By Czeslaw Milosz. Translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass
Ecco. 102 pp. $23.95
Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz died at 93 on August 14 in Krakow. The surprise was that it was a surprise; it was beginning to seem he would carry on forever. Although the news reports said only that he died of "old age," friends noted that the poet, almost blind and deaf, had been ill for some time.
Second Space, in press when he died, entered stores as a posthumous collection, leaving us with the impression that, after a lifetime of skepticism, peregrination and troubles, Milosz tossed us an armful of roses as he departed for the hereafter, the "second space" of his title poem.
The book is an extraordinary spiritual testament, unlike any that could have been produced by another poet of our time. Milosz -- that inveterate miracle-worker who nevertheless doubts, prods and questions miracles -- has pulled off an astonishing summa as his farewell present.
Milosz never failed to view life as a spiritual pilgrimage -- a cliche, perhaps, until you see that he envisioned the journey not in the touchy-feely New Age sense; his grapples with his faith are ancient, specific and enduring. For that reason, it will be interesting to see what non-Polish readers make of this book -- a book that cries out on almost every page, "Help thou my unbelief!"
"It's beyond my understanding.
How could you create such a world,
Alien to the human heart, pitiless,
In which monsters copulate, and death
Is the numb guardian of time?" . . .
"Save me from the images of pain I have gathered wandering on the earth,
Lead me where only Your light abides."
Poet Leonard Nathan, who eventually became one of Milosz's translators, once told me of his first real conversation with Milosz, in the stacks of Berkeley's main library in the late 1970s. "I have one problem with your work," Nathan told the older poet. "Although I'm a nonbeliever, I have trouble with your heavy investment in the Manicheans." Milosz replied with characteristic puckishness, "You think you have trouble? How do you think I -- a churchgoer -- feel?"
Milosz's Catholicism has always been problematic. He has often concluded, like the heretical Manichees, that the world is a diabolical creation and life "a devil's vaudeville." (The pope himself sent a message for Milosz's nationally televised state funeral in Krakow, placating protesters who claimed the poet was anti-Catholic.) For Milosz, the cruelty of the world is insupportable, mysterious; he had seen more than his share of it. Lithuanian-born, working with the resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland, Milosz witnessed the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. He later served as a diplomat for communist Poland before defecting during Stalin's era. In a letter to Thomas Merton, he confided, "my guilt is shapeless, all-embracing, when I try to express it, I distort."
"Wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me," he admits in Second Space. In one poem, a priest asks: "Can I tell them: there is no Hell,/ When they learn on earth what Hell is?"
Walt Whitman was the English-language poet he admired the most; Milosz appreciated his "omnivorousness." It is fitting, perhaps, that Milosz's end volume so resembles the work of America's heretical bard, who wrote of old age and death, who also produced a trail of "final poems," and who wrote, "With ray of light, steady, ineffable . . . For that O God, be it my latest word, here on my knees,/Old, poor, and paralyzed, I thank Thee."
Milosz's poetry, like Whitman's, has long, long lines. Though the language in some poems can seem bland and undistinguished, lapsing into prose, at least some of the prose-iness is deceptive in translation. For example, the epigrammatic snatches of "Notebook" may seem scrappy and aimless; in Polish, however, the snippets are peppered with rhyme.
Other pitfalls: The extended poem for Paris poet and Milosz kinsman, Oscar Milosz -- "Apprentice" -- is so loaded with footnotes that it pretty much capsizes the whole. Throughout his writing life, Milosz wanted to recollect and document everything before it disappeared into oblivion. That constant obsession -- of rescuing memory from the abyss -- underpins his final poem in Second Space, "Orpheus and Eurydice," a moving evocation of the poet's wife, Carol, who died last year.
Milosz's meditations seem to meld easily with translator Robert Hass's conversational, California style. One could argue that Milosz was influenced by the former U.S. poet laureate -- that, during their quarter-century of harmonious collaboration, Milosz simplified his style and language, becoming more clear, more accessible, more American. Appearances deceive, however. In Polish, the elevated syntax of Second Space is redolent of the Psalms and lends the book an insistent biblical echo. It's no coincidence that Milosz taught himself Hebrew so that he could translate the Psalms and the Book of Job into Polish, eventually translating Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Song of Songs, and even, from the Greek, the Gospel According to Saint Mark -- a critical influence on his poetry and thinking.
Second Space is no easy-listening channel. It may be fashionable to play the Doubting Thomas and take facile potshots, but not when the underlying struggle for faith is an agonizing ordeal -- like the apostle's. Milosz's spiritual struggles are not likely to be comprehended by those who haven't resisted the erosion of their faith:
"The louts grimaced sarcastically
As they discussed my pious, childish superstitions."
"When the heart stops, my contemporaries say,
Shrugging their shoulders, that's it."
"We complain that the earth is hell's antechamber: it might have been hell complete, without beauty, without goodness, not a ray."
And from that torment comes the roses:
"my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
That grows large and takes me in."
Those who have followed Milosz's trajectory will marvel that he came up with his own poetic brand of a happy ending, that his lifelong ambivalences finally resolve into the grace and gravitas of this book. * Cynthia Haven writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Times Literary Supplement of London. Her "Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations" will be published in 2006.