Archive for June 13th, 2015

Czesław Miłosz: his letters, his left-handedness, and a Russian blue cat named “Tiny”

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

CzeslawMilosz“To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.”  

— Czesław Miłosz, Road-side Dog

David Sanders over at Poetry News in Review brought “Miłosz and His Fans” in Ontario’s Brick Magazine to our attention, and we’re mightily grateful. Molly Wesling was an assistant to Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz in the early 1990s (we’ve written about him here and here, and a gazillion other places). Her reminiscences of the Polish poet (here) absolutely sparkles with gems. Here are a few paragraphs:

The indignities of aging were on the poet’s mind. He was translating the poems of Anna Swir (aka Świrszczyńska, 1909–1984), his friend from Warsaw, into English in collaboration with Leonard Nathan. Swir wrote about what happens when bodies decay and disappoint, and Miłosz admired her candour, rare for a Polish woman of her generation. His own writing from this period onward is full of such meditations. “They were betrayed by their bodies, once beautiful and ready to dance. Yet in every one a lamp of consciousness is burning, hence their wonder: ‘Is this me? But it can’t be so!’”

Still, the world rose up to smooth the poet’s path. One of the perks of being a Nobel laureate at University of California, Berkeley—at that time there were about fifteen, Miłosz the only winner in a non-scientific field—is your own parking space on campus for life. Miłosz also had the privilege of scoring a table at a moment’s notice at the wildly popular restaurant Chez Panisse. In Berkeley these were fairy-tale prizes, like flying carpets or enchanted pots that never run out of porridge.

Over the phone in the fall of 1990, Miłosz described where to catch the bus to his house and cautioned me about the many “lacunae” in the bus schedule. I knew then I’d caught the golden ring of part-time jobs. In between letters I jotted down a few of his asides. I’ve saved my notebooks, which is why I can quote from them twenty-five years later. Once, Miłosz looked at me as I was writing and said, “I used to be left-handed too, but they beat it out of me.” On Joseph Brodsky: “he is a genius”; Robert Frost: “marvellous”; the Laments by Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski: “should be ranked with the world classics”; and my favourite: “these poems are awful” (I can’t say whose).


Feed me.

Miłosz and Carol were away for the year of 1991–92. I collected the mail and sent it to Chapel Hill. Ted was in charge of watering the bushes of the main house and tending to the needs of Tiny, the ancient Russian Blue who appears once or twice in the Miłosz oeuvre—both as himself and as a representative of the violent animal world. Through our weekly tryst at Miłosz’s aerie, Ted and I had become a couple, complete with grey cat, like the “Old World Landowners” from Nikolai Gogol’s short story of that name. When the eighty-one-year-old Master finally arrived back at his Berkeley home, he immediately noticed the dying rhododendrons and Tiny’s untidy litter box and was annoyed. Miłosz climbed back up the flagstone path to the carriage house and commenced a dressing-down. Later that evening he returned, this time to offer Ted a heartfelt apology the way only Miłosz could—eyebrows twitching, a humble bow of the head.

Read the whole thing here.