The book by Czeslaw Milosz—the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet who died last week in Krakow at age 93—that has been on my mind since its publication in English translation three years ago, is called Milosz’s ABC’s (1997-98; Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001). It is one of the works from the last years of Milosz’s life, the period that he called “late ripeness.” In a poem of that title, he says, “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 seas / assigned to my pen came closer / ready now to be described better than they were before.” I wouldn’t mind being able to say something similar to that astonishing utterance at 65, much less 90!
As a prime witness of the 20th century, Milosz’s “former lives” were many. He was born in 1911 to a quasi-aristocratic Polish-speaking family on a rural estate near Wilno (now Vilnius), Lithuania, a landscape and a city that appears recurrently in his poetry and prose. When I was in Vilnius about 10 years ago—my father was born there at the beginning of the last century—I used Milosz’s Beginning with My Streets (Tauris, 1992) as a civic guidebook when I strolled along the black-brick cobbled main street, Gedemino Prospect, or made my way through the narrow lanes of the former Jewish quarter, streets in which my grandfather had once walked, and whose bustle Milosz reconstructed through his memories.
Milosz was educated at the ancient University of Vilnius and in Paris, as much by his uncle Oscar Milosz, a poet and diplomat, as by academic institutions, ending up with a law degree that would be briefly useful to his own later diplomatic career. By the 1930s, on his return to Vilnius, Milosz was a young poet, the author of Three Winters, which had attracted some attention, and part of a literary circle known as the “Catastrophist School,” for its anticipation of the coming disasters. Milosz was working in Warsaw when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland in September 1939, inaugurating a “next life” for everyone. Milosz heard the screams and gunfire as the Nazis liquidated the Jews in the walled Warsaw ghetto in 1943, and witnessed the destruction of nearly all of Warsaw after the failed 1944 uprising, writing extensively about these events for the anti-Nazi underground as he made his escape to Krakow, the medieval Polish capital. After the war, his book Rescue, which showed the modernist influence of T.S. Eliot (whom he translated into Polish), established Milosz among Poland’s pre-eminent writers.
His reputation made him attractive to the new Communist government of Poland, as he entered a third phase of his life. Sympathetic to socialism, but not a member of the Communist Party, Milosz joined the Polish diplomatic corps, serving as a cultural attache in Washington and Paris. It was in Paris in 1951 that Milosz defected from the Polish regime, seeking political asylum, and one more new life. In his French exile, he wrote The Captive Mind (1953), one of the important and early anti-totalitarian credos, joining the ranks of such books as Milovan Djilas’ The New Class, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Orwell’s 1984, and Arthur Koestler’s earlier Darkness at Noon.
A decade later, Milosz embarked upon a fifth and lengthy phase of his life when he accepted an appointment to the University of California at Berkeley. The transition to an even more distant exile wasn’t easy. As he wrote, “Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill / at ease in the republic, / in the one I longed for freedom, / in the other for the / end of corruption. // I learned at last to say: this is / my home, / here, before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets… / in a great republic, moderately corrupt.” It’s a “corruption” about which many of us remain apprehensive at this very moment, as the troops of the empire camp in ancient Babylon.
At Berkeley, Milosz, always a productive writer, created a cornucopia of poetry, essays, histories, and anthologies, particularly of his Polish compatriots. It was for this body of work that Milosz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. “The world that Milosz depicts in his poetry, prose and essays,” said the Nobel committee, “is the world in which man lives after having been driven out of Paradise.”
The last phase of Milosz’s life began in the same year as his Nobel Prize, with the emergence of the Solidarity Movement, the workers’ and intellectuals’ revolt against the “workers’ state” that began with strikes in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. I was in Gdansk the following spring, when the shipyard workers erected a soaring, three column, crucifix-like memorial to workers who had been shot by the regime in earlier uprisings. The Solidarity representative responsible for the erection of the memorial pointed out to me that it bore a line from Milosz’s poetry: “You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure: for a poet remembers.” Nearly a decade later, after the fall of communism in 1989, Milosz was greeted as a hero when he returned to the region of his birth. During the 1990s he divided his time between Berkeley and Krakow, eventually settling in the city of the Jagellonian kings. Throughout this last of his “many lives,” from 1980 on, Milosz produced a further remarkable body of work, including elegant books of poetry, such as Road-side Dog and This, a new edition of his Collected Poems, and volumes of essays and memoirs, including the book on my mind, Milosz’s ABC’s.
Milosz’s ABC’s, published when its author was in his mid-eighties, is an alphabetically-organized miscellany that consists of character sketches and literary profiles, mostly of figures little-known to us and long dead; descriptions of places that have had meaning in Milosz’s personal geography; and reflections on broader themes, often of a quasi-theological character.
It is a difficult, obscure book for the casual North American reader, even though it’s written in straightforward prose. Evidence of the difficulty is available in the hilarious democracy of Amazon.com readers’ reviews, where anyone who cracks a book is permitted an opinion. One sincere soul wrote about Milosz’s ABC’s, “I feel that this book is more written for the people he met themselves, or for their friends and descendents, rather than for outsiders like me, who don’t know 80 to 90 per cent of the subjects or items treated.” The reviewer concedes that some comments on Henry Miller, Schopenhauer and Walt Whitman “are worth-while reading,” but in the end sticks to his guns: “Only for insiders.” Well, yes, but if we didn’t live in a world that erases memory, history and imagination, we might all be “insiders.” And, in fact, we are all insiders, once we recognize where we are, in the middle of nowhere.
Milosz’s motive in writing his ABC’s is simply to recoup something of a world he’d once known that had by the end of the 20th century almost completely vanished. His memory is haunted by “disappearance, of people and objects… My time, the 20th century, weighs on me as a host of voices and the faces of people whom I once knew, or heard about, and now they no longer exist. Many were famous for something, they are in the encyclopaedias, but more of them have been forgotten, and all they can do is make use of me, the rhythm of my blood, my hand holding the pen, in order to return among the living for a brief moment.”
Nor does the poet have many unshattered illusions about his subject matter. As he said in a 2001 interview, “How do you write about suffering and still be able to approve of the world at the same time? If you really think about the horror of the world, the only suitable attitude seems to be to reject it.” Yet, contradictorally, he also approved. He added, “I’ve always regretted that I’m made of contradictions. But if contradiction is impossible to overcome, we have to accept both its ends.”
Milosz had a lovely sense of his own contradictions. In a 1985 “Confession,” he reported:
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.
Also, well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.
Flawed and aware of it…
I know what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud.
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
Milosz’s ABC’s, as he says, are offered “instead of: instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the 20th century, instead of a memoir. Each of the individuals remembered here sets into motion a network of mutual allusions and interdependencies linked to the facts of my century.” Milosz adds, “In the final analysis I do not regret that I have dropped names so cavalierly (or so it must seem), or that I have made a virtue of my casual way.” Less modestly, one could argue that his “casual way,” as well as the genre of fragments, of miscellany, of the treasure chest, that he’s chosen to work in here, is the most precise method for allowing the dead to “return among the living for a brief moment.”
It is not only the dead who are on Milosz’s mind, but also our condition as human beings. In “Adam and Eve,” a passage on our enduring fascination with the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Milosz says, “In our deepest convictions, reaching into the very depths of our being, we deserve to live forever. We experience our transitoriness and mortality as an act of violence perpetrated against us. Only Paradise is authentic; the world is inauthentic, and only temporary. That is why the story of the Fall speaks to us so emotionally, as if summoning an old truth from our slumbering memory.” Conversely, we could say, Only the world, albeit temporary, is authentic and, like the illusion of paradise, should be eternal. The poet George Stanley, who introduced me to Milosz’s work, put it another way. Playing on the old saying, “The hardest step on every journey is the first,” he wrote, “The hardest step on every journey / is the last, and every step is the last". One might add, And every step, first or last, is the expulsion from paradise.
The ABC’s then, continues the project Milosz announced in a prose poem in Road-side Dog called “Pity”:
“In the ninth decade of my life, the feeling which rises in me is pity, useless. A multitude, an immense number of faces, shapes, fates of particular beings, and a sort of merging with them from inside, but at the same time my awareness that I will not find anymore the means to offer a home in my poems to these guests of mine, for it is too late. I think also that, could I start anew, every poem of mine would have been a biography or a portrait of a particular person, or, in fact a lament over his or her destiny.”
Faced with the tension between the poet’s responsibility to bear witness to his time and his essential task of contemplating being, Milosz returned again and again to his beginnings. In the title-poem of Road-side Dog,, he writes,
“I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to woodlands where swirls of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor house in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of a generation of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night—I don’t know where it came from—in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.”
Conversely, the road-side dog is the poet, his poetry barking at the passing wagons and caravans of history.
In his mid-century book-length poem, A Treatise on Poetry, Milosz recalls the Krakow of “Beautiful Times,” to which he would return at the end of his life.
Cabbies were dozing by St. Mary’s tower.
Krakow was tiny as a painted egg
Just taken from a pot of dye on Easter.
In their black capes poets strolled the streets.
Nobody remembers their names today,
And yet their hands were real once,
And their cufflinks gleamed above a table…
… Muses, Rachels in trailing shawls,
Put tongues to lips while pinning up their braids.
The pin lies with their daughters’ ashes now,
Or in a glass case next to mute seashells
And a glass lily…
This is our beginning. Useless to deny it.
Useless to recall a distant golden age.
We have to accept and take as our own
The mustache with pomade, the bowler hat acock.
In this same Krakow, Milosz recalls the appearance of Joseph Conrad, fated to captain a steamer on the Congo. Conrad’s tale of a jungle river was a warning, Milosz says,
One of the civilizers, a madman named Kurtz,
A gatherer of ivory stained with blood
Scribbled in the margin of his report
On the Light of Culture: “The horror.” And climbed
Into the 20th century.
At the end, there’s almost always a bit of slapstick to relieve what Milosz simply called “this.” Milosz died on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004, at home in Krakow. The early editions of the English-language press printed the dispatches from the Associated Press and Reuters, and in the standard formulas of journalism reported, “The cause of death was not immediately known.” Behind the journalese was a funny moment. The AP stringer was on the phone with Milosz’s assistant, Agnieszka Kosinska, who was handling the communications traffic. What was the cause of death? they routinely asked her. Perhaps not familiar with the protocols of the media, she was clearly puzzled. I can hear her voice, accented, in English, slightly impatient even, in the quote attributed to her after the phrase, “the cause of death was not immediately known.” Cause of death?
“It’s death, simply death,” said Kosinska. “It was his time—he was 93.”
One of the slight advantages of dying at an advanced age is that not much of a fuss is likely to be made about the cause of death. Everybody knows that, at a certain age, the cause of death is Death.
Berlin, Aug. 17, 2004
Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C., and is writing an ABC book.