Czeslaw Milosz: A Tribute

Hello.  I'm Mark Danner.  It's wonderful to stand here, all of us together, with our ears full of the words of Milosz.  And not the least thing I have to thank the organizers of this event for is sending me back, over a week and a half, to many of his books that I hadn't looked at in many years, and I hope that will be the result for many, also, in the audience.  I was curled up on the couch about a week and a half ago during an enormous storm, creaking of trees overhead, reading A Year of the Hunter, a title stolen, as Lillian said, from one of the great favorite books of Czeslaw's youth.  

And I should say that I live, because of some strange contradictions and overlaps of time, and strange intersections, I find myself living in Czeslaw Milosz's house high up on Grizzly Peak Boulevard.  During large storms, these enormous trees — the house is quite small.  It's surrounded by huge Sequoia Pines and Redwoods.  And if a storm is big enough, as several have been this year, you can hear this enormous creaking, wailing sound as the trees flop overhead over the house.  And every once in a while a tree will come down.  A few years ago, quite a mid-size tree came down and swallowed my neighbor's BMW, which he dealt with fairly benignly, all things considered.   

But the other night as I was reading in A Year of the Hunter, the trees starting creaking and wailing, the wind was blowing in, and I started to be a little bit frightened as I heard this sound.  And I came across a little note in this book.  It's the diary of a year in Czeslaw's life.  There's a lot in it about the drama of fighting the deer, keeping them away from the flowers he'd planted, fighting them off.  I have now given up this battle entirely, and their descendants have taken over the garden completely.  Anyway, there's creaking, there's wailing, there's wind, rain.  And I read this little notation.  

  • A visit from the gardener who advises me to transplant the [fasciola], because there's no way to control their growth under the windows.  Then, about the trees, there's been some talk this winter of their posing a danger to the house because of their gigantic height and the storms blowing in from the ocean. 

My ears pricked up.  I looked at the next sentence. 

  • The gardener confirms that the pines are healthy and can stand there for another 20 years. 

And then, feeling a bit of reassurance, I look at the date, which is almost precisely 20 years — [laughter] — 20 years before.  And I laughed out loud in my terror, the trees creaked, and I thought I heard Czeslaw's very large laugh somewhere in the distance, or somewhere in the background. 

It's kind of a time joke, which is, as you've heard in some of the poems today, was something he loved because as a chaser after being, after what exactly existence is, he loved concatenation of time, of a photograph, a memory with the present and thought, in a way, if he could pull those things together — image, memory, presence — somewhere being lay between those different parts of existence.  In so many of his poems an encounter is won, all the way back to 1936, when he was 25.  Another is — and I'm going to give you another cat here — "A Portrait with a Cat."  This was hanging on the wall in the house for many years with, actually, a reproduction of this portrait that it's talking about from a child's book. 

  • A little girl looks at a book with a picture of a cat
  • Who wears a fluffy collar and has a green velvet frock.
  • Her lips, very red, are half opened in a sweet reverie.
  • This takes place in 1910 or 1912, the painting bears no date.
  • It was painted by Marjorie C. Murphy, an American
  • Born in 1888, like my mother, more or less.
  • I contemplate the painting in Grinnell, Iowa,
  • At the end of the century. The cat with his collar
  • Where is he? And the girl? Am I going to meet her,
  • One of those mummies with rouge, tapping with their canes?
  • But this face: a tiny pug nose, round cheeks,
  • Moves me so, quite like a face that I, suddenly awake
  • In the middle of the night, saw by my side on a pillow.
  • The cat is not here, he is in the book, the book in the painting.
  • No girl, and yet she is here, before me
  • And has never been lost. Our true encounter
  • Is in the zones of childhood. Amazement called love,
  • A thought of touching, a cat in velvet. 

I want to go from that to another painting, and another trope that you see in Czeslaw's work quite a bit.  This is one version of it, again from A Year of the Hunter.  And the question is, what is the soul of somebody?  What is the being of someone?  What distinguishes us, one person from another?  And this little paragraph is the poet in a museum.  And you often, I'm sure all of you have felt this, you look across a room, you can't see the subject of a picture, you can't see much about it, but you know it's a Tintoretto, or you know it's a Veronese.  You know who the artist is. 

  • It is unbelievable that from a considerable distance, when we still don't know even the painter's name, we're able to make distinctions and to say who it is.  For example, that it is a landscape by Corot.  Which means that there exists (I'm not sure how to define it) a tone, a nuance, a melody, which is peculiar to one many 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, with due consideration for additional premises, to be sure: that this strictly individual, unique something cannot be destroyed forever, because that would be senseless and unjust. 

I think when we talk about Czeslaw's life as a poet, across 93 years, across our century, there is a tension between the lyricism of his art and the political, the political that forced itself upon him.  He remembered World War I.  He traveled across Czarist Russia in the back of a wagon with his father, who was building bridges and roads for the Czar.  He remembered the First World War.  He lived through the Second World War in annus mundi, the asshole of the world, occupied Warsaw, and survived it.   

He lived to work for the Stalinist government, and then break with it, and then live in exile in France among intellectuals who were predominantly Stalinist, so doubly exiled, with anti-Communists who, of course, did not trust him.  And then he came here and lived the Cold War on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as it were, and lived long enough to return to Poland, to return to Solidarity's Poland and then a democratic Poland at the end of his life. 

And it seems to me, in re-reading his work, it's not the life he, needless to say, would have hoped for or would have predicted for himself, that the lyricism — well, let me read just a quick paragraph from Unattainable Earth that closes it. 

  • Define my home in one sentence: concise, as if hammered in metal, not to enchant anybody, not to earn a lasting name in posterity, in unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness. 

It wasn't his choice, I think, to write books, the most obvious one, and the name that you will still, people will still — the title that people will still hold out to you when you mention his name is The Captive Mind, a very beautiful book and a deeply political book.  He was, after all, a chaser after meaning.  I want to read this poem "Meaning," which is very well known. 

  • 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. 

He finally became identified as, to some degree, a political writer, a writer about the politics of our century, I think not only because of his vast life, but because he found the ability, as few others do, to stand to, as it were, dollied back, far back, stand up on a mountainside or mountaintop and see the century as one thing.  And I think he partly began to do this under the influence of his cousin, Oscar Milosz, who was a poet who wrote poetry not very — put it this way, honored in its time, but not very widely read, and who was convinced that the state of modern poetry, with the isolated poet, the poet joining the world of the isolated intellectual, was a catastrophe, and that intellectuals themselves would bring on a catastrophe to the modern world, as, indeed, Dostoyevsky predicted also, in the 1860s and 1870s, which is one of the reasons I think Dostoyevsky is so important for Czeslaw.   

And he looked at the reception of Dostoyevsky by contemporary intellectuals with an ironic eye because they could love Dostoyevsky only by throwing away the particular view he had of them, which was they might cause something like, indeed, the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist camps that followed it, they might cause the hecatombs of this century.  He says, again, in A Year of the Hunter, 

  • I think that my resistance to Communism had other sources, including my metaphysical temperament, and also my understanding of the gravity of that movement, which was truly preoccupied with one thing only: the dethronement of God.  So my lecturing on Dostoyevsky later on at Berkeley was totally consistent.  And since I did not have a cult of Poland as a superior value, it would have been better not to digress in my poetry into public questions.  Unfortunately, given the accidents of history, it was difficult to achieve such a degree of self-restraint. 

[Laughs.]  We have to be very grateful that he was not able to attain that degree of self-restraint.  I want to read one other of his poems that strikes me as one of the most beautiful political — if we can call a poem of his political — poems he ever wrote, which is called "A Song on the End of the World."  It was written in Warsaw in 1944, but I think it's, I don't know, it's very vivid to me now, what he is saying here, which is we wait, always, for the visible catastrophe, but very often the catastrophe is going on all around us.  Will there be civil war in Iraq, do you think?  We don't know.  You know, we wait for this moment that's always put into the future. 

      A Song on the End of the World 

  • On the day the world ends
  • A bee circles a clover,
  • A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
  • Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
  • By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
  • And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be. 
  • On the day the world ends
  • Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
  • A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
  • Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
  • And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
  • The voice of a violin lasts in the air
  • And leads into a starry night. 
  • And those who expected lightning and thunder
  • Are disappointed.
  • And those who expected signs and angels' trumps
  • Do not believe it is happening now.
  • As long as the sun and the moon are above,
  • As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
  • As long as rosy infants are born
  • No one believes it is happening now. 
  • Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
  • Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
  • Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
  • There will be no other end of the world,
  • There will be no other end of the world. 

That was written in Warsaw in 1944.  I just have to say one thing about leaving.  When I visited Czeslaw in Krakow and spent a number of days there with a friend, five or six days, and finally we stopped by the apartment — we were going to catch a train to Warsaw, we were leaving.  And Czeslaw took the latest book, which hadn't been translated, and put it in his reader, which projected it on a screen in large letters so he could read it, and sight translated a poem, "The Apprentice," about Oscar Milosz, his cousin.  And we looked at one another thinking, my god, this is — how much closer could we be to heaven than this?  And he finished it, and at a certain moment said, "Carol, Carol, I haven't worked, I haven't worked.  I have to work now."   

And we got up to take our leave and got to the door, and it occurred to me — this was 2003 — that I probably wouldn't see him again, or I might well not see him again.  And I sort of sneaked back, tiptoed back to his room.  And he had this sort of mythological threesome of lovely women floating around the apartment — a cook, a nurse and his lovely secretary, all presided over by Carol, his wife.   

And I poked my head in the room, and it was an overcast day, and there was an overhead light shining down on his head.  He was facing away from me at the desk.  Next to him was his secretary, and his head was turned in profile, and his lips were quite close to her lovely ear.  And he was murmuring, murmuring.  And she was gently tapping at the keyboard.  And I just paused there and thought, if that's the last glimpse, that's a good glimpse, because he was adding to the splendor that he left us.  Thank you.  [Applause.] 

[End of recording.]

A San Francisco Public Library Event, featuring Robert Hass, Mark Danner, Robert Faggen, Jane Hirshfield, Brenda Hillman, Michael Palmer, Anthony Milosz, Lillian Vallee, et al.

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