By Milosz, Czeslaw
Translated by the author and Robert Hass
New York: The Ecco Press, 2004
ISBN # 0-06-074566-5
102 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2012

This volume is the best poetry Iíve ever read on issues of old age, infirmities and death. The book was published in 2004, the year of his death at 93 years old. Most of these poems were written in his last few years.

Two broad themes seem to dominate: in the earlier poems he seems to concentrate on the infirmities and nature of old age and his response to approaching death. Later on, in two longer poems, he rehearses his life-long battles with his personal version of religious faith and his attempt to understand the meaning of human existence. He never solves those problems, but speaks of them with an honesty and intensity Iíve seldom seen matched.

Milosz talks as if there is no God, but he never quite comes out and says it. Rather in If There Is No God he writes:

If there is no God
Not everything is permitted to man
He is still his brotherís keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother
By saying there is no God.

While Milosz talks a great deal about God, he constantly displays a different notion of the term that the traditional Biblical version:

I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide
Yet He didnít mention punishment, didnít promise a reward.

In another poem he talks about how readers trusted him, and yet he sees himself putting on disguises, pretending to be who he, perhaps, isnít. In these very late years he is more humble about who he really is:

Some people believed I was theirs,
So they put trust in my disguises.

I reproach myself for that
For I wanted to be different
Trustworthy, brave, noble-minded.

Later on I would only say: Why reach so high?
I am and will be lame,
Which is no oneís concern.

In the poem Merchants I was taken by the contrast he paints between the sellers of religious articles and the pilgrims who visit the holy sites.

In a town where a miracle occurred, merchants install their booths,
side by side, along a street though which pilgrims proceed.

They display their goods, wondering at the stupidity which compels
people to by little crosses, tiny medals, rosaries.

Itís a gentle poem, but critical of the interface of religious sentiment and profit.

There is often a curious dichotomy between the world Ė universal things and personal things, almost always sex with beautiful women. His relationship with women seems to be his primary image of his raw humanity.

Degradation is a marvelous poem about deterioration and death.

High notions of oneself are annihilated
by a glance in the mirror,
by the impotence of old age,
breath held in the hope that some pain
wonít return.

Endless multitudes of people are humiliated thus
as well as other mortal creatures
who seem to bear it with greater humility of spirit:
a falcon no longer fast enough to catch a pigeon,
a lame stork expelled by the sentence of his flock, which rises
and flies away. The wheel of the seasons, descending into earth.

The longer poems at the end of this volume go back to themes of his long battle to understand the meaning of human existence and his relationship with formal religion and the concept of God. He has his own very personal and odd version of Roman Catholicism and yet could just as well be described as an atheist by many. The contradictions and uncertainties are definitional of his approach to these difficult questions.

I love the poetry, his down to earth and challenging manner of expressing these extremely difficult ideas. I wish I could say that I think many people tackle these issues with as much seriousness even without the depth of his insight, but alas, my own experience is that relatively few people take these larger issues of the meaning of human existence and the nature of being with much level of serious and sustained inquiry. Czeslaw Milosz is a wonderful challenge and model for such inquiry.

Bob Corbett


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