"A Poem for the
End of the
"The Poor Poet"
"A Song on the
End of the
Europe," part 5
Many of you know I have trouble naming favorites. But Milosz just . . . stands apart. I identify with his poetry so much. And his poetry survives the ultimate test of strength: translation. So much of poetry depends on the rhythm and just being of the language itself. When that is destructed, the poem is stripped down to the actual words. I found a web site quite by accident featuring only the first two poems here. I had never read him before and had vaguely heard of him. I knew he must be good; he won the Nobel Prize and all, sheesh, but when I read the stuff at his site I was just astounded. He's wonderful. In an introduction given at the site, he explains how the first two poems are really juxtapositions of two opposite views on life. They're both great. I loved it so much I bought a book of his, and am savoring it bit by bit. Here's what I love out of half the book so far.
Conversation with Jeanne
Let us not talk philosophy, drop it, Jeanne. So many words, so much paper, who can stand it. I told you the truth about my distancing myself. I've stopped worrying about my misshapen life. It was no better and no worse than the usual human tragedies. For over thirty years we have been waging our dispute As we do now, on the island under the skies of the tropics. We flee a downpour, in an instant the bright sun again, And I grow dumb, dazzled by the emerald essence of the leaves. We submerge in foam at the line of the surf, We swim far, to where the horizon is a tangle of banana bush, With little windmills of palms. And I am under accusation: That I am not up to my oeuvre, That I do not demand enough from myself, As I could have learned from Karl Jaspers, That my scorn for the opinions of this age grows slack. I roll on a wave and look at white clouds. You are right, Jeanne, I don't know how to care about the salvation of my soul. Some are called, others manage as well as they can. I accept it, what has befallen me is just. I don't pretend to the dignity of a wise old age. Untranslatable into words, I chose my home in what is now, In things of this world, which exist and, for that reason, delight us: Nakedness of women on the beach, coppery cones of their breasts, Hibiscus, alamanda, a red lily, devouring With my eyes, lips, tongue, the guava juice, the juice of la prune de Cythère, Rum with ice and syrup, lianas-orchids In a rain forest, where trees stand on the stilts of their roots. Death, you say, mine and yours, closer and closer, We suffered and this poor earth was not enough. The purple-black earth of vegetable gardens Will be here, either looked at or not. The sea, as today, will breathe from its depths. Growing small, I disappear in the immense, more and more free.
A Poem for the End of the Century
When everything was fine And the notion of sin had vanished And the earth was ready In universal peace To consume and rejoice Without creeds and utopias, I, for unknown reasons, Surrounded by the books Of prophets and theologians, Of philosophers, poets, Searched for an answer, Scowling, grimacing, Waking up at night, muttering at dawn. What oppressed me so much Was a bit shameful. Talking of it aloud Would show neither tact nor prudence. It might even seem an outrage Against the health of mankind. Alas, my memory Does not want to leave me And in it, live beings Each with its own pain, Each with its own dying, Its own trepidation. Why then innocence On paradisal beaches, An impeccable sky Over the church of hygiene? Is it because that Was long ago? To a saintly man --So goes an Arab tale-- God said somewhat maliciously: "Had I revealed to people How great a sinner you are, They could not praise you." "And I," answered the pious one, "Had I unveiled to them How merciful you are, They would not care for you." To whom should I turn With that affair so dark Of pain and also guilt In the structure of the world, If either here below Or over there on high No power can abolish The cause and the effect? Don't think, don't remember The death on the cross, Though everyday He dies, The only one, all-loving, Who without any need Consented and allowed To exist all that is, Including nails of torture. Totally enigmatic. Impossibly intricate. Better to stop speech here. This language is not for people. Blessed be jubilation. Vintages and harvests. Even if not everyone Is granted serenity.
In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.
The same and not quite the same, I walked through oak forests
Amazed that my Muse, Mnemosyne,
Has in no way diminished my amazement.
A magpie was screeching and I said: Magpiety?
What is magpiety? I shall never achieve
A magpie heart, a hairy nostril over the beak, a flight
That always renews just when coming down,
And so I shall never comprehend magpiety.
If however magpiety does not exist
My nature does not exist either.
Who would have guessed that, centuries later,
I would invent the question of universals?
What Does It Mean
It does not know it glitters
It does not know it flies
It does not know it is this not that.
And, more and more often, agape,
With my Gauloise dying out,
Over a glass of red wine,
I muse on the meaning of being this not that.
Just as long ago, when I was twenty,
But then there was a hope I would be everything,
Perhaps even a butterfly or a thrush, by magic.
Now I see dusty district roads
And a town where the postmaster gets drunk every day
Melancholy with remaining identical to himself.
If only the stars contained me.
If only everything kept happening in such a way
That the so-called world opposed the so-called flesh.
Were I at least not contradictory. Alas.
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.
Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
The Poor Poet
The first movement is singing,
A free voice, filling mountains and valleys.
The first movement is joy,
But it is taken away.
And now that the years have transformed my blood
And thousands of planetary systems have been born and died in my flesh,
I sit, a sly and angry poet
With malevolently squinted eyes,
And, wieghing a pen in my hand,
I plot revenge.
I poise the pen and it puts forth twigs and leaves, it is covered with
And the scent of that tree is impudent, for there, on the real earth,
Such trees do not grow, and like an insult
To suffering humanity is the scent of that tree.
Some take refuge in despair, which is sweet
Like strong tobacco, like a glass of vodka drunk in the hour of annihilation.
Others have the hope of fools, rosy as erotic dreams.
Still others find peace in the idolatry of country,
Which can last for a long time,
Although little longer than the nineteenth century lasts.
But to me a cynical hope is given,
For since I opened my eyes I have seen only the glow of fires, massacres,
Only injustic, humiliation, and the laughable shame of braggarts.
To me is given the hope of revence on others and on myself,
For I was he who knew
And took from it no profit for myself.
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
And those who expected signs and archangels' 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.
Selection from "Child of Europe," part 5
Let your words speak not through their meanings,
But through them against whom they are used.
Fashion your weapon from ambiguous words.
Consign clear words to lexical limbo.
Judge no words before the clerks have checked
In their card index by whom they were spoken.
The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history.
Czeslaw Milosz photos
My favorite Milosz quotes