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.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress's neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
Czeslaw Milosz, who died in Krakow at the age of 93 last week, gave us a deep poetry of remembrance. He had a grave, open-eyed lucidity about the 20th century. I first felt from his work the nobility and grandeur of poetry, yet one also learned from him to distrust rhetoric, to question false words and sentiments. "Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another," he avowed in "Dedication." "I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words." One felt from the beginning the purposefulness of Milosz's deceptive simplicity, his distrust of "pure poetry," his anguished irony, his humility before the perplexing plenitude of reality, the depth of his quest for clarity and truth.
A sense of guilt is deeply ingrained in Milosz's work. He used that guilt to summon old stones, those who have come before us. He bore the burden of memory. He taught us to consider historical categories, not the idea of history vulgarized by Marxism, but something deeper and more complex, more sustaining: the feeling that mankind is memory, historical memory, and that "our hope is in the historical." He gave us a series of Cassandra-like warnings about totalitarianism. He had an obsessive concern with our collective destiny, with what he called "the riddle of Evil active in history." He was deeply aware of our tragic fragmentation, but he didn't revel in that fragmentation so much as he sought to transcend it. In an age of relativism, he searched for eternal values.
I love Czeslaw Milosz's poetry for its plenitudes and multilevel polyphonies. He taught us to love lyric poetry and to question it. He insisted that his poems were dictated by a daimon, and yet also exemplified what it meant to be a philosophical poet. His poetry was fueled by suffering but informed by moments of unexpected happiness. He understood the cruelty of nature and yet remembered that the earth merits our affection.
He thought deeply about the rise and fall of civilizations, and he praised the simple marvels of the earth, the sky and the sea. "There is so much death," he wrote in "Counsels," "and that is why affection/ for pigtails, bright-colored skirts in the wind,/ for paper boats no more durable than we are." He wrote of the eternal moment and the holy word is. He reminded us how difficult it is to remain just one person. He believed in our humanity. I love his poetry most of all for its radiant moments of wonder and being, because of its tenderness toward life.
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
(The poem "A Confession" was translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass. The lines from "Dedication" and "Counsels" as well as the poem "Gift" were translated by Czeslaw Milosz. All appear in Czeslaw Milosz, "New and Collected Poems (1931-2001)." Ecco/HarperCollins. Copyright © 1988, 1991, 1995, 2001 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc.)