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Two Poems by Czeslaw Milosz


   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
December 6, 1998

For years now it's been a part of my routine to meet a morning or afternoon a week with Czeslaw Milosz and work for a couple of hours at making English language versions of his poems. Milosz, who won the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, is well into his eighties and not only keeps writing but keeps inventing. The last project we worked on is a book mostly of short prose pieces: aphorisms, anecdotes, musings, observations, thoughts on the wing. He called the book "Road-side Dog." Which I suppose is a way of summing up his sense of his life. The first piece in the book reaches back to his youth in Lithuania early in the century and explains the title:

Road-side Dog

I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to woodlands where swirls of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor house in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night – I don't know where it came from – in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.

One of my favorite pieces in the book was a musing on youth and age, time and eternity; it was initiated by a notice in the London Times that Christopher Milne, the son of A.A. Milne who immortalized him in the person of Christopher Robin, had died at the age of 75. The piece is written in the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Christopher Robin

I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continued to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment.

Owl says that immediately beyond our garden Time begins, and that it is an awfully deep well. If you fall in it, you go down and down, very quickly, and no one knows what happens to you next. I was a bit worried about Christopher Robin falling in, but he came back and then I asked him about the well. "Old bear," he answered. "I was in it and I was falling and I was changing as I fell. My legs became long, I was a big person, I grew old, hunched, and I walked with a cane, and then I died. It was probably just a dream, it was quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won't go anywhere, even if I'm called in for an afternoon snack."

("Road-side Dog" and "Christopher Robin" from "Road-Side Dog" by Czeslaw Milosz. Copyright 1998 by Czeslaw Milosz. Reprinted by permission is published of Farrar Straus & Giroux, Inc.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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