Archive for March, 2011

The worst dinner party ever: Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and the lady who watched the fight

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011
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Poet

Poland’s biggest postwar literary fight  erupted not in Warsaw or Kraków, but in an otherwise quiet Berkeley home one evening in the summer of 1968, after some serious drinking.

During the Columbia University launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz on Monday night, noted translator and scholar Bogdana Carpenter departed from the planned script to break her silence on the event – for the second time ever.

vs. poet

She ought to know.  She was not only there, she and her husband and fellow translator John Carpenter hosted the dinner, which included poets Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert.

She said distorted versions of the event that have left the Polish intelligentsia bickering ever since.

“It started out happy and gay,” she recalled of the evening — a pleasant, spicy meal with plenty of wine.

After dinner, Herbert’s tone became “harsher and harsher,” Bogdana recalled.  “When he was drunk he tended to be aggressive – and this time it was too late.” Herbert’s thoughts turned to Poland’s German occupation during World War II.

“He viciously attacked Miłosz – he reproached him for his lack of participation in the Polish resistance,” said Bogdana.  The evening was so acrimonious that Janina Miłosz forbade Herbert ever to enter the Miłosz abode again.

Correcting the record

However, “it’s become known in a distorted version,” Bogdana said of the story.  Typically, it is claimed that Miłosz provoked the incident by suggesting that Poland be added to the Soviet Empire as the 17th republic.

Bogdana said this comment never happened. The provocation was invented by Herbert twenty years after the event, she said.

For Miłosz, questions of patriotism were always sensitive – both because of his position with the Communist government as a cultural attaché, and after his 1951 defection in Paris, which meant he was barred from Poland till the 1980s.

The basis of the dispute, said Bogdana, was the two poets’ notion of homeland, and what it required from them.

Herbert believed one should be willing to “sacrifice one’s own happiness and life,” she said.  While some have attributed Herbert’s position to the “Polish Romantic paradigm,” Carpenter said its roots are “further back – in the Hellenistic tradition.”

“Miłosz differed diametrically.”  For Miłosz, loyalty had its limits — “when the price was other people,” she said, he could be “scathingly critical.”

His position was that “loyalty is not enough – one seeks logical justification” for self-immolation.

Miłosz’s defined his “homeland” as the Polish language.  “Miłosz’s chosen weapon was the word, not the sword,” said Bogdana. “Language defined him.”

Bogdana Carpenter pointed out that “Herbert was not in Warsaw in 1939, 1942, or 1944.”  Milosz witnessed the destruction of Warsaw firsthand.

Patriotism was not the question.  She pointed out that during Nazi occupation, Miłosz compiled an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry – An Invincible Song (1942) — “for which he easily could have lost his life.”

Columbia University honors Czesław Miłosz — and launches An Invisible Rope

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
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Last night Columbia University honored Czesław Miłosz — and launched An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz – with a panel discussion.  Left to right:  poet Anna Frajlich; scholar and translator Bogdana Carpenter; James Marcus, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine; Alan Timberlake, chair of Slavic Languages at Columbia; humble moi; and scholar Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier.  The photo is courtesy Zygmunt Malinowski, whose photograph of Miłosz graces the cover of An Invisible Rope.

The evening held some surprises — I’ll write more in a few hours.  After nine days in chilly, rainy, New York, I’ve just arrived back in beautiful California, where the temperature is warm, the sun is out, and the flowers are everywhere.  Hard to believe Miłosz sometimes considered it the landscape of the damned — or, as Clare Cavanagh said, “the landscape of the damned — with good weather.”

While I pondered weak and weary…

Monday, March 28th, 2011
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Unexpected connections

As a guest of Columbia University, I have been installed in the Milburn Hotel on W. 76th Street.  I arrived on Sunday night at about 11 a.m., after the book launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz at Brooklyn Central Library.  I had not eaten anything except some hors d’oeuvres  at a Polish literary party (with a bilingual reading by Polish poet Tomasz Różycki, and a Ukrainian poet whose name I did not catch) in a Westchester County, but plenty of cognac and wine had been poured into me — or, more honestly, I had gladly poured into myself after a long day.

So I didn’t have much of a sense of where I had landed when my friend, the NYU mathemetician Lindsey Van Wagenen, arrived to take me for coffee the next morning.  Lindsey, sensitive to the need for a charming and picturesque setting for her visitor, discarded the usual Starbucks.  We eventually wandered up to 84th Avenue and sat down at Edgar’s Café — I hadn’t thought about the name and chose a corner table beneath a big portrait of Edgar Allen Poe.

Nevermore...

The penny fell when big marble placque notified me that this quaint and intimate café occupied the former site of the Brennen Mansion, located on the street between West End Avenue and Broadway known as Edgar Allen Poe Street.  Heavens, I hadn’t really associated America’s famous writer with New York City at all.

The plaque, put up by the New York Shakespeare Society in 1922, informed us that Poe resided right where we were standing, between March 1844 and August 1845.

Important dates for the artist:  He composed “The Raven” here.

They make a pretty good goat cheese omelette, too, and a dynamite cappuccino.

Lunch at Le Monde with Philip Fried in NYC

Saturday, March 26th, 2011
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This week in New York City has been drenched in Polish literature (see posts here and here) – so my visit with poet Philip Fried, founding editor of the 30-year-old Manhattan Review, may at first seem like something of an anomaly.

Until, that is, you realize that the quiet Manhattan Review was the first American journal to publish an interview with Polish poet and dissident Stanisław Barańczak in 1981. The review began to publish the work of Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao as early as 1990. And, according to its website, in 1994 it launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign that increased the number of poetry reviews in The New York Times.

I discovered the review when I was unearthing a rare, early interview with Zbigniew Herbert, by his translators John and Bogdana CarpenterThe Manhattan Review was among the first reviews to devote a whole issue to the renowned poet in the mid-1980s – and I initially contacted Philip to get more than the snippets I found online.  (I also, on this visit, received a copy of his Early/Late: New and Selected Poems, published last month by Salmon Poetry.)

One would think that the Manhattan Review, which has two new poems by Les Murray in its current issue, would be better known.  But Philip and the Manhattan Review are as quiet as it namesake island is named is noisy.  We nevertheless had a pleasant and talkative lunch at Le Monde, an amiable bistro that “celebrates the cuisine of the Loire Valley” near Columbia University.  Besides Polish poetry, we discussed the upheaval in the book industry and the dwindling presence of poetry on the American scene.  What, after all, is a poet to do?  The attempts to “reach out” to the public via April Poetry Month are usually farcical.  Poet celebrities are often, well… not really poets at all.  Pulling up the drawbridge and sticking to one’s own tiny audience has resulted in a situation Philip compared to polar bears on ever-shrinking ice floes – an image that will stay with me for some time to come.

Postscript on 3/28:  Philip just wrote to tell me he got a nice notice in Publishers Weekly — a publication we rate highly since it put humble moi and  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz one of the top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.  Here’s what it said about Philip’s latest collection:

This skillful and memorable first selection can seem like the work of three or four different poets, though wit and civility hold it together. First comes a bevy of poems about God, often comic, and often spoken in His assumed voice: often in stand-alone prose sentences (like the Book of Proverbs) they mix the language of elevated salvation with the debased terms of business and politics: “I regret to inform you that, in the purview of immutable discretion, it has now become necessary to downsize the elect.” Verse from Fried’s Mutual Trespasses (1988) also looks at–or speaks for–a divine Creator, wittily juxtaposing His omnipotence with human foibles and emotions: “He seemed to sink/ into Himself, a collapsing/ mountain.” Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), making up most of the last half of this collection, casts aside divinity for carefully ironized versions of family history: nostalgic at times, more outwardly conventional, these pages may nonetheless hold his strongest work. The New York-based Fried (who edits the Manhattan Review) closes with supple, formally acrobatic excerpts from a recent set of sonnets: “I’ve cornered the market on me, but I’ll sell you the shimmer./ When the bubble has burst, volatility is tender.” (Apr.)

“Like being alive twice”: Hass, Zagajewski, Cavanagh, and Hirsh on Czesław Miłosz — this time in Queens

Friday, March 25th, 2011
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The crowds are unending

I’ve been to New York City four or five times in my life – but I’ve never been to Queens.  Somehow I didn’t expect the constant river of people to continue beyond the borders of Manhattan, but it did.  Getting on a Queens bus, I saw the line behind me grow steadily longer and longer, increasing rather than diminishing as people climbed onboard.  Finally, until the weary bus driver closed the doors on protesting people, still trying to get on.  That’s usual, he told me.  The line doesn’t end.

So that’s one reason why I was 45 minutes late to the discussion about Czesław Miłosz at Queens College on Tuesday night. Two days ago, I posted about same cast of charactersRobert Hass , Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh — let me do so again, with the addition of poet Ed Hirsch, MacArthur “genius” fellow, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Here are a few notes from the discussion (and apologies for not having time to polish these nuggets):

This time at Queens College

Adam Zagajewski discussed the Miłosz’s polyphony and his  “incredible ambition to grasp the world.”  The enormous range of points of view and voices within his work is disconcerting to many readers, who expect “one voice that’s recognizable in every poem,” the unity you find in such poets as Georg Trakl, for example.

Robert Hass recalled Miłosz writing at night, and thinking he had at last captured reality with his words – only to wake up the next morning, reread what he had written, and see he had been “beaten back into the pen of literature.” “He was tormented by the way our experience is lost to us,” said Bob.  “He found time itself unbearable.”

In praise of polyphony

Ed Hirsch commented on the “tremendous internal argument in his work” – in which he would often “criticize the poet who wrote the last poem.” Miłosz’s polyphony is one reason “so many readers and critics latched onto the idea of witness” in his poems.  His reputation as “poet of witness” to two totalitarian regimes has obscured his reputation as a metaphysical poet and a poet of … well, a poet of wonder, really.

The discussion turned to Miłosz’s unfortunate early reputation in the U.S. as a political theorist, thanks to Captive Mind. It’s a book not as well thumbed today as it was a few decades earlier, but Clare Cavanagh pointed out its unusual legacy – for example, in giving us the term ketman, which Miłosz claimed to have rescued from Persia.  Clare, however, searched assiduously on the internet for its supposed Islamic origins and could only find references to Miłosz’s work.  (I have a different memory of finding a few of the references she was seeking – but I’ll have to check again.  The references may be lost in the cyperspace flotsam and jetsam – as endless as the bus lines of Queens.)

Ed called Captive Mind “a remarkable work of historical consciousness.”

“For us, it’s crucial because he anatomizes how people fell into it,”  he said. However, its relevance  for younger readers may not be evident — “one of the problems is that you have to understand what communism is.”  One of history’s terrible lessons that may be lost on a younger generation.

"Like being alive twice"

Bob hailed Captive Mind as “an enormously vivid and readable book … powerful and still relevant.” Young people today caught instead in the “foment of small imperialisms” – but so were the Persians who originated the term ketman, I would argue, and a small tyranny can be as oppressive and barbarous as a large one.

The four writers recalled the arc of his career.

The decades in America prior to the 1980 Nobel were years of excruciating loneliness. Adam recalled that when he turned sixty, Miłosz didn’t receive a single card or greeting.  Bob was told by two people that he used to write letters to himself, so that he would get mail.

Yet, said Bob, when he joined the Berkeley faculty, Miłosz immediately used his funds to hire a secretary and dictated The History of Polish Literature — a work that began to put Polish poetry on the map of American consciousness.

A rebuke instead of blessing

Adam recalled, in his youth, being one of a group of young poets who wrote to the maestro for a blessing.  Instead, they got a rebuke.  He told them they were behaving like “flies in a battle” and urged them towards distance and restraint. “He became a metaphysical poet, but I think he was a little jealous of those lesser poets who touched their own city.”  In other words, he envied those poets whose daily reality included the places where they grew up, who did not partially live in demolished worlds.

During the question period from the large crowd, Ed was asked what poem of Miłosz’s did he wish he himself had written.  “That’s a puzzle,” Ed hedged, then came up with two: “Bypassing Rue Descartes” and “Guilt.”

Bob Hass was asked what it was like spending so many years translating Miłosz.  He responded in an instant: “Like being alive twice.”

Next installment from NYC:  Ed Hirsch, Alyssa Valles, and Adam Zagajewski honor Zbigniew Herbert at Poets House.

“Too big to be swallowed”: Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh remember Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011
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Clare signs books after the event (Photo: David A. Goldfarb)

The apocalyptic scene enveloping Japan brings to mind Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw, 1944, during another kind of apocalypse.  The poem ends with a white-haired old man binding his tomatoes, who would be a prophet but is “too busy to be a prophet,” repeating:

No other end of the world will there be.
No other end of the world will there be.

Sound wrong?  According to translator Clare Cavanagh, speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, it’s a new kind of right.  The line is usually translated “There will be no other end of the world.”  But the original Polish has an inversion that doesn’t always work well in English.  Antoni Miłosz has translated the poem, keeping the original inversion.  I kinda like it — the poem ends with a dactylic chant.

Clare was one of three heavy-hitters speaking about Miłosz that night and reading his poems – Robert Hass and Adam Zagajewski were the others.

Clare pointed out that, although Miłosz celebrates the rural Lithuania childhood, it is at least part an invented one.  In fact, his father was a civil engineer working in Russia, and the six-year-old experienced the Russian Revolution firsthand and traveled widely.  Movement was as much a characteristic of his upbringing as the stability he mythologized.

The venue: 92nd Street Y

She recalled the long theological discussions that I mentioned in my post several days ago.  She wouldn’t describe them in the essay she wrote for An Invisible Rope – and she wouldn’t describe them Monday night either.  I hope her silence on this subject is not permanent. “I’m not going to repeat what he said,” she finished, “but I keep wondering what he knows now.”

Bob Hass, wearing a heavy bandage on his nose, told the audience he hadn’t been in a fight, but advised his listeners to wear sunscreen.  He recalled a poet “tormented by how inexpressible experience was.”

"Please wear sunscreen"

Bob quoted Milosz, “War is only nature speeded up.”

The Berkeley prof recalled approaching Miłosz to discuss an anti-nuclear movement on campus, only to be told,  “I am against anti-nukes.”

“Blue hair?  Why does no one protest blue hair?” the elder poet responded. Beautiful young women become old ones with blue hair (note to young ‘uns: blue-tinted rinse was a common for elderly women in the 20th century).  “Who protests?”

“The true enemy of man is generalization,” Hass recalled Milosz saying.  His response to generalization was memory, said Clare. Miłosz’s memory was “beyond human – except that it’s most perfectly human, the way memory ought to be – how it should be in heaven.”

Hass recalled traveling in rural California, and on a whim going into an old secondhand shop – or rather, he said, it was as if he were drawn to it.  He found a thick book, in Polish, on the history of women’s underwear.  He plopped the $40 for the book and gave it to Milosz.

“I do not know that I have ever seen him so happy,” he said.  Suddenly, he could identify the underclothes he had seen on his aunt’s clothesline during his childhood.

"to glorify things as they are"

Adam Zagajewski spoke last – the perils of having a name that begins with “Z,” he said.

He noted Miłosz’s many contradictions.  He was drawn to the notion of “secret knowledge,” Adam said. “He craved initiation and looked for gurus” — for example, Miłosz’s influential kinsman Oskar Milosz and the man called “Tiger” in Native Realm. At the same time, he had “a longing for ignorance and innocence,” said Adam – which accounts for his attraction to William Blake, in part.

Ivan Turgenev said that poets are either rivers, absorbing everything in their current, or mountains, overlooking the world from an elevated plane of existence.  According to Adam, Miłosz decided he wanted to be “like a river and a mountain.”  The result?  A poet “too big to be swallowed,” he said.

Though Miłosz “loathed propaganda poetry,” Adam said he walked “the narrow road between pure poetry and poetry engagée, which he thought a mistake.”

In his restless questioning of existence, Miłosz took on God — “God being the strongest enemy that was,” said Adam, and objected to Blaise Pascal’s wager, which Adam said, “was like a shopkeeper saying it’s better to save some money because times can be hard.”

Adam concluded, “This is his religious vocation – to glorify things as they are.” And in this mission he was truly omnivorous. His poetic hubris – wanting to understand everything, wanting to experience everything – has caused his eclipse in current Poland.  Will his reputation wax again?

“I don’t worry.  I am totally convinced he will return.  He will have the last word.  Not I.” (Adam’s “Z” notwithstanding.)

Meet you in Manhattan!

Sunday, March 20th, 2011
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I’m off!  Or at least I will be in a few hours.

I’m on my way to a week of gigs honoring the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City — with a side order for Zbigniew Herbert.  I posted about them a while back here.

Come up and say hello if you see me — otherwise, prepare for a few logistical delays, but I expect to be posting about Clare Cavanagh, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Frajlich, Bogdana Carpenter, James Marcus, and many others in the coming days.

See you there!

“By Love Possessed”? René Girard and John Freccero on Francesca da Rimini

Sunday, March 20th, 2011
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By literature possessed?

Patrick Hunt is off on his usual wanderings — this time he’s in London till the end of the month, but he did take time to drop me a quick note when he was  “again reminded how profound René Girard‘s impact has been on literature – not to mention other disciplines – in this Dante essay by John Freccero on Francesca da Rimini“:

The phenomenon of mimetic desire is at the center of the work of René Girard, one of the most powerful theorists of culture of our time. Perhaps because his early work on the novel has been overshadowed by his profound influence in anthropology, social studies and comparative religion, few students of Dante seem to know his essay of fifty years ago, dedicated to the canto of Francesca. In the briefest of terms, his point was that the desiring subject imagines, as does Francesca, that desire springs spontaneously from within, while the truth that is revealed by Dante and the greatest of novelists, is that desire is always triangular, “mediated” by the desires of the other—in this case, as in the case of Don Quixote, by a book. In a few mordant pages, Girard debunked the romantic reading of Francesca’s story, showing that it was simply a repetition of her own initial mystification. When Girard wrote, the best-selling love story of the time was entitled By Love Possessed; Girard’s title was polemic, summing up the delusion propagated by all such “romance” stories: “By Literature Possessed.” His point was that desire is essentially imitative, searching for a model, and that literature provides it with an imaginary map. Dante’s text was not complicit in “romantic” deception. On the contrary, Francesca’s last words exposed the roman as a panderer and seducer, leading the lovers to their destruction. Her story anticipated those of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Cervantes in the genre of the “anti-roman.”

Patrick added,  “I’ve heard Freccero lecture on Dante at Stanford, and only wish I’d heard Girard as well on Francesca and Canto 5 of the Inferno. I’ve written poems on this story – seemingly like everyone else! – and the tale of Francesca is nigh well eternal, as you know, and not just from Robert Browning onward. One magister’s encomium to another: from Dante to Girard to Freccero and this forthcoming book also has an excellent new essay by Robert Harrison on this same never-ending story. The haunting Ingres painting on this Dante passage is one of my absolute favorite ekphrases.”  Not to mention Tchaikovsky‘s opera.

Patrick’s own edited volume on the subject, Critical Insights:  The Inferno, will be out in September.  It includes Freccero’s essay.

Actually, I studied Dante with the world-renowned expert Freccero years and years ago — he assigned the Charles Singleton prose translation, he said, because we should never give up on learning the Italian.  I remember him emphasizing that the Paolo Malatesta, far from being the George Clooney of an earlier era, has become the voiceless lunk by Francesca’s side, and her attitude towards him is almost contemptuous.   “Amor condusee noi ad una morte.”

“A new music” — Brad Leithauser on the late W.H. Auden

Friday, March 18th, 2011
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A few days ago I mentioned W.H. Auden – but I didn’t name the poem I was citing.  It’s the “Nones” section from his Horae Canonicae, written between 1949 and 1955 the whole thing is here. It’s gorgeous, and I adore it, though it is part of his much-disparaged “late poetry.”

So I was pleased to read  Brad Leithauser‘s  Wall Street Journal review of Aidan Wasley‘s Age of Auden (Princeton University Press):

“Mr. Wasley takes a dim view of Auden’s final years. The once innovative poet was left behind; he receded into ‘cultural conservatism and contented domesticity.’ He became a ‘figure of sad diminishment.’ This is a plausible view—probably a majority view. But a notable minority feels otherwise. Two of the poets Mr. Wasley embraces, James Merrill and Anthony Hecht, saw the old master further extending himself in his final decade, discovering a new music— a strain of poetry that blended heartbreak with aplomb. The poem ‘A Lullaby,’ in which Auden wittily sings himself to sleep (‘Let your last thoughts all be thanks’), is a haunting example.

Though Auden’s influence is powerful and broad, The Age of Auden helpfully delineates its borders. The battle of literary reputations takes place in a dusty arena, and W. H. Auden will surely be one of those titanic figures that loom through whatever dim clouds arise. He will remain unignorable.”

(Picture of the elder Wystan at left.  Toward the end of his life, he described his face as looking like “a wedding cake left out in the rain.”)

Getting personal: NBCC’s quiet winner Clare Cavanagh

Thursday, March 17th, 2011
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“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously observed.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try.

One of the more unnoticed of this year’s National Book Critics Circle award-winners is Clare Cavanagh‘s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West. Clare takes on the notion of poets as “unacknowledged legislators” (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and “the would-be prophet, who publicly takes his people’s suffering upon himself so that his oppressed, applauding nation might be free.”

The secret police may be the true unacknowledged legislators, but it takes the secret police both to make and to break a nation’s acknowledged, if unauthorized poet-prophets.  … Tyrants make the rules, not poets, and dictators’ deeds change worlds far more often than artists’ words do.  Poetic legislation has its limits: “No lyric has ever stopped a tank,” [Seamus] Heaney remarks. Indeed, by the mid-eighties … [Adam] Zagajewski had challenged his compatriots preoccupation with poetry as a form of collective resistance. He chose to “dissent from dissent,” to break ranks with would-be artist-legislators by setting his lyric “I” against the defiant “we” that had shaped his poetic generation. The “unacknowledged legislator’s dream” has a nasty habit of becoming the acknowledged prophet’s nightmare, as Zagajewski suggests in his programmatically unprogrammatic Solidarity, Solitude.

biographer ...

Of course, being immersed in Polish literature, I’ve known Clare by name for years before I met her in person.

And were it not for Ewa Domanska, I still might not have met her.  Ewa, who teaches at Stanford every spring and then returns to Poznań, gave me a heads-up about a “Workshop in Poetics” on May 27, 2008, led by Clare.  Of course I dropped by.

Clare was a surprise.  Given her heavyweight credentials (she is, among other things, Milosz’s official biographer), I expected someone intimidating.

She is not.  This daughter of Eire is affable and down-to-earth.  I should have expected as much from her chapter, “Job and Forrest Gump,” in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, describing the period after Carol Miłosz ’s death, including a few travails in her own role as biographer:

The visiting got more difficult. I knew he had black moods when Carol was alive, but Carol was famous among his friends for driving them away. But I really saw the doubts, the moods, and the black sides—he could give Jehovah a run for the money when it came to striking terror—only after Carol died. Sometimes it would be yet another younger poet attacking him; “He called me ‘Moscow’s dancing bear,’” I remember Miłosz saying bleakly about one young writer. The attacks came on a fairly regular basis, and he took them all to heart. I suppose this was the reverse side of the childlike joy at every compliment. I once gave a Kraków cabdriver Miłosz’s street address—I never mentioned his name—and he recognized it right away. “Are you going to visit Czesław Miłosz? Please give him the best regards of the cabdriver in the red Mercedes,” he asked requested. Miłosz beamed.

...subject

Sometimes the doubts ran deeper—his life, his poetry, his soul. And sometimes the doubts were about me: “You will produce not my life, but only some facsimile,” he said with a scowled in the summer of 2003. He spent several weeks that summer putting me through the biographer’s equivalent of boot camp. I’d come armed daily with the best questions I could muster, written with the help of a small army of poets, professors, and Miłosz specialists. And every day he gave the same response: “Takie oszywiste pytania,” “(Such obvious questions).” Then he’d would invite me for another session the next day, when yet another set of questions would be dismissed and after an excruciating hour or two, I’d would be sent home to think up some “questions no one’s asked me yet.” Questions no one has ever asked Miłosz. It was like Rumpelstiltskin in Polish, but worse.

Finally, after a sleepless night spent reading and rereading Druga przestrzeń (the then-untranslated Second Space), I went in and asked about the poems, and about religion. Those were the questions he wanted. And that was what I’d wanted to talk about, too, but I’d thought biographers were supposed to do something different. We talked about “Father Seweryn” and “The Treatise on Theology”—I said I’d been surprised by the Virgin at the end, and he laughed and said, “I was, too.”

The next morning, Clare and I chatted and gossiped at Starbucks, at the impossible and dangerous intersection of Stanford and El Camino, before she returned to the Northwestern University.

I don’t remember much of what she said during that seminar (I have notes somewhere), but she read Miłosz ’s canonical “Dedication,” which opens:

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.  …

As she does in her new book, she pointed out that something obvious that slipped away in the English translation:  The first word, in Polish, is singular, not plural.  Read that way, this is not the declamatory, rhetorical address to nations and peoples.  It is personal, not something to be read over a public address system. He’s speaking urgently to a particular person who perished, in a plea that ends:

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.