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By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by the author and Robert Hass
Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1995
ISBN # 0-88001-454-7
66 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2013

Czeslaw Milosz was invited by the Lithuanian government to return to his home and visit. This was in 1989, 50 years after he had left, and the year prior to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Milosz had not been a popular figure for many years. He left Poland just after the war, choosing not to stay as part of the intellectual resistance community. Many in both Lithuania and Poland had condemned him for his beliefs and retreat to Western Europe and the United States. Milosz was quite sensitive to this rejection of his person and work, so he is especially moved by this invitation.

The poems are primarily memories of what life had been like in this lovely rural area of Lithuania before the war and in his youth. Give the toll taken by the war and simply time itself, there are not many of his age left and he, as poet, is acutely aware that the memories that live within him will soon be dead and will not live on at all. Thus many of these poems are to set those memories down on paper that they may exist in that mode after his own demise.

The very first poem is one of my favorites. “At A Certain Age” is about how to assess one’s own life. He tries out various people, animals, even natural processes, and none work satisfactorily. For example, dogs, cats and people won’t do:

“Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seeming very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.”

Ultimately he had to fall back on himself after trying many other avenues:

“Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: ‘That’s me.’”

“At A Certain Age” is a poem about accepting our selves as we are. Why ‘confess,’ and I would add, or regret. I am who I am. A truly Socratic person knows he or she is who he or she is and accepts it.

He is in his 80s, and has returned home to Lithuania for the first time since WWII. The poet is filled with guilt. He refused to do the required registrations and such prior to the war, yet he escaped, he survived and those who were law-abiding and followed the rules of the mid and late 30s are all now dead. Milosz is just sort of stunned with the weight of it all. It’s a very powerful poem.

While I can understand the power of this returning home, he is a bit delusional concerning the importance of poetry in the world, but, I guess given that it has completely dominated his life it is somewhat understandable that he would view it that way.

Given the way he writes about himself, alternately condemning and harsh with occasional apologies, he seems to think it necessary; I couldn’t help but wonder if the poem about the artist in the museum wasn’t really thinly disguised autobiography.

“Biography of An Artist”

“So much guilt behind them and such beauty!
These landscapes, in the quiet splendor
Of early summer, toward evening, these coves
Of lakes amid lush green, when, for welcome,
Messengers come running, in saffron robes,
And bring gifts, huge balls made of light.
Or his portraits. Is not tenderness
Needed to drive a brush with such attention
Along the eyelids of a sorrowing eye
Through the furrow at lips closed by grief?
And how could he do it? Knowing what we know
About his life, every day aware
Of harm he did to others. I think he was aware.
Just not concerned, he promised his soul to Hell
Provided that his work remained clear and pure.”

“Realism” is a magnificent poem celebrating the realism of the early Dutch masters.

“One More Contradiction” is basically a lovely poem which lists what he takes as some of his “faults” in life, but the contradiction is that without those he would never have been this poet who is wondering what it could have been like without his “faults.” It’s a lovely meditation.

In his tribute poem to Alan Ginsberg, Milosz reveals clearly the sort of poet he wishes he would be remember as, yet knowing himself much better than he knows Ginsberg, his doubts make him demean himself.

However, in the very next poem of this collection, “A Human Fly”, Milosz fesses up clearly that, in the main, he just doesn’t much like people in general.

In “A Polka-Dot Dress” and “Plato’s Dialogues” he presents two glimpses of simple memories of his past which he elevates to serious literature in his poetry. The first is of a momentary sight of a young woman making love to his friend in the woods, Milosz imagines her possible futures. The second is a recounting of a bath house visits with his father and the macho men of the village. Very nice.

While there are several quite rewarding poems in this collection, in the end I found too many that just weren’t of the same quality, and some just not ready for publication. It is a slim volume and I think that he rushes a few poems into print which still needs work. This is the third volume of his poetry I’ve read, and while there are the rewarding poems, this volume seems a bit less praiseworthy than the other two.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett