Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004): A Centenary Celebration of the Poetry of UC Berkeley's Nobel Laureate

University of California, Berkeley

Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

A Centenary Celebration of the Poetry of UC Berkeley's Nobel Laureate

March 30, 2011

Mark Danner Segment

Mr. Robert Hass:  One of the last political events in the world in which he saw so much violence and so much terror that I witnessed him being passionately engaged by was the Serbian Nationalist attack on Bosnia.  And during the time that he was thinking about that, furious about it, furious about the European response to it, he was reading brilliant reports on what was going on by political journalist Mark Danner, who a year later arrived in Berkeley to teach in the School of Journalism, and became one of Czeslaw's Berkeley friends in his last years of being here.  Please welcome Mark Danner.  [Applause.]

Mr. Mark Danner:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  This is just a joyous, joyous occasion, and I really thank Bob, Tony and the organizers who made this possible.  I mean, it's really true, and I should make a confession, that where others come here through criticism or scholarship, I come here really through real estate.  Among other things, I was Czeslaw's tenant in his house in Grizzly Peak, and Bob asked me to speak a little bit about that house, living there, as I still do.  I started renting it off and on in 2000.  

And I'm going to begin just by telling a story.  It happened, I guess, going on seven years ago.  It was a Saturday night.  I'd been working late.  It was a very dark night and I decided I had to run down to town.  This is up on Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills.  I had to run down to town to pick something up, I don't know what it was.  

And this house is kind of a chalet cottage with this enormous rough stone chimney inside, two story living room, nestled among these towering Monterey pines and redwoods.  It's a quite extraordinary place with a path, a rough stone path that leads up to the road.  And I knew the path well by then, so I didn't turn on the lights, and the lights didn't work very well anyway, like many other things in the house.  

So I started staggering up the path.  It was quite dark, as I said.  And I heard, halfway up, "Rrrr!"  And I, you know, all the clichés, the hair on the nape of my neck, I froze like that, and I convinced myself I hadn't heard it, and I started to moving again.  And I heard, "Rrrr!"  And I couldn't see what it was, so I gingerly went back to the house, down the path yet again.  Tried to turn the lights on.  They didn't work.  Looked for a flashlight.  I found one, but the batteries didn't work.  

I finally grabbed a broomstick and walked up the hill with it ahead of me like a knight of some decrepitude.  And about halfway up I heard, yet again, "Rrrr!"  And I had, at that point, what poets call an epiphany.  I said, Mark, what the hell are you doing?  And I thought, for some reason, I'm not going to go to town this evening, and I sort of retreated back down the hill.  I don't know what it was.  

I slept late the next day.  I worked late, slept late the next morning.  Woke up, I don't know, around 11:00, and in the back yard — it's a very small back yard outside a bay window which overlooks, indeed, the bay, where there are often deer, which I always thought of as Czeslaw's deer, and deer populate the place.  Usually there are three deer, a mother and two babies, who tend to sit there, and they watch me walk by like somebody watching a tennis match.  It's quite an extraordinary thing.  I love them.  

Anyway, on this particular morning I came downstairs and there were a crowd of deer, more deer than I had ever seen there before.  I've convinced myself in the time since that it was 13, but I honestly don't know the number.  But I stood there absolutely rapt, thinking, what is going on?  They were literally crowded in this very small space.  

At which point the phone rang and I heard a recorded voice over the machine that I recognized as Bob saying, "Mark, Mark, are you there?  I just got a call.  I don't want to leave this on your machine, but Czeslaw has just died."  And I stood there and heard this, went over to this book which I brought tonight which Czeslaw had given me in Krakow the year before, which says, "Mark Danner, in the name of all generations of deer inhabiting Grizzly Peak.  Czeslaw Milosz, March 25, 2002, Krakow."  

Now, this is a preposterous story.  I completely recognize it.  It's ridiculous.  It can't be true.  And yet it is sort of characteristic of the predicament, I think, of living in Milosz's house that it is true.  And I don't quite know what to make of it.  I do know that I feel, all the time, as I sit in this house, and various parts of it that belong to Czeslaw start to conk out — the refrigerator has, the dishwasher has — and partly because of my own inertia and partly because of some kind of overwhelming sentimentality and mystery, I can't seem to get rid of these things, I tend to think that I'm kind of trapped in a sort of web of time and laughter.  

And of course it was one of Czeslaw's great subjects in grasping the world.  He searched for being partly through time, through the mystery of time.  A few years ago, when we were preparing another such tribute, I was sitting reading Year of the Hunter, which is a wonderful book in which the house plays a very large role, and it was during one of these incredible Pacific storms that we've had so many of these past days.  

The trees above were creaking and cracking, and I thought they were going to fall on the house, and I'm reading, trying to get ready to think of what I'm going to say, and I see this note, "A visit from the gardener."  This is kind of a diary form.  

"A visit from the gardener, who advises me to transplant the [fageae] because there's no way to control their growth under the windows.  The pines, despite their gigantic height, although there was some talk this winter of their posing a danger to the house because of storms blowing in from the ocean, he confirms they're healthy and can stand there for another 20 years."  

And of course the joke, of course, I looked at the date and it was almost exactly 20 years.  [Laughter.]  And I heard this kind of giggle, laughter, laughter, giggle echoing through the house.  And of course we've just had these incredible storms and that deadline has passed us by.

I should say that my worship or my attitude toward the deer is absolutely different from his.  He wanted to chase them off, he was a gardener.  And I see right underneath this note, again another daily note, 

"Attended an afternoon party at Simon Karlinsky's, where Frank Whitfield was presented with a festschrift in his honor.  I learned the one way to deter deer is to go to the zoo and buy lion or tiger droppings," question mark.  

And it does make me wonder whether he ever actually went to the zoo and bought tiger droppings, but I really like the idea. 


Anyway, I'm fascinated by this idea of the grasping of the world.  He tried to grasp the world, Adam said.  Has he grasped the totality?  Yes.  Because it strikes me looking at the metaphysics of Milosz, if you can call them that, that he had a kind of almost a jealousy of objects.  He wanted to be the creator.  And the poem I'm going to read is about that.  But I see also, on this same page, 

"Proud that my poems have their own life.  Objects that used not to be and that suddenly emerged through my mediation so that, like Chardin's painting, they will always exist, and whatever may be said about them will exist only in relation to them."  

How, exactly, do poems exist, and can poems exist like things do?  And if they can't, how frustrating is that?  How frustrating is that.

Another brief passage from this book.  He remarks something that I've often noticed myself, that when you go through a museum, very often in the gallery you'll look 30 feet away, whatever, you can't see the subject of the painting, and yet you'll know who the artist is.  You'll know it's a Corot or a Tintoretto.  And he says, 

"Which means there exists — I'm not sure how to define it — a tone, a nuance, a melody which is peculiar to one man only and to no one else, the mark of an individual, and art supplies only a particular occasion for becoming conscious of this, for the painter has managed to express what is his own.  But that does not mean that other people lack their own particular note.  This may be the sole proof of the immortality of the soul."  

Other souls are immortals, but poets, painters and others get to actually express the immortality in some kind of concrete object.  

I'd like to read a poem about girls.  [Laughs.]  Women.  But I want to, just before, let's see...  Forgive me just a second.  "Girl on a Train," okay.  There is one other note in this book.  He's riding on a train.  This is 1987.  "For the past several years, I've enjoyed France, but in retaliation for the humiliations I once suffered there" — which Bob talked about — oh, I beg your pardon, that's not the girls.  Bear with me one second.  Okay, yes.  

"I boarded the train to Fontainebleau in the summer of 1931."  

This is 1987.  He's on a train, he's thinking back to '31.  

"I was 20 years old.  We'd come to Paris as a trio — Robespierre, Elephant and I dressed in shirts and shorts."  

These are two close friends.  

"Because our knapsacks had sunk in the rapids of the upper Rhine.  Oscar had sent me money" — this is his cousin Oscar Milosz — "and advised me to buy a suit in St. Martin, so I was dressed not too elegantly, but respectably.  A young woman sat opposite me.  Provincial that I was, I was fascinated by her, a Parisian woman.  It isn't true that I'm not thinking about her now," he says in '87, 56 years later.  "In this train, because I am counting, she must have been around 30, let's say.  Add 56 years.  She would be 86 now, so most likely she's been dead for a long time."  

He takes up this theme in a poem that hung in the hallway of Grizzly Peak, which was "A Portrait With Cat," also about where is this woman now, how old she must be.  Now we come back to the woman yet again in one of my favorite poems of his that's also, it seems to me, about grasping, somehow grasping the world, and the frustrations of it and the challenge of it.  It's called "Esse," which means to be, being.  And you'll see a similar, a familiar character.


I looked at that face, dumbfounded.  The lights of métro stations flew by; I didn't notice them.  What can be done if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal form, a sign like a hieroglyph simplified from the drawing of an animal or bird?  A slightly snub nose, a high brow with sleekly brushed-back hair, the line of the chin — but why isn't the power of sight absolute?  And in a whiteness tinged with pink two sculpted holes containing a dark, lustrous lava.  To absorb that face but to have it simultaneously against the background of all spring boughs, walls, waves, in its weeping, its laughter, moving it back fifteen years, or ahead thirty.  To have.  It is not even a desire, like a butterfly, a fish, the stem of a plant, only more mysterious.  And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is.  Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!

She got out at Raspail.  I was left behind with the immensity of existing things.  A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees.

I want to read one more because I think this poses a question to which this poem, in a sense, for us offers a kind of answer.  This was written, the poem I just read was written in 1954, and it seems to me it has some kind of aesthetic ambition beating in it like a beating heart, a kind of frustration and also a kind of ecstasy.  And this is a poem written much later, I think '91.  I'm not sure, actually, but several decades later, in any event, called "Meaning."


When I die, I will see the lining of the world.

The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.

The true meaning, ready to be decoded.

What never added up will add Up, 

What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

And if there is no lining to the world? 

If a thrush on a branch is not a sign, 

But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day

Make no sense following each other? 

And on this earth there is nothing except this earth? 

Even if that is so, there will remain

A word wakened by lips that perish, 

A tireless messenger who runs and runs

Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, 

And calls out, protests, screams. 

It seems to me he came to a bit of an answer there, or at least a kind of equilibrium, and it strikes me as not the least joyous of this occasion that we're still listening to him here together, listening to those screams, as he calls them.  Thank you very much.  [Applause.]

[End of segment.]

Mark Danner speaking at the Centenary Celebration of the life of Czeslaw Milosz. UC Berkeley. Sponsored by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Townsend Center for the Humanities.

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