Czeslaw Milosz

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004), Polish writer (6, ...

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004), Polish writer (6, Boguslawskiego Str., Cracow, Poland, December 1998) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Say it in hushed tones: Czeslaw Milosz

Say it in hushed tones: Czeslaw Mizosz

He was a professor to Cal when I entered as a Freshman and made the stupid mistake of taking a quarter of Polish. Little did I realize the class would be full of Russian majors who were taking a little Polish in order to get into one of Milosz’s literature classes, something obviously way out of my league. Speaking Russian gave them a huge advantage in picking up Polish, so that the rest of the class left me in the dust. These students were in awe of Milosz, and of course I never even saw him. All I got was a C- in introductory Polish.

By the time Czeslow Milosz defected the eastern block in the time of Stalin, he’d already made a name for himself with {i}The World{/i}, a cycle of poems written during World War II. Though he emigrated from Poland, he grew up in Lithuania and considered himself both Polish and Lithuanian. He taught at Berkeley for many years. Eventually he gained U.S. citizenship, and won a Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 2004.

I’ve found it difficult to get into his poetry, but I’ll type out a short one.

Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Lillian Vallee

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across tho road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

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.

* * *

I like it, but it makes me feel like such a plodder. It took me several reads to figure out that the “red wing” must be dawn itself, but much in this poem remains a mystery to me. I know there’s some significance to everything–the clipped sentences of the lines, that “one of us” in the place of a simple “you,” the inclusion of the seemingly out of place “O my love,” even the funky punctuation of that last stanza. (Nothing after “going” looks like a typo, but that’s how it reads in my book.) It just stays a little beyond my reach.

Okay, I’ll hazard a guess that “one of us” indicates that the man who pointed is dead, but it might as well be the other man.

But in spite of my difficulties, or perhaps in part because of them, it sticks in my head. It’s such a clean poem.

A room full of people

So many of us crowded into one empty room,
the baby banging pans and the much prettier me

Here’s a skinny boy faking punches at Grandpa Tim
here’s the boy’s older twin, marrying his mother

The dog dancing in the snow like an amiable wolf,
Our son eternally up on the roof.

Dead or alive, they’ve gone away,
the people who fill this deserted room.

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