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By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by the author and Lillian Vallee
New York: The Ecco Press, 1978
ISBN # 0-912946-57-1
71 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2013

The poem “Encounter” opens this volume. It was written in 1936 and sets the tone not only for this volume, but perhaps for the essence of all the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz.

After experiencing some “mysteries” he asks:

“O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles,
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.”

What then follows are many poems of experiences he stumbled into (or just created) in which he needs to try to understand, to unpack, and to think it in new ways. The poems are set in many lands, times and there is little relationship from any one poem and any other. The poems span large areas of time and space. But always he is attempting to see things in ways that others haven’t seen them before, and to make old and familiar things new by seeing them in ways we’d not seen them before.

In the poem “Not This Way” he acknowledges (not defends) his role in life. He will not be a hero and will protect himself for what he does do – poetry.

“Let sages and saints, I though bring a gift to the whole Earth, not merely to language.
I protect my good name for language is my measure.”

He is very sensitive to his whole life and reputation. He worries about how others judge him, yet willing to act in ways not approved by others.

In two short poems on facing pages – “A Felicitous Life” and “The Fall” – he does an analysis of an individual’s life, one full of good luck and happiness, another the exact opposite. Each is compared to the life and death of a nation. Very nice work. I doubt he wrote them both at the same time, but I suspect an editor’s choice placing them facing each other. Whoever chose it the placement was a clever touch.

The last poem in this volume “From the Rising Of The Sun is in 7 parts. It’s an autobiographical memory, but universal at the same time. The theme is that all life and things in the whole cosmos are temporal, will live and die and go away. He focuses on his own life, but reflects on other universal loses at the same time.

The poem is in 7 parts.

  1. The Unveiling
  2. Diary of a Naturalist
  3. Over Cities (seven short sections) All these are experiences of his earlier past.
  4. A short recess is in 6 sections, most shorter than a page, a memory of this or that and the beginning of some conclusions about the temporality of all life. He considers how he – and presumably every other person, is moved by his own desires, accidents, choices, which lead to other choices, and in the end creates the who one has become. He ends this section with the insight:
    “Who can tell what purpose is served by destinies
    And whether to have lived on earth means little
    Or much.”
  5. The Accuser.

    In one part he attacks the notion that some things last forever. I had a great laugh as he dismissed his own likely long-term fame:

    “Do you still say to yourself:
    non omnis moriar?

    O yes, not all of me shall die, there will remain
    An item in the fourteenth volume of an encyclopedia
    Next to a hundred Millers and Mickey Mouse.”
  6. Bells in Winter

In the final part of this last poem a memory is sparked of an experience in his college days – at least as he remembers it when writing this – which is exactly the irony of which he writes. Is this the experience itself or is this a created memory of the experience, and not even that will be there once he is gone, though this poem will be here to convey some sense of that memory.

This is the fourth volume of Milosz’s poetry which I have read. Two of the others later books by an (even) older Milosz and I think I enjoyed them more. There are some very rewarding poems in this collection, but a number which seemed to me not quite up to the level of the bulk of the poems in those other volumes I read earlier.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett