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 only from returning to Poland, but also expelled from the Communist intellectual milieu in Paris. He had been dining with Eluard, Neruda, and Aragon. Now, in his own words, he was “a leper.” From then on, he lived in exile, first in France, then in California, writing all his poetry in Polish, and only discovering, much later, through his devoted translators, especially Robert Hass and Madeline Levine, that he could win a worldwide audience for his work.
Exile usually generates a fair number of melancholy thoughts about a poet’s banishment from his native language. Milosz’s poetry seems to confound these clichés, both defying loss and accepting its inevitability:
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.
Yet just as he knew that he had to leave behind the provincial mediocrity of Wilno, so he seems to have understood that his mature poetry flourished on his duality: living in two places in his mind and belonging ultimately only to himself. Like Nabokov, who always regarded exile as the “syncopal kick” that made him a writer, Milosz seems to have been galvanized by exile. He doesn’t give the impression of being homeless in America, though it still seems to amaze him that audiences, in Ann Arbor, Corvallis, and Denver, should flock to lecture halls to hear him read poems about Wilno or Paris or Warsaw.
When I saw him that day in Chapel Hill, I expected him to greet the end of the Soviet regime with exultation. Instead, he was unexpectedly pensive. Looking back, he said, one could begin to see Marxism as a revolt against European nihilism, against the inner emptiness first diagnosed by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. To fill that void, communism had given European culture a vision of man overcoming nature and himself, and restoring meaning to historical time. Now that Marxism had sunk back into the nihilism from which it had emanated, what would take its place? Where would men and women find their hope? Milosz is a practicing Catholic, but one too doubting to look forward to a mass return to the Mother Church. The void that Marxism had diagnosed but not filled was still in us, he said, and you could sense it everywhere, even in American poets’ desperation to find something to write about, in “the yearned-for domain in which ‘something happens.”‘ He said all this, less sententiously than I have remembered it, in the soft and meditative voice of his best poetry.
Of his poetry, I only knew then the work written in wartime Warsaw, especially “Campo dei Fiori,” with its image of the carousel (actually a chairoplane) whirling its riders skyward through the smoke of corpses from the ghetto, and the sound of the fairground hurdy-gurdies drowning out “the salvos from the ghetto wall.” The poem, written as he said by a “Jew of the New Testament” as an act of moral witness, vowed that one day “rage will kindle at a poet’s word.”
That image of the poet’s avenging memory recurs in “You who wronged”—written originally to express his desperation at the ideological pressures of Polish communism, but since inscribed on the base of the statue to the shipyard workers at Gdansk killed by police in 1970:
The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.
And you’d have done better with a winter dawn
A rope, and a branch bowed be- neath your weight.
Milosz is actually more skeptical about the prophetic role of poetry than these famous poems imply. A poet can be trapped into a specious attempt to redeem suffering; he can be seduced into the kitsch of the nationalist epic:
You swore never to be
A ritual mourner.
You swore never to touch
The deep wounds of your nation
So you would not make them holy
The poems written in 1945 express desperation at the weight of witness that modern poetry had to bear, and in “Dedication” he imagined a poetry which would release us from the visitations of the dead and return us, healed, to life:
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
As I explored The Collected Poems, published in 1988, I began to see that the poetry of witness occupied a small place in his work. Most of his writing was an intensely private reflection on memory, on what it can save and redeem and what it is fated to lose. His work did not suggest the writer’s café or the library: it was not about books or poetics. He writes scornfully about the literary life as “a tournament of hunchbacks.” While his poems were often anguished, they were discreet, revelatory rather than autobiographical. The best of them are directed outward to the world and achieve an enigmatic simplicity and clarity, marked by a pertinacious eye for detail. In “After Paradise,” the words take us into the stillness at the heart of love:
Don’t run anymore. Quiet. How softly it rains
On the roofs of the city. How perfect
All things are. Now, for the two of you
Waking up in a royal bed by a gar- ret window.
For a man and a woman. For one plant divided
Into masculine and feminine which longed for each other.
Yes, this is my gift to you. Above ashes
On a bitter, bitter earth. Above the subterranean
Echo of clamorings and vows. So that now at dawn
You must be attentive: the tilt of a head,
A hand with a comb, two faces in a mirror
Are only forever once, even if un- remembered….
He thinks of a poet as “the one who flies above the earth and looks at it from above but at the same time sees it in every detail.” His is a philosophical poetry, and yet it is not abstract or theoretical; the voice is direct without being colloquial, precise without being mannered, and always in search of an exact and honest way to “glorify things just because they are.”
But the times did not allow him a poetry of quiet affirmation. He witnessed so much—Stalin’s tanks in the streets of Wilno, the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, the Communist suffocation of Poland—that he was forced, as he put it in The Captive Mind, to become the voice of the silenced slaves.
All his life he has asked himself whether art can be a genuine form of solidarity with human suffering. In the lecture he gave on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1980, he wrote about
the contradiction between being and action, or, on another level, a contradiction between art and solidarity with one’s fellow men… all art proves to be nothing compared with action. Yet to embrace reality in such a manner that it is preserved in all its old tangle of good and evil, of despair and hope, is possible only thanks to a distance, only by soaring above it—but this in turn seems then a moral treason.
Yet his ambivalence has never led to quietism. Even in the Nobel lecture itself, he chose—with a lack of tact that the Soviet guests at the ceremony could scarcely have appreciated—to denounce the Stalin-Ribbentrop pact and the murder of his beloved Baltic states. His poetry of witness is rescued from bathos or self-congratulation by his awareness that art is a treacherously incomplete form of solidarity.
In a time in which abominations are no sooner committed than consigned to oblivion, what does being a witness actually accomplish? I asked him this, and he replied—not much. Certainly not the poet’s salvation. “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.” He wrote the poems about the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto “from simple indignation,” not because he thought poetry could save anyone or redeem anything, but just because speech seemed less inhuman than silence. Now, to his surprise, these poems have become classic reflections on the distinctively modern experience of bystanders’ guilt, or being adjacent to horror, flying past on the Ferris wheel, while bodies burn nearby.
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.
March 23, 1995