Posts Tagged ‘Czeslaw Milosz’

“Magpiety”: getting to the bottom of it.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015
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magpie2“Magpiety.” I had thought the title came from Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and his poem by that name – his translator Peter Dale Scott has assured me that he himself invented the word, though I thought Miłosz had made the same claim. Anyway, I wrote all about the word Magpiety here. I thought the subject had exhausted itself and I had become the world expert.

Then I received in the mail the galley proofs for a collection of Melissa Green‘s poems, which will be out later this year: Magpiety, published by Arrowsmith Press in Medford, Massachusetts. When I scanned the table of contents, I expected to find a poem in tribute to the late great Polish poet – along the lines of Philip Levine‘s poem “Magpiety.” Nope.

My OED dates the usage of the word to 1845 (“Not pious in its proper sense/But chattering like a bird…”). Long before either Miłosz or Peter Dale Scott were born. The mystery deepened. Arrowsmith publisher Askold Melnyczuk sent me the author’s note that is to go at the beginning of the volume. In it, the poet writes: “Magpiety arose directly from the anonymous Renaissance poem ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ and with the call and response of the lesser known—and probably later—’Mad Maud’s Song.’ In order to write my version, I searched for language that had fallen out of English in order to invent a dialect for Maud’s voice as she struggled with delusions, her dread of madness, of the loss of Tom, and of Bedlam.”

Had the OED been bested by several centuries?

So I wrote the poet for an explanation, and this is what she said:

For a while, even I thought I’d invented the word Magpiety!

I hadn’t remembered it from the Miłosz – in fact, if pressed, I would have said I had yanked from one of Mark Strand‘s poems, but I must have been thinking of Philip Levine.

I have bushel baskets full of words with the same kind of frisson, that sit in the cellar year after year, ripening, until I need them, until the source of the word has been forgotten. I didn’t actually find any evidence for its use anywhere as early as the Elizabethans; rather when the time came to write the Mad Maud poems, I remembered the word ‘magpiety’ and employed it like a valise to pack in all the meanings I could in the manner of Humpty Dumpty.

green-melissa

She likes the twinkly bits.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: probably shortening of dialect maggot the pie, maggoty-pie, from Magot (Middle English nickname for the given name Marguerite) + pie (Old French from Latin pica)

‘Mag’ came to mean a woman, an idle chatterer, whose daylong running monologue, I imagined, expected no reply – so I saw Maud’s poems as full of a mad self-talk, with the world not responding. (The Corvidae are loud and raucous talkers). My confirmation name is Margaret, which made ‘Mag’ appropriate. It was easy to extend ‘pie’ to ‘piety’ (though I do remember your OED reference mid-1800 as the opposite of true piety; Pierus claimed his nine daughters sang as beautifully as the Muses and they were turned into magpies for that hubris/impiety). I am a magpie-ish kind of writer – drawn to the shiny, twinkly bits – but this magpie is full of reverence for the world. The rhyme in my head went ‘mag/hag/bag lady’ which is how I am convinced I’ll end up.

She ended with an apology: “Sorry I have no legitimate trail of breadcrumbs for you to take this word back into linguistic history. You see I just used it to suit myself.”

Connection with Miłosz?  Coincidence. Who would have guessed it?

“You whom I could not save”: Remembering Krzysztof Baczyński, who died this day, 1944

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015
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Baczynski

“Asthmatic, of frail health … a disciplined soldier … by sheer effort of will.”

My friend Kasia Wozniak reminded me that today is the day Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed as a platoon commander, on the fourth day of the Warsaw Uprising, August 4, 1944. He was 23.

It was what he himself imagined, apparently: a shower of bullets, grenades, hitting the dirt, and “one charge only, straight up to heaven.” Let us hope so.

His beloved wife Basia was wounded and died a month later, not knowing of her husband’s death. The ancient city was entirely leveled – the vengeful Germans brought in architects to more effectively make sure the city was demolished block by block. “In January 1947 Baczynski’s body was dug out of the ruins of the City Hall and Krzysztof and Basia were finally laid to rest together in one grave at the Insurgents’ cemetery at Powazki,” according to this page commemorating him.

He was an only child, the son of a father who was a literary critic and a mother, Stefania Zielenczyk, the sister of the well-known philosopher, Adam Zielenczyk. He grew up in one of those rare periods of Polish history, a free and independent Poland. His early enthusiasm for Marxism-Trotskyism evolved into a romantic nationalistic Messianism. “Asthmatic, of frail health, he became a disciplined soldier of the Home Army by sheer effort of will,” Czesław Miłosz wrote.

Little from this prolific writer exists in English – no book, certainly, but there are a few poems here. He was considered a very fine poet, “whose rich imagery served more and more overtly, as he developed, to point up his central theme of self-immolation for the sake of an ideal Poland.” That’s from Miłosz again. “Those critics were right who maintained that he strangely resembled Juliusz Słowacki in his concept of redemptive martyrdom.” Miłosz had little sympathy for this Polish nationalism and idealism, yet he mourned its many victims in the doomed attempt to protect Warsaw from the Nazis. And he memorialized them.

While search for something online to say about him, I ran across my own article about the Miłosz and Robert Hass collaboration, here, in which I quote from the then (in 2001) newly translated edition of Treatise on Poetry:

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyñski

Idealists died first.

No ancient Greek hero entered into combat
So deprived of hope, in their heads the image
Of a white skull kicked by feet in passing . . .

Trzebinski, the new Polish Nietzsche,
Had his mouth plastered shut before he died.
He took with him the view of a wall, low clouds
His black eyes had just a moment to absorb.
Baczynski’s head fell against his rifle.
The uprising scared up flocks of pigeons.
Gajcy, Stroinski were raised to the sky,
A red sky, on the shield of an explosion.

On this day I also think of the Nobel poet’s famous “Dedication.” Miłosz scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh impressed upon me that this poem, often read didactically, with a rhetorical flourish, in fact has a singular “you.” It was directed at a single listener, which very much changes the way one read it. Was it Baczyński? I wonder.

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.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Read the whole poem here. And do check out the excellent commemorative page here.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan at the end of Europe

Friday, July 31st, 2015
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Serhij Żadan

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, earlier this year. (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

We wrote about Serhiy Zhadan, Ukrainian poet, novelist, essayist, and translator over a year ago, in a post titled, “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” That’s when the pro-Russian demonstrators broke his skull with bats in his native Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, a place that has the misfortune to be close to the Russian border.

“Americans need to understand, in Eastern Europe, writers still have a huge influence on society,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas told the New Yorker in a story here. “It may sound like an old-fashioned ‘poet stands up to tyranny’ story, like something out of Les Miz—‘Can you hear the people sing?’—but it’s really kind of like that. … He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star.”

We were happy to see him appear last week in a New York Review of Books blogpost by Timothy Snyder, “Edge of Europe, End of Europe.” Tim said “What Zhadan actually seems to aspire to – and here his willingness to risk his life for Europe is a clue – is what [writer Mykola] Khvylovy called ‘psychological Europe’: the acceptance of conventions, the work to transcend them, and the absolute indispensability of freedom and dignity for the effort.” The discussion includes Czesław Miłosz as well:

Zhadan’s most recent work, a collection of poetry published earlier this year entitled Lives of Maria, is a book of Ukraine’s war and of Zhadan’s own survival: “you see, I lived through it, I have two hearts/do something with both of them.” Yet as the book proceeds the meditations are increasingly religious, the poems often taking the form of conversations with Maria herself. No one, in eastern Slavic culture or anywhere else, combines the writerly personas of tough guy and holy fool as does Zhadan. He raps hymns.

A happenstance Californian.

Kindred spirit?

At points in Lives of Maria, Zhadan sounds like Czesław Miłosz, the twentieth-century Polish poet, who also strove toward Europe through both the local and the universal: “I wanted to give everything a name.” Miłosz was the preeminent poet of a borderland, one to the north of Kharkiv, Lithuanian-Belarusian-Polish (and Jewish) rather than Ukrainian-Russian (and Jewish). His position, not so different from Zhadan’s perhaps, was that Europe can best be recognized on the margins, that uncertainty and risk are more substantial than commonplaces and certainty. And indeed, the last section of Lives of Maria is devoted to Zhadan’s translations of Miłosz. Zhadan begins with two of Miłosz’s poems, “A Song on the End of the World” and a “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” that ask the most direct questions about what Europeans did during the twentieth century and what they might and should do instead. The second poem communicates the pain and difficulty of actually seeing and trying to learn from the Holocaust, which was, or at least once was, a central idea of the European project. The first transmits, almost breezily, certainly eerily, what a European catastrophe might feel like. It concludes: “No one believes that it has already begun/Only a wizened old man who might have been a prophet/But is not a prophet, because he has other things to do/Looks up as he binds his tomatoes and says/There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world.”

Where Miłosz wrote in Polish that the old man had other things to do, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian that there were already so many prophets. Perhaps so. Pro-European Ukrainians are taking a chance, not demanding a future. They watch the Greek crisis too, and their position is often more scathing than anything western critics of the EU could muster. The point then is not certainty but possibility. Zhadan might well have died for an idea of Europe; other Ukrainians already have. Yet the risks he has taken, both physical and literary, are not in the service of any particular politics. Many of his essays and poems are about the attempt to understand people with whom he disagrees. He is an outspoken critic of his own government. Like Miłosz, who described Europe as “familial,” or like Khvylovy, who called Europe “psychological,” Zhadan is pursuing experimentation and enlightenment, a sense of “Europe” that demands engagement with the unmasterable past rather than the production and consumption of historical myth. “Freedom,” writes Zhadan in Lives of Maria, “consists in voluntarily returning to the concentration camp.”

It rather makes me hanker for a translation. Anyone? Oh well, you can read all of Tim’s article here.

On his birthday: Czesław Miłosz on time, truth, and the “quest for reality”

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
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A happenstance Californian.

Birthday boy.

Today is Czesław Miłosz‘s birthday – his 104th. To celebrate the occasion, I revisited his Nobel lecture. Oh, and I baked him a little white cake; see below. And also, a photo at bottom from where it all began, at his birthplace in Šeteniai.

In 1980, Miłosz gave one of the all-time great Nobel addresses. A few excerpts to prove it:

“Every poet depends upon generations who wrote in his native tongue; he inherits styles and forms elaborated by those who lived before him. At the same time, though, he feels that those old means of expression are not adequate to his own experience. When adapting himself, he hears an internal voice that warns him against mask and disguise. But when rebelling, he falls in turn into dependence upon his contemporaries, various movements of the avant-garde. Alas, it is enough for him to publish his first volume of poems, to find himself entrapped. For hardly has the print dried, when that work, which seemed to him the most personal, appears to be enmeshed in the style of another. The only way to counter an obscure remorse is to continue searching and to publish a new book, but then everything repeats itself, so there is no end to that chase. And it may happen that leaving books behind as if they were dry snake skins, in a constant escape forward from what has been done in the past, he receives the Nobel Prize.”

“What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? I think it is a quest for reality. I give to this word its naive and solemn meaning, a meaning having nothing to do with philosophical debates of the last few centuries. It is the Earth as seen by Nils from the back of the gander and by the author of the Latin ode from the back of Pegasus. Undoubtedly, that Earth is and her riches cannot be exhausted by any description. To make such an assertion means to reject in advance a question we often hear today: ‘What is reality?’, for it is the same as the question of Pontius Pilate: ‘What is truth?’ If among pairs of opposites which we use every day, the opposition of life and death has such an importance, no less importance should be ascribed to the oppositions of truth and falsehood, of reality and illusion.”

***

His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“The thick walls of our ancient university.”  (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“It is good to be born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania, a country of myths and of poetry. My family already in the Sixteenth Century spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland – English; so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me. It is good in childhood to hear words of Latin liturgy, to translate Ovid in high school, to receive a good training in Roman Catholic dogmatics and apologetics. It is a blessing if one receives from fate school and university studies in such a city as Vilno. A bizarre city of baroque architecture transplanted to northern forests and of history fixed in every stone, a city of forty Roman Catholic churches and of numerous synagogues. In those days the Jews called it a Jerusalem of the North. Only when teaching in America did I fully realize how much I had absorbed from the thick walls of our ancient university, from formulas of Roman law learned by heart, from history and literature of old Poland, both of which surprise young Americans by their specific features: an indulgent anarchy, a humor disarming fierce quarrels, a sense of organic community, a mistrust of any centralized authority.”

***

“Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion; Molière becomes a contemporary of Napoleon, Voltaire, a contemporary of Lenin. Also, events of the last decades, of such primary importance that knowledge or ignorance of them will be decisive for the future of mankind, move away, grow pale, lose all consistency as if Frederic Nietzsche‘s prediction of European nihilism found a literal fulfillment. ‘The eye of a nihilist,’ he wrote in 1887, ‘is unfaithful to his memories: it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves;… And what he does not do for himself, he also does not do for the whole past of mankind: he lets it drop’ We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil. As The Los Angeles Times recently stated, the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda, has exceeded one hundred. If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering or poisoning of the natural environment?”

birthday cake“For the poet of the ‘other Europe’ the events embraced by the name of the Holocaust are a reality, so close in time that he cannot hope to liberate himself from their remembrance unless, perhaps, by translating the Psalms of David. He feels anxiety, though, when the meaning of the word Holocaust undergoes gradual modifications, so that the word begins to belong to the history of the Jews exclusively, as if among the victims there were not also millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and prisoners of other nationalities. He feels anxiety, for he senses in this a foreboding of a not distant future when history will be reduced to what appears on television, while the truth, as it is too complicated, will be buried in the archives, if not totally annihilated.”

***

 ”Complaints of peoples, pacts more treacherous than those we read about in Thucydides, the shape of a maple leaf, sunrises and sunsets over the ocean, the whole fabric of causes and effects, whether we call it Nature or History, points towards, I believe, another hidden reality, impenetrable, though exerting a powerful attraction that is the central driving force of all art and science.”

“Our century draws to its close, and largely thanks to those influences I would not dare to curse it, for it has also been a century of faith and hope. A profound transformation, of which we are hardly aware, because we are a part of it, has been taking place, coming to the surface from time to time in phenomena that provoke general astonishment.”

***

You can read the whole thing here. Regarding the photograph below: I had the great good fortune in 2011 to visit Miłosz’s birthplace in the rural Lithuanian village of Šeteniai. And yes, it is as idyllic as he said it was – it reminded me of the woods and deep green colors of Michigan. I took this photo on the former Miłosz family estate, overlooking the river. The fishers called out to ask if we had permission to photograph them. Yes, one of us shouted back, there was a journalist in the group. They laughed, thinking it was a joke.

IMAG0161

The perfect place to be born. (Photo: C.L. Haven)

Another honor for poet Tomas Venclova – keep ‘em coming.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015
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t.venclova

Terrific poet in a little-known tongue.

One of our favorite people has bagged another honor: earlier this month, one of Europe’s most eminent poets, Tomas Venclova, was awarded for “creative fidelity to the values which comprise the foundation of European civilization.”  The ceremony took place at the Ossoliński National Institute, one of Poland’s oldest scientific libraries and research centers.

In his talk, the Lithuanian poet praised the previous prize laureates: “I have followed in the footsteps of people much greater than myself, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Stanisław Szuszkiewicz, Sergei Kovalev, Václav Havel, Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus and Zbigniew Brzeziński,” he said. (Personally, I’m not so sure about the “greater than himself” part.)

He also paid homage to the prize’s namesake, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a Polish journalist and war-time resistance fighter who was an emissary between the Home Army and the Polish Government in Exile in London. After the war in Communist Poland, Nowak-Jeziorański headed the Polish Section of Radio Free Europe. “Unfortunately I never met Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, although I know he was an emblematic figure in the history of Eastern Europe and global society,” said Venclova. “A politician and solider, journalist and social worker, a diplomat who was a paradigm of fidelity to his beliefs.”

Venclova himself is one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group, whose poetry in the disfavored Lithuanian language could be circulated only in samizdat. His dissident activities attracted the perilous attention of the Soviet authorities, and in 1977 he was forced to emigrate. He taught for many years at Yale University. His poetry has been translated by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. A selection of his poetry, translated into English by Ellen Hinsey, is at the Poetry Foundation here.

His previous honors include the Gloria Artis and Order of Merit Polish honours, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Kraków, Gdańsk, Toruń, Lublin and the Lithuanian centres of Klaipeda and Kaunas. All that said, he is too little recognized in the West. So we think there should be more honors, west of the Danube. We have written about him here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Congratulations, Tomas!

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

Saturday, June 13th, 2015
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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).

russianblue

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.

“And the winner is …”: a few thoughts on this year’s “A Company of Authors”

Sunday, April 26th, 2015
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mediciThere really wasn’t a winner … or rather, there were only winners. The annual “A Company of Authors,” which we previewed here, is like the Dodo’s Caucus Race: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Alright, alright … there are no prizes, either, but everybody really does win.

That said, John L’Heureux‘s presentation of his latest, The Medici Boy, was clearly one of the highpoints of an afternoon that was full of them (some said it was the best “Company of Authors” year evah). So much so that I began taking notes against my better instincts – my home is cluttered with wads of papers filled with unused notes, whatever will I do with them? L’Heureux said that we know little about the origins of Donatello‘s bronze David, unlike most of his works that we can pin to an approximate date and a commission. Not so with this mysterious work, which L’Heureux called “a revelation.”

I was the last moderator on the final panel of the long afternoon. Hence, by the time I staggered out into the Stanford Humanities Center lobby where the Stanford Bookstore was selling copies of the featured books, much buying and selling had already taken place. However, one book had vanished entirely. You guessed it. L’Heureux’s The Medici Boy was suddenly a Stanford best-seller. No surprise, perhaps. The Washington Post said of the book and its author: “His luminous prose, swift narrative, love of art history and cool eye for human weakness make this one a pleasure to read.”

Although I had arrived too late to purchase a copy, there had been a small bonus book added to each purchase, and one or two left over. So in the spirit of the Caucus Race (“all shall have prizes”), I got a free copy of Dikran Karaguezian‘s Conversations with John L’Heureux, published by Stanford’s CSLI Publications in 2010 – and with an excellent introduction by Tobias Wolff, too. Here’s what L’Heureux said about The Medici Boy five years ago:

lheureux“Way back in 1999 on my first trip to Florence I had the good fortune to visit the Accademia and the Bargello on the same day, which meant I got to see Michelangelo‘s David in the morning and Donatello’s David in the afternoon. They provided me with a good close-up contrast. I was astonished at the Michelangelo – it’s vast and overwhelming – and I was embarrassed by the Donatello. I didn’t know where to look. The statue is so unashamedly naked. And erotic, with an eroticism that is quite calculated, I think. It asks to be looked at. It asks to be touched. I knew absolutely nothing about Donatello at that time, but one look at the David convinced me that Donatello knew exactly what he was doing and went ahead and did it anyway. …

“I concluded first that there’s a story here. That whoever modeled for this David meant more to Donatello personally than the models for Saint George or Saint Louis. Donatello gives the statue an audacity, a sexual defiance, that I’m sure he captured from the model. It’s not superimposed. It’s there in the boy posing for him. And their relationship, I concluded, was by its nature designed to break his heart. …

Q: It sounds as if you must have done a lot of research for this book.

“Actually research for this thing is an endless process. I never really intended to write the book even though I began keeping notes for it as early as 1999. I thought of it as a project for my old age, something I could keep noodling away at right up to the moment of my death … or my being sent doddering and drooling to Casa Sayanara … and when people would ask, ‘Are you working on a new book?’ I would reply, ‘Oh yes, a long term project on Donatello.’ And then I’d leave a pile of notes and nothing more at my death, but I’d have been able to kid myself that I was still at work.

miloszTruth be told, I have the same misgivings, that at my death my survivors will find only piles and piles of confused and disorganized papers and notes. So I was relieved that the bookstore also carried a few books by some of the panel moderators at “A Company of Authors” – and Humble Moi was among them. So at least one series of efforts will not be entirely lost to time. The featured book was one of my earlier efforts, Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations. While I can’t say that the small stack of my book flew off the shelves, the pile was slightly shorter when I left, which was gratifying.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the question of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false have not been discovered through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.”

 

 

On Czesław Miłosz, the living and the dead, and meeting famous people …

Friday, March 27th, 2015
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miloszcoverOver at the blog A Citizen Paying Attention, Bruce Cole describes his two encounters with Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. I had encouraged him to write his memories down, and now he has. He attended the Polish poet’s reading in Portland on April 30, 1988. Miłosz describes his visit to the region in The Year of the Hunter, beginning with his reading the day before at Oregon State University in Corvallis:

…The reading was difficult, the auditorium was not entirely appropriate – a lack of direct contact.  Then drinks with the faculty.  The next day, this morning, that is, again the drive from Corvallis to Portland.   Sitting on the campus, I prepare a new program for my performance from twelve to one; very successful, direct contact.  Lunch in a restaurant with a few people, and then they drive me to the airport.

All the time, however, I’m divided into the person who already knows how to play the game the way they want him to, and another person who is immersed in his own thoughts.  About human society as a marvel.  And about Polish themes, thanks to that issue of Literary Notebooks.

Casting himself in the role of “pathetic fan boy,” Bruce tried to work on the “direct contact” part after the reading in Portland. A book signing. A few gestures and a handshake. Bruce’s post is, in part, a meditation on our wish to meet the great: “What does it mean to meet, however fleetingly, someone famous? Where are the borders between fandom (for lack of better word) and the wish for direct contact (exactly the right words) with someone whose work has meant a world (not the world, but a world shared between an author and you and, at a remove, with that author’s other readers)?  There is nothing inherently trivial about someone’s wish to see ‘in the flesh’ another human being who has assumed some kind of importance in your life, and whom you only ‘know’ through their work and whatever images the media offers up to you – which is why ‘celebrity’ and the attraction to it is so pernicious.  It perverts the healthy instinct of admiration for achievement into its infinitely inferior parody.” He discusses his other brushes with the famous, including Norman Mailer, and visiting the grave of Walker Percy. Then back to Miłosz:

bruce-cole

Pathetic fan boy?

As they say in the movies, “the years passed.”  Now it was the autumn of 1993.  I was married, with a toddler daughter, and Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass were billed as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series.  A friend of mine (thank you, Terry!) had access to a free ticket.  This was a very different affair.  No community college, but the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.  Not two or three dozen in attendance, but hundreds.  A real reception afterwards.

When Miłosz and Robert Hass were introduced and went on stage, you could see the difference five and a half years had made. Miłosz was now 82, somehow physically diminished, and I noticed the nervous tic, for lack of a better term, that sometimes besets the elderly, as his eyebrows (those eyebrows!) shot up and down. When he read, his voice was softer and higher, and his recitation more rapid.  Still, we were hardly watching a man in mental decline. The “contact” was different than the previous reading, but still palpable. The audience was able to write out questions for Miłosz and Hass, which the M.C. selected and interspersed with some of his own.  At some point, Miłosz remarked (this was the partial revelation I alluded to earlier) that poetry readings took place all over America, that he had lived in France for a decade, and that he hardly ever saw anything like that there, and that for any one poetry reading in France, there must be fifty in the United States.

I have since considered that, allowing for the “concert-going” mentality, there must be a larger part of the audience at poetry readings who leaven the lump than at other “cultural events” and mysteriously make for the contact that a poet has to hope for in public.  I, too, had a question, and I scribbled away, hoping it would pass the gate-keeper on stage.  I wondered (big surprise) about translations. Why had Treatise on Morals (from the late 40s) never been translated? Why had only part of Treatise on Poetry (written in 1956 in Paris) appeared in The Collected Poems (this would be the late 80s edition).  [One of the best chapters in Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz is the one on that long poem, IMHO.]  Finally, only two chapters of Milosz’s volume on Stanisław Brzozowski, Man Among Scorpions (1962) had been translated and included in the book of essays, Emperor of the Earth (1977) – like The Land of Ulro read over and over again.  Anyway, the M.C. read only the part about the two poetic Treatises.  Did he stumble over pronouncing “Brzozowski”?  All I can remember now for an answer is that the earlier poem was written in a meter which precluded translation (as my knowledge of prosody matches my knowledge of quantum physics, I had to take his word for it).

hunter2The reception followed. Something to eat and drink, people greeting one another while wondering (how? when?) to approach the poets.  I was actually on one side of a table when Miłosz, beer in hand, went for something to eat.  He was otherwise unattended. So, leaning forward, I began the conversation which went something like:

“I was the one who asked about translations.”  Pause.  “About Treatise on Morals and Treatise on Poetry.  Pause 2.0.  “Also, I wondered about your book on Brzozowski.”

Here he corrected my pronunciation, though to my untrained ear it sounded the same, and then asked, “You are student of Slavic languages?”

“No, and that’s why I’m interested in translations. I’m particularly wondering about Brzozowski.”  [No correction this time, incidentally.  Not worth the bother?] “I’ve read the chapter in Emperor of the Earth over and over again. Has the whole work ever been translated?”

“No.”  This was said with a certain resignation, I think, and then a woman came up to Miłosz, telling him how much his poetry meant to her, etc.  The poet and I exchanged a mutual nod and the conversation was over.

The story picks up again a decade later:

I read of Miłosz’s death in the Washington Post on a Sunday morning in August 2004.  My family was away, and I was nursing a headache from the previous night (yes, I know) as the sunlight poured on the dining room and I was flooded with memories of my two encounters with the man, of having read almost everything of his translated into English, and of what I knew of his life now come to an end. As if in confirmation of that life’s struggles, over the next few days certain nationalists in Poland crawled out from under the rocks, casting aspersions on Miłosz as insufficiently Polish and hence not Catholic “enough” (echoes of Native Realm) and the Pope, dying in Rome, had to telegraph that this was not so.

brzozowski
In English, please.

Now, a decade later, I await the day when his massive biography is translated for dullards like me…And speaking of translations, any reader who has borne with me for this long remembers that early on in this piece I telegraphed a punch.  A full English translation of Treatise on Poetry was published in 2001, and ever since I have taken utterly unjustified credit (if only to myself) for having planted the idea in Czesław Miłosz’s head.

A longshot, but why not? Odder things have happened.  Read the whole thing here.

Mystery solved! A bibliographic detective story from the Cold War era

Sunday, March 1st, 2015
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invisibleI arranged to meet David Streitfeld at a Palo Alto coffeehouse. The New York Times reporter said he is a devoted Book Haven fan, as well as an avid reader of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. How would we recognize each other in a crowd? He would have his hardcover edition of my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Everybody else will be reading the paperback,” he reassured me. And so it was.

He had a bibliographic puzzle for me to solve that had stumped him. He pulled a slim and aging booklet from his capacious book bag. What, he asked, was the provenance of this Wiersze, a selected “works” from the poet, which David had found for a few bucks online? I checked the WorldCat online, and couldn’t find it. It was beginning to stump me, too.

Some background: for much of his career, Miłosz was a banned writer in the land of his native tongue, Poland. After years as a attaché for the Communist government of Poland in Paris, he decided to chuck it in 1951, and asked for asylum in France. He was ostracized in Paris, where the the intelligentsia was fervently pro-Stalin, from the comfort of the city’s cafés. In 1960, he accepted an appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, which to a European seemed like the backside of the moon.

As he wrote in “Magic Mountain” during those lonely years:

 

IMG_20150227_140221-1So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.

Until Solidarity arose in the 1980s, he thought he was a forgotten writer in Poland, and had no real notion that he had a huge audience in samizdat, smuggled writing reproduced in patiently recopied editions, or mimeograph editions, or even silkscreen. This appeared to be one of those smuggled works. But when, how, and by whom? It was a mystery.

The publication has no date, except for a tiny “1957″ someone scribbled lightly in pencil in the top margin of the first page, which couldn’t be trusted as anything more than a guess. David thought this short Wiersze was more recent than that, possibly the 1970s.

To the rescue.

To the rescue.

The outline of the Statue of Liberty on the cover might suggest that its provenance is American – the CIA and others had a role in making Boris Pasternak‘s Doctor Zhivago available to Russians (I wrote about that here). But, if so, why wouldn’t they have signed their efforts somewhere in this booklet, which has no dates or publication information?

Kosinska_Milosz-w-Krakowie_500pcxThe short (48 pages) Wiersze includes Miłosz’s “Treatise on Poetry,” which was published as a book by the émigré press Instytut Literacki in 1957, so would there be a need for a bootleg edition that year, as the penciled date suggests? Of course, the Instytut Literacki books wouldn’t have safe passage to Poland. (The book received a literary prize from Kultura in Paris – we wrote about visit to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.) Yet 1957 was the height of the thaw that preceded the crackdown – would it be that hard?  Miłosz’s 1947 “Treatise on Morality” is also included in the Wiersze.

There is a hero to this story, and it’s Agnieszka Kosińska, Miłosz’s longtime assistant in Kraków and editor of the mammoth Bibliografia druków zwartych, a book she had given me back in 2011. I’d forgotten I had it on my bookshelves – at 816 pages, it’s not easy to overlook, but I had. I finally ran across it in my search for my copy of Miłosz’s 1,406-page Wiersze Wszystkie [Collected Works]. On page 305 of Agnieszka’s volume, item #710 – there it is: “Wiersze. [B.m.w.: ok. 1980], 48 s.” It was published circa 1980.

In August, 1980, the Communist government signed the agreement legalizing the trade union, Solidarity, in the now famous Gdańsk shipyards. So this may be the last souvenir of the Cold War era in Poland – or who knows? Perhaps the first breath of the new era.

I also learned in my online peregrinations that the admirable Agnieszka is publishing a book of her own with Znak in the next few months, Miłosz w Krakowie, that is, Miłosz in Kraków. You can read about it here. And if you’d like to read an interesting retrospective in English (though its English is a bit problematic), check out this: “Czesław Miłosz Died Ten Years Ago” over at the Polish Book Institute here.

Images of the mystery book below. With David’s fingers.

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Remembering Stanisław Barańczak: equilibristics, “Madogism,” and the phenomenology of the queue

Monday, December 29th, 2014
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Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak died at 68 near Boston on the morning Friday, December 26. The day after Christmas Day – Boxing Day in England, St. Stephen’s Day in much of Europe. I never knew the gifted poet, translator, essayist, and longtime denizen of Harvard. However, in my 2000 interview, Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel poet had called him one of the poets who is “shamanlike”:  “He was a virtuoso of translation – he translated practically all of Shakespeare, the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson and so on. But his own poetry, also, is … equilibristics. He writes rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is fantastic.” I had approached Barańczak about contributing to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and never received an answer. I was told by colleagues that he had Parkinson’s disease, and had quit the Harvard faculty in 1997 (a full decade before I wrote him) because of it.

He was also a leading dissident while Poland was under Communist rule. Poland’s Culture Minister Malgorzata Omilanowska said that Baranczak’s death is a “great loss to Poland’s culture.” Then: “He paid a great price for his views, for his unwavering attitude,” Omilanowska said. “He dedicated his whole life to literature, to poetry. His work will always be an important part of Poland’s culture.”

Well, you can read the New York Times obituary here, or in the Polish, here.  I looked for a selection that might represent his work, but the only book I could find in my library was his lauded volume of essays, Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990).  Rather that quote him talking about other writers, let me quote a few paragraphs that take us back to a bleak Christmas Eve, 1977 in Poland. He goes out for a walk to mull Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel The Polish Complex, and instead winds up in a queue. It’s apropos: “The line in Konwicki’s novel is more than a symbol of the Great Nonsense: it is both a model and a cross section of a society approaching the condition of ‘Madogism’ (from ‘mad dog’), a term coined by Alexander Zinoviev (a Soviet logician who was forced by illogical reality to become a writer of satire).”

Though a Western reader is unlikely to know Konwicki or Zinoviev, he may recognize something of the phenomenology of the queue in the post-Christmas sales. But most of all, I found these paragraphs grabbed me with a life of their vividness and insight, apart from Konwicki. Here goes:

“I’m standing in line in front of a state-owned delikatesy shop. I’m he one hundred forty-seventh person in line. The huge queue, extending toward Freedom Square, suddenly turns down a side street to avoid the road and crosses Red Army Street in the distance. Rumor has it that a delivery will arrive in a quarter of an hour. Carp or coffee – no one knows for certain. In any case, the lady who is one hundred forty-sixth in line convinces me it’s worth joining…

baranczak“I look at the queue in which I am standing, and, as always on such occasions, I feel anxiety mixed with anger. I was one hundred forty-seventh, but what number am I now? The line has swollen; we are no longer standing in a single file. The queuers are joined by their friends and the friends of their friends. Always the same. Nothing ever changes in the phenomenology of a line. Take the elderly gentleman less than twenty places in front of me who exclaims with pre-war righteousness and post-war helplessness, ‘But please, ladies and gentlemen, we can’t let this get out of hand. We must organize ourselves!’ Even he is a constant in a queue. It seems as though I’ve heard his words many times before And this old busybody right behind me who says loudly and bitterly, ‘Yeah, get yourself organized, Grandpa. There won’t be enough goods anyway.’ She, too, never fails to appear on such occasions. And, as always, the line responds in unison with muted laughter – a laughter of people who at once realize the absurdity of their lives. Briefly this sad laughter unites them, hostile and embroiled, in one big brotherhood. … Here we go! The door to the delikatesy has just opened, and a human tide, pushing and trampling, surges over the threshold. The last residual forms of social self-discipline disappear… After the first assault on the door, the commotion subsides. Rumors spread down the line that the shipment hasn’t arrived, but is expected soon, maybe in a half hour. Most probably carp…

equilibristics

Equilibristics

“They’ve started selling the carp. The line creeps forward, and this limited movement brings consolation. At least something is happening; the line is not so senseless as it was before; we are approaching some goal. But at the same time anxiety grows. The basic feature of attractive merchandise is its scarcity. Since the carp is being sold, sooner or later the supply will run out, and therefore we may not be able to get any. Symptoms of panic appear, the line becomes even more shapeless. Not only do the queuers push forward, but some try to bypass the line, and others lean out so as to have at least a glimpse of the objects they desire. My well-trained eyes register a common phenomena: an elderly man, with great dignity and little confidence, produces his handicapped citizen’s card. He meets an unyielding wall of arms and elbows and angry comments: ‘Cripples, stay home!’ From the front of the line, where taller heads can already see the counter, furious cries are heard: ‘One fish per customer! Look at that! She’s stuffing her shopping bag!’ The lucky ones who’ve already made their purchases push laboriously toward the exit, fighting the stream of people. They are especially disdainful of the crowd. They complain loudly about the lack of common courtesy and, reaching the street, show each other their torn-off buttons. We regard them with genuine hatred.”

Stay away from crowds. And requiescat in pace, Stanisław Barańczak (1946-2014), in pace, after long illness.