both of the book’s contents and of its wise and benevolent compiler.

One of the many Polish poets included in A Book of Luminous Things is Adam Zagajewski, whose third book of poems in English translation, Mysticism for Beginners, has recently been published. Milosz recognized his young compatriot’s talent very early, and in his introduction to Tremor, Zagajewski’s first book in English, he welcomed his poems as “an homage paid to our Central Europe and to the unity of Europe artificially divided into ‘the West’ and ‘the East.”’ Milosz might as easily have been speaking about his own work as about Zagajewski’s, but the praise was well earned, and Zagajewski has continued to grow in stature as a truly European poet.

Like Milosz, Zagajewski started his literary career as a dissident, and seems to have had affinities with Milosz from the very beginning. In the late 1960s in Cracow, for example, he helped to found a poetic circle, Teraz (“Now”), dedicated to the Miloszian notion that Polish poetry should be topical and concrete, rather than veiled in lofty abstractions, and in 1968 he was active in student protests (provoked by the banning of a poem by Mickiewicz) against state censorship. In 1974 he stirred up an angry controversy in Polish intellectual circles with a book of criticism, co-written with Julian Kornhauser, called The World Not Represented, in which he attacked postwar Polish literature for its lack of political engagement and its evasion of moral and ethical issues. A little later, he co-edited an underground literary periodical, Zapis (“Record), directed against the cultural establishment, and paid his first visit to Western Europe.

Returning to Cracow in 1981, Zagajewski arrived just in time to see the imposition of martial law, an experience he laconically recalls in his new collection:

I returned to the town
where I was a child
and a teenager and an old man of thirty.
The town greeted me indifferently
but the streets’ loudspeakers whispered:
don’t you see the fire is still burning,
don’t you hear the flame’s roar?
Get out.
Find another place.
Search for it.
Search for your true homeland.

Zagajewski found a new homeland in Paris, “a just city! where foreigners aren’t punished,/a city quick to remember/and slow to forget,/tolerating poets, forgiving prophets/for their hopeless lack of humor.” When Zagajewski published Tremor, in 1985, the artificial division of Europe still seemed permanent and irreversible, and his exile irrevocable. Many of the poems were set in the two cities where he had grown up, Cracow and Lwów (awarded to Ukraine when the Soviet Union moved its boundaries westward after World War II), and some were about his bitter experiences of martial law (“A Warsaw Gathering” and “Iron”). But even then, Zagajewski was moving beyond dissidence, much as Milosz had done before him.

I remember
the blazing appeal of that fire which parches
the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns
books and chars the skin of cities. I used to sing
those songs and I know how great it is to run with the others;
later, by myself,with the taste of ashes in my mouth, I heard
the lie’s ironic voice and the choir screaming
and when I touched my head I could feel
the arched skull of my country, its hard edge.

The detached, ironic, but by no means indifferent voice behind this poem spoke to magnificent effect in Zagajewski’s second English language collection, Canvas, published in 1993, in which a strong sense of history was brought to bear on the problems of personal life and the struggles of the artist to express them. By then the Berlin Wall had fallen, and with it the entire Soviet empire. Technically, Zagajewski was no longer a political exile but just another expatriate. However, like most of the writers who had fled Central and Eastern Europe during the cold war, he did not go back. Perhaps he felt he did not need to, since his Polish experiences were irrevocably a part of him—and still are, as in Mysticism for Beginners.

Once we fell asleep and slept for many months,
but dreams raged in us, heavy, treacherous,
like surf beneath a full moon.
Fear awakened us and again we moved on,
cursing fate and filthy inns.
For four years a cold wind blew,
but the star was yellow, sewn carelessly to a coat
like a school insignia.
The taxi smelled of anise and the twentieth century,
the driver had a Russian accent.
Our ship sank, the plane shook suddenly.
We quarreled violently and each of us
set out in search of a different hope.
(“The Three Kings”)

Here, in a poem ostensibly about the journey of the Magi, the search for a new savior is transposed into the journey of the Polish people in the twentieth century, the “we” of the first two sentences. But by the end of the passage the collective “we” has metamorphosed into a very different kind of “we,” a collection of individuals each searching for “a different hope.” Many of those people, including Zagajewski, have taken the traditional Polish route of exile, as familiar a theme to Polish authors as nature to the English or solitude to Americans. And how could it be otherwise for the poets of an ancient country that juridically and politically has ceased to exist for large stretches of its history?

We had nowhere to go
although the day was empty
like a sleeve buoyed by the wind.
Cemeteries swarmed with elegant,
unseen guests,
like a ballroom at dawn
when dreams pale.

Our dead don’t live in this country—
they’ve been traveling for years.
The address they give on yellowed postcards
can’t be read, and the nations engraved
on the stamps have long since ceased to exist.

It should be noted that Zagajewski owes much to his marvelous translator, Clare Cavanagh, whose colloquial yet precise versions strike this reader as pitch perfect, and convey the subtleties of the poet’s thought with remarkable lucidity. This is especially important in passages where Zagajewski’s metaphysical fancy comes into play, in such poems as “The Thirties” (“I don’t exist yet”), “Night,” “This Day’s Nothingness,” and especially “Three Angels.” In these works we find that the complex character of an “I” increasingly replaces the “we” of the earlier poems. And the poet’s sense of his own curiosity about the world and his powers of insight sustain him far from Poland as he travels to the south of France, Italy, Prague, Sicily, and finally Houston, where Zagajewski periodically teaches creative writing, and from where he affectionately contemplates the continent he has temporarily abandoned (“Houston, 6 PM”).

As the poet searches, he (and we) gradually come to understand that the search itself is more important than any answers, as in the beautiful title poem of this collection.

Suddenly I understood that the swallows
patrolling the streets of Montepulciano
with their shrill whistles,
and the hushed talk of timid travelers
from Eastern, so-called Central Europe,
and the white herons standing—yesterday? the day before?—
like nuns in fields of rice,
and the dusk, slow and systematic,
erasing the outlines of medieval houses,
and olive trees on little hills,
abandoned to the wind and heat,
and the head of the Unknown Princess
that I saw and admired in the Louvre,
and stained-glass windows like butterfly wings
sprinkled with pollen,
and the little nightingale practicing
its speech beside the highway,
and any journey, any kind of trip,
are only mysticism for beginners,
the elementary course, prelude
to a test that’s been

The irony of that last reference is compounded by the opening of the poem, in which we learn that “Mysticism for Beginners” refers to a popular book he saw being carried by a German tourist in Montepulciano. Zagajewski seizes on it as an emblem of his own search for meaning, yet he cannot resist undercutting himself even as he does so, remaining playfully skeptical about the results of his search even as he hopes for a deeper understanding.

Another exile and a wanderer, with a biography not unlike Zagajewski’s, is the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. Born in the town of Klaipeda in 1937, Venclova spent most of his early life in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where he earned his living as a critic, translator, and journalist, while also writing poetry. In 1956 he was suspended for a year from the University of Vilnius (which he had entered at sixteen—the youngest student ever accepted) for taking an unhealthy interest in the Hungarian Revolution, and he later became a supporter of the Lithuanian dissident movement. He was somewhat sheltered by the fact that his father, Antanas Venclova, was a high official in the Lithuanian government and winner of a Stalin Prize for poetry, as well as by his constant travel within the Soviet empire, which led him to spend many months away from home, in Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw, and other Eastern European cities. In 1977, however, shortly after the publication of his first book of poetry in Lithuania, A Sign of the Language, when the Lithuanian dissident movement was being decimated with arrests, he felt the pressures of the regime had become unbearable. To avoid prison or the Gulag, Venclova went into exile. He now teaches Slavic languages and literature at Yale.

Venclova’s first book in English was Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast, a biography of the brilliant Polish poet and essayist who was imprisoned in Russia and whose reputation owes a great deal to the efforts of Milosz. Now Venclova, in Winter Dialogue, a collection of his poems translated from the Lithuanian, shows himself as passionately committed to European culture as Milosz and Zagajewski. Like the other two, he is a poet who started out on the margins of that culture (in a country with historical borders as changeable as Poland’s), and in a place where its survival was fundamentally threatened by Soviet imperialism. The very fierceness of his attachment to Europe’s classical tradition, one suspects, and his intense feeling for the past, reflect that isolation.

But Venclova inhabits a very different literary climate from that of Milosz or Zagajewski. Though he is every bit as devoted to classical form as Milosz, his poems have the flinty, frigid feel of a bleak Baltic winter; they evoke both the chill of northern latitudes and the extreme effort needed to survive at low temperatures.

Believe in winter. Drink the blessed cold.
Take pride in knowing that your home is lost.
Just like the ones who huddle in a boat,
Breathe darkness and the clarity of salt.

Sleep envelops Ithaca’s hills and dales.
And injured children sleep without a quiver.
And only death will finally prevail,
And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever.

Winter is overwhelmingly the season of the poet’s discontent, its chilly embrace enveloping this collection as thoroughly as sleep envelops Ithaca’s hills (turning even Ithaca into a cold climate). Winter, indeed, appears in the book’s title, and is powerfully present in the opening stanza of the title poem, in which the poet looks back across the ocean (of memory as well as water) to carry on a mental dialogue with (presumably) his alter ego:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

The unspoken subject of “Winter Dialogue,” and of many other poems in this collection, is exile, and nowhere does this topic find more eloquent expression than in the magnificent poem “Autumn in Copenhagen,” an aching elegy to the bitter taste of estrangement he experienced while still close to home. Copenhagen is also a Baltic city, its neoclassical buildings and seaside climate appearing to the poet as both familiar and strange (“the familiar rain cloud approaches/from the left”), and tantalizingly reminiscent of the poet’s native Lithuania:

…the day

overflows with the black taste of home. A sailboat bumps

the shore, and the name from the north, the crowded consonant lump

in the mouth, rolls smoothly away.

The author contemplates the Baltic shore, where

…sand meets the debris

of mare, pelagos, thalassa, sea the singular sea

as wide as the Styx.

and in the last stanza is reminded irrevocably of his loss.

Never again

to go home. To wrap yourself up, and vanish

in the fortress of fall, relinguish what you must relinquish,

and this still ahead

a trace of the previous land.

And hearts are still beating, however sinful and shameful that might

appear, and the siren’s pure wail interferes with the sullied night

on this side of the Sound.

Autumn in Copenhagen” is, for me, the most accomplished and moving of all the poems in Venclova’s collection, but this may be because the translation here rises splendidly to the challenge of the poet’s alternating long and short lines and his love of enjambment. Elsewhere, the translator, Diana Senechal (who has done a generally excellent job of wrestling the gnarled and knotty Lithuanian idiom into fluent English), uses awkward locutions like “the banks impend/on high,” “silence murmurs low,” “an evanescent rustle passed us by”; an apparent need to preserve an original rhyme scheme and meter overrides the reader’s need for clarity and sense.

The instigator of this approach, one suspects, is the late Joseph Brodsky, who contributes a typically opinionated introduction to Venclova’s collection, in which he insists on the primacy of meter and rhyme in defining a poet’s character and reiterates his well-known contempt for free verse, even in translation. Curiously enough, this view is quite at odds with the practice of Milosz, whose anthology is almost entirely in free verse; and one wonders to what extent Clare Cavanagh’s excellent versions of Zagajewski benefit from also being in free verse.

Brodsky’s introduction to Venclova’s collection is balanced by an epilogue consisting of an exchange of letters (a dialogue within a dialogue, so to speak) between Venclova and Milosz (which reminds me of a poem in Provinces that begins: “We were drinking vodka together, Brodsky, Venclova,…myself”) The subject of the exchange is Vilnius, the city where both spent their formative years—Milosz before World War II, when the city was the Polish Wilno, and Venclova after the war, when it had come under Lithuanian and Soviet control (yet another result of the steamroller that rearranged Central Europe’s borders).

In pre-war Poland, Wilno was an enclave, a provincial outpost on Poland’s eastern marches, surrounded by an alien—Lithuanian—population. After the war, and the victory of the Red Army, it became the capital city of those same Lithuanians. Physically it was the same city, and still a center of culture, but now it was the culture of a different nation that was in many ways hostile to the first one. Zagajewski’s native city of Lwów suffered a similar fate after it was transferred to Ukraine, and Zagajewski and his family were sent to the extreme west of Poland to live in the formerly German town of Gliwice.

Such brutal reversals of fortune and the dilemmas they present are depressingly familiar to intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe. In their lifetime, history never evolved slowly, never could be considered in tranquility, but was a violent succession of wars, occupations, and revolutions, and of frontiers moved mercilessly back and forth, against the background of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Gulag. It is because they feel driven to deal with this experience and to wring meaning from its harsh complexities that their work acquires an urgency and an ironic edge that we recognize as characteristic of that part of the world. It also helps to explain why Milosz (and Zagajewski and Venclova) place so much emphasis on the primacy of the individual’s concrete experiences.

In his late years Milosz has been able to seek solace in the wisdom of the past, and to scour the poetic tradition for tokens of hope and reassurance. But for the two younger writers, recent history is too pressing, and offers little sign of stability or happiness to come. Their personal journeys are bound to continue, but will be very different from the odysseys recorded here.

  1. *

    Since writing this review, I have learned of the impending publication, in late November, of yet another book by Milosz, a “miscellany of poems, parables, essays and epigrams” to be called Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).