This blog appeared first in the LIBRARY OF AMERICA's Reader's Almanac blog, with a bit more information and some links at the end.
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Czesław Miłosz, (California) Poet
In 1936, at age twenty-five, Czesław Miłosz wrote this poem:
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
(tr: Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)
In 1991, in “Capri,” he wrote:
“I reach eighty, I fly from San Francisco to Frankfurt and Rome, a passenger who once travelled three days by horse carriage from Szetejnie to Wilno.”
(tr: Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass)
Between those two poems, a changed life. Between those two poems, a changed world.
In late 2002, at ninety-one and returned to Poland from his long self-exile (ten years in Paris, then forty as professor and poet in Berkeley), Miłosz wrote this small poem in his notebook:
“I pray to my bedside god.
For He must have billions of ears.
And one ear He keeps always open to me.”
(tr: Anthony Milosz)
Reading this in English eight years after the poet's death, I was struck by its curious “bedside.” A translator’s note explains: the original adjective means “near-at-hand,” “handy.” The Polish words for a first aid kit, a home-library reference book, and hand luggage all use some form of podręczny. This would, then, be not the distant, fearsome god of the Judgment, but the one who knows every sparrow that falls, and the poem points toward a fully-felt fulcrum of balance: its god is local and large, intimate and immense, able to carry in a small, household form something vast, life-saving, and essential. Even the typography holds dual vision: the “g” of “god,” is lower-case; the pronoun is “He.”
Czesław Miłosz was a writer who thought much about the large. He pondered history, philosophy, religion, and, throughout his life, the central question of suffering. Yet he remained all his life a poet whose descriptions and affections were ultimately tuned to the small, the visibly near— a vanishing world slips into the vanishing body of a hare. Abstraction, ideas pried loose from those who lived and held them, were—he had witnessed—murderous. A lifelong Catholic, he could write without embarrassment of the Eternal, while remaining equally a poet of preservation and memory: of a pleated taffeta dress, a childhood river, a Warsaw librarian dead in the war, a snake, a cat. He loved debate, but also to eat, and to look. A meal had its lamb, its olives, the wood of its table, its view. An overheard conversation between women in a museum cafeteria might be conscripted into a poem of delight in our “tiny, tiny my-ness.”
For four of his nine decades, what was local, intimate, and at-hand to Czesław Miłosz was California and his Tudor-style storybook cottage on Grizzly Peak. One prose book is titled Visions from San Francisco Bay—his daily view. And so, because it is biographically true, and because he was a poet of the podręczny—of what is near to the hand—this poet of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland was nonetheless a poet of whom we might say also: of California.
Some facts. Born in 1911, Miłosz spent his youth in the forests and farmlands of Szetejnie, Lithuania, a member of a Polish-speaking landholding family in a place where historical borders had long been fluid. He died in Krakow, Poland, at age 93, in 2004. In between, he attended university in Vilnius, traveled to Paris in the 1930s, watched as a member of the Polish resistance during the Second World War first the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and then of the larger city. He came to America first as a postwar diplomat serving the Washington D.C. embassy. After he defected, first leading the life of an émigré writer in Paris, he found a home in America, teaching in relative obscurity in the Slavic Languages Department of the University of California, Berkeley—until the Nobel Prize in 1980 procured him both that rarest of perks, a personal parking place on the Berkeley campus, and fame.
The locating of poets isn't an act of mine-stake claiming. Poets’ words are community property, and poems need no passports to pass through borders. Miłosz took U.S. citizenship, but addressed himself as “voyager” in one poem, and in another wrote to his “faithful mother tongue” (Polish), “You were my native land: I lacked any other.” We cannot unmixedly call him an “American” poet. Yet he wrote in a Polish magazine of “my fraternity of California poets.”
Miłosz was fluent in Polish, French, and English, learned Lithuanian, Russian, and some Yiddish in childhood, traveled widely (mushroom hunting in forests wherever he could). He served as ambassador between the world's literary traditions, including in his anthology A Book of Luminous Things translations of poems from Europe, Asia, North and South America, Scandinavia, and the Near East.
The word “cosmopolitan” has many definitions. Some speak of the cosmopolitan as “free from local, provincial, or nationalist ideas or prejudices”; others say simply “belonging to, at home in, all the world.” For naturalists, the word means “globally at home”—humans, then, must be, along with ants and termites, a biologically cosmopolitan species.
We don’t ordinarily think of the cosmopolitan in terms of Walt Whitman’s “kosmos,” yet it seems here somehow apt. Walt Whitman was the one poet Milosz praised entirely without demurral. Each was a poet of breadth-embrace and a seemingly omnivorous appetite for the detailed actual. You can see the slip-hem of this in the way Whitman cannot speak of himself as “kosmos” without naming himself simultaneously a poet of particular place: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” “Walt Whitman, a cosmos, of Manhattan the son.” In these couplings is the same balance of large and local we find in Milosz’s bedside god. Each time Whitman names himself universally capacious, he cannot seem to help issuing also a Morse Code tap on specific ground.
Perhaps I am trying to sketch here a premise too complicated for such a brief form as this virtual Library bookshelf. But Miłosz, a poet of almost incalcuable range, continually reminds us also that poems, and poets, live in the small, in the local and comic recognition, in the living and perishing real. We do not, cannot, live in general; even exile takes place in a place, a deck overlooking a Bay, on which a poet with extravagant eyebrows turns the pages of a New Yorker for its cartoons. We breathe the air that is near to us, scented with redwoods and lemons or with the exhaust of refineries, power plants, airplanes, wars. If a poet in exile continues writing, he or she will be sustained by that air and that place, and will become of it.
Let me close then with a poem by Czesław Miłosz scented with the incense smoke of California's cedars, which holds in its stanzas each of the places of affection here seen: Berkeley; Poland; his “place” among persons of letters, with both the hope of lasting and the acceptance of disappearance. Even the afterlife is landscape: mountainous, physical, wooded and ridged. This poem holds also history, politics, the devastation of the Second World War, the contemplation of aging and death. It breaks into almost incoherent fracture, an “omnium gatherum of chaos,” and feels its way back by effort of thought; Milosz’s moral universe is always recalibrated by a self-judgment more severe than his judging of others. And then: the poem’s late shift into the altering “you” of direct address—for me, among the most moving and intimate gestures of all 20th century poems—in which Miłosz declares an abiding faithfulness to the place of his truest terrestrial citizenship: the multitudinous, flickering, humanly known, and altering earth he will leave.
The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.
“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”
He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.
And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.
Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.
I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.
You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.
And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.
You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.
(tr. by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass)
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