twenty: Czeslaw Milosz, Second Space

I’ve wanted to read more of the Polish/Lithuanian/American poet Czeslaw Milosz since reading this fantastic poem of his, ‘Love’, a few years ago:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
the way one looks at distant things
for you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
without knowing it, from various ills –
a bird and a tree say to him: friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
so that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
who serves best doesn’t always understand.

I think it’s a deeply beautiful, and deeply spiritual, poem; for a while I knew it by heart and said it to myself whenever I was upset and stomping around town.

Second Space (a gift from Thea – thank you) is, I think, Milosz’s final collection; it was first published in 2004, the year of his death. He worked on the translations himself, along with the poet Robert Hass.

I like the fact that Milosz is, in some senses, easy to read: his poetry is, to use Alice Oswald’s metaphor, like prose dancing. He has a delicious lightness to him, whether he’s pondering old age, theology or his ancestors, with a whimsical, sometimes cryptic, feeling of airiness. To me it feels like a very prose version of poetry, which I found beguiling –

And so it should be, that we spend our lives in the everyday bustle,
Trying to be in agreement with the line of our fate. (from ‘Apprentice’)

Most weeks I feel rather ignorant of the allusions that stud the poetry I’m reading, aware that, without a little extra digging, I may well be missing something. Perhaps that’s inevitable. I always feel, though, that I should follow up the references – find out exactly what Swedenborg thought, or who Mickiewicz was, or more about the history of Poland and Lithuania. So you might have thought I’d be delighted that ‘Apprentice’, Milosz’s long sequence on his relative Oscar Milosz, had the poet’s own gloss at the bottom of each page. But to be quite honest I found it tiring… I didn’t quite have the patience for it.

Lots of favourites: ‘If there is no God’, ‘I should now’, ‘High terraces’, ‘Nonadaptation’, ‘Hear me’, ‘I’, ‘Notebook’, ‘Jackdaws on the tower’ from the ‘Father Severinus’ sequence, and this, ‘Late ripeness’ –

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of the seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for fulfillment.

I knew, always, that i would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

Second Space, Czeslaw Milosz (HarperCollins, 2005)

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