Posts Tagged ‘Czeslaw Milosz’

Requiescat in pace, Ramūnas Katilius, 1935-2014

Monday, October 6th, 2014
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(Photo R.R. Katilius)

Normally, I don’t hang with many award-winning physicists, but the distinguished Lithuanian scientist Ramūnas Katilius was an exception, in that as well as many other things. Our association began with our mutual friend, the poet Tomas Venclova, who suggested – rather, insisted – that I meet the Katilius family during my 2011 swing through Vilnius, one of my favorite cities. It ended yesterday, when he died in his sleep in Vilnius. He would have been 80 next year.

Romas and his wife Elė were generous and hospitable during that 2011 visit – they laid out a splendid brunch for me and their son, the photographer, Ramūnas Jr., and the father gracefully insisted I allow his son to squire me about Lithuania. With  Justina Juozėnaitė of the Venclova Museum, the three of us toured the hidden corners of Lithuania associated with the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, finally ending at the poet’s birthplace in Šeteniai (we also had a long stopover in Kaunas – I wrote about that here). A day or too later, the three of us took an enchanting moonlight stroll through the Old Town. I wondered why the physicist and his wife didn’t join us on any of our adventures. I don’t know how I was able to overlook that my host was seriously disabled, thanks to a childhood bout with polio. In retrospect, I think he didn’t want me to notice, thinking it might dampen the pleasure of our meeting. He was magnanimous that way.

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Liejyklos street. (Photo: Moi)

Certainly the unforgettable moments of those magic days included the afternoon when Romas (père) brought out his collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, doodles, translations, notebooks, photos, sketches, letters, postcards, and more from their decades-long friendship, and placed it on my lap. I never thought I’d see the treasure again – but when Romas later made it clear he was looking for a permanent home for it, I recommended it to the Stanford Libraries. Now it is within a mile of my home. Well, I tell that story here, but also here and here and here.

Romas tells his own story about his long friendship with the Russian poet here.  Brodsky was having personal troubles in Petersburg after his rocky return from internal exile in Archangelsk. He called his friend Andrey Sergeyev daily to complain, using expressions like  “end of the world” or “it’s a total mess” – „конец света“,  „полный завал“).

“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” said the big-hearted Romas. So began a visit and a friendship, which featured a walk much like the one I had taken:

“Joseph stayed with us for about a week. What did we do in our, so to say, spare time, apart from listening to his poetry? We took long walks in the Old Town, in daytime and at night, often accompanied by some of our friends – Juozas Tumelis, Pranas Morkus, Virgilijus Čepaitis, Ina Vapšinskaitė, as well as my brother Audronis. Joseph made friends with them very quickly.

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Ramūnas and Elė Katilius (Photo: Arūno Baltėno)

“The Liejyklos Street, where we lived, follows the ancient line of the city wall, so it only takes a leisurely stroll of 15 or 20 minutes to reach almost any place in the Old Town. And we did take advantage of our location. The nearest route started right around the corner and continued along St. Ignatius (Šv. Ignoto) Street, leading to the Dominican monastery, closed a long time ago. The monastery has an inner courtyard that can be reached only through the second floor of the building. The building was inhabited by ordinary people, and Joseph suddenly decided to try and rent a room there for a longer period, and even called at one of the flats. Someone opened the door, but, fortunately, there were no rooms for rent, and Joseph calmed down. Obviously, there was no way he could afford it.

“I also remember our walk along the same St. Ignatius Street one late evening. At the end of that street, turning to the courtyards opposite to the Dominican monastery, one could get on the roof of a corps de garde, a ward-house – a small building with columns, pertaining to a large palace ensemble, the architectural style of which is somewhat alien to the Old Town; it was built in the times of Russian Empire as a residence for the Governor-General (today the palace is used as the President’s office).”

I love Vilnius, and Romas tells a charming and insightful story with the city as its backdrop – I really shouldn’t attempt to excerpt it, especially since it replicates his somewhat uneven English; it’s easier to catch the rhythms of it when you read more than a couple paragraphs.

I remembered the warmth of our meetings, but not the limitations of Romas’s English (which is still far, far better than my Lithuanian) – so it was always a surprise when I telephoned him as his health was failing, and I would suddenly remember that our conversation would be a bit hampered without a translator to mediate. But a few phrases were clear as a bell. In particular, I remember the last phone call, which ended after I told him how I wished to return to Vilnius, and soon. “We will wait for you!” he promised.

***

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Ramūnas & Elė Katilius with son Ramūnas Jr. and Tomas Venclova in 1977. (Photo: M. Milchik)

Postscript: I didn’t realize that Romas and I had other mutual friends until I posted this on Facebook. Ilya Levin wrote: “I first met Romas and Elia in early 2008 when posted to the U.S. embassy and then was fortunate to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions during my subsequent visits to Vilnius. RIP.“ Anna Halberstadt recalled “he and Tomas were romantic figures for us in grade school – good-looking young dissidents.” Anna Verschik added, “I visited them every time I was in Vilnius. It was always a pleasure.”  This from Mikhail Iossel, Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius (and, incidentally, a former Stanford Stegner Fellow):

“This is sad news. He was a remarkably interesting and generous man. Uncommonly young at heart, as the saying would have it.

“I met him for the first time in the summer of 2009 (if memory serves me), via Ilya Levin. Along with Ilya and Anna Verschik, I went one evening to his and his joyfully hospitable wife’s small apartment on the outskirts of Vilnius, where the two of them, Ramunas and his wife, Elia, over the extended dinner and for several hours thereafter, proceeded to reminisce about the many years of his close friendship with Brodsky, begun with Tomas Venclova’s participation in late-1950s Leningrad and resulting (among other fortuitous developments) in the KGB-besieged, officialdom-hounded young Leningrad poet’s subsequent frequent trips and lengthy stays in Vilnius, at Ramunas’s old place on Liejyklos Street (where, in 1971, none too incidentally, the famous “Lithuanian Divertissement” was written). Numerous old, Soviet-style, heavy-duty folders were produced by the hosts, full of painstakingly collected and carefully preserved Brodsky’s handwritten notes and drafts of poems, quick pencil sketches and rather elaborate ink drawings. The love the man felt for his famous friend was brightly intense. [This collection is now at Stanford – ED]

“After our next meeting, in the Old Town apartment of a friend of mine, I asked Ramunas to visit our inaugural SLS-Lithuania program and tell our participants about the meaning of Lithuania in Brodsky’s life. He accepted the invitation on the spot, with much eagerness, the considerable difficulty with which he already walked by then notwithstanding.

“His talk was thorough and detailed and informed of the same genuine feeling of deep devotion to Brodsky’s memory. His polite, soft-spoken, English-speaking son served as the interpreter.

“A very good man indeed, noble of spirit and honest of heart and keen of mind. A true mensch.”

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Katilius, Brodsky, and Venclova: Together in Ushkova, near Leningrad, in 1972.

Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s life in Gdańsk remembered in photos

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014
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Gdansk/Motlawa. Aug, 2014

Gdańsk at nightfall, overlooking the Motława River. (All photos by Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Book Haven’s roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski was far, far away from his New York City digs last month, and back in his native land – in particular, he visited Gdańsk. I didn’t remember how strongly the Baltic port is linked with Czesław Miłosz. Fortunately, Zygmunt did, and he took plenty of photos, with Gdańsk writer Stefan Chwin and Krystyna Chwin‘s book, Czesław Miłosz: Gdańsk and Vicinity, as a guide.

1foto ©Zygmunt malinowski

“The words are written down, the deed, the date.”

He writes: “I was invited for the opening of European Solidarity Center on August 30 – an imposing newly built museum dedicated to preserving the history of Solidarity, as well as an international institution ‘to ensure the ideals of Solidarność – democracy, an open solidarity society, and culture of dialogue – maintain a modern perspective and appeal.’ It is situated close to the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers where Miłosz’s poem, ‘The Poet Remembers’ is engraved in bronze.”

The lines on the monument at right (the whole poem, “You Who Wronged,” is worth a read here): “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You can kill one, but another is born./The words are written down, the deed, the date.”

He is one of three people represented on the Solidarity monument, along with Nobel peace laureate Lech Wałęsa and Pope John Paul II. Miłosz visited Gdańsk the year after his 1980 Nobel to meet with Wałęsa. The Solidarity movement was in full swing, and the exiled Polish poet, returning to his homeland for the first time in three decades, was greeted enthusiastically by crowds of shipyard workers. He would come again in subsequent years (other than the years of martial law, which was imposed in 1984 and lifted in 1989), returning both as a private person and a public figure. He made a permanent return to Poland in 2000. Each visit was closely followed by local and international press.

Gdańsk had sad memories for Miłosz, too, as well as happy ones: His family, including cousins as well as parents and brother were displaced by the ravages of World War II, and moved into a house in nearby Sopot. His mother Weronika Kunat Miłosz died in the nearby village of Drewnica, during a wartime typhus epidemic in 1945; she is buried in the nearby Sopot Catholic Cemetery.

“Gdańsk and Sopot, a resort town, both situated on the Baltic Sea, provide a festive atmosphere for visitors and tourists during the summer who admire its unique architecture and relax in its many friendly cafes and restaurants, entertained by street musicians and performers,” Zygmunt wrote. “Gdańsk University, School of Fine Arts, and Academy of Music add to a sense of culture.”

“During his visits in the 1980s and 1990s,  Miłosz gave several poetry readings, met with readers and students, was hosted by city officials, and gave press interviews. He stayed in the majestic Grand Hotel in Sopot overlooking Baltic Sea, and Hanza Hotel by river Motlawa in Gdańsk. He visited his cousins and the family grave where his mother is buried. While in the Pod Holendrem café on Mariacka Street, considered to be one of the most beautiful with elaborately carved portals, street musicians fêted him with a song for his 85th birthday [that would be 1996 – ED]. In Sopot, he was hosted at City Hall and town officials named one of the city’s green spaces in his honor.”

There’s some good news for Zygmunt in all of this, too:  “My photographs of the New York demonstrations supporting Solidarity were acquired by the European Solidarity Center for their archives. Some are being used in the museum multimedia presentation, and one was even chosen to be reproduced in large format for the permanent exhibition. Concurrent with the the center opening in Gdańsk, Sabine Weier, a known curator based in Berlin, included some of my photos in a collection for an online exhibition titled ‘Strajk.’” We’ll include the link when we have it.

More photos below.  Thanks and congratulations, Zygmunt! (All photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski.)

3foto © Zygmunt Malinowski

The grave of Miłosz’s mother, who died in a wartime typhus epidemic, in the Sopot cemetery.

Czeslaw Milosz Square. Stone monument close up. Sopot. Aug 2014

Stone marker on Czesław Miłosz Square with his words: “For me, the most important moment is at dusk”

5foto ©Zygmunt Malinowski

Mariacka Street in Gdańsk.

Milosz family house/contemporary view, ul Generala Wybickiego 23. Aug 2014

The former Miłosz family home during WWII on 23 Wibicki Street in Sopot. The house seems recently renovated.

Geand Hotel/Sopot. Aug 2014

The Sopot hotel where Miłosz stayed during one of his visits.

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The new Czesław Miłosz Square.

Robert Hass, Tracy K. Smith win big prizes – very big

Friday, August 29th, 2014
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What to do with all the money?

It’s always fun when friends win prizes. So with great pleasure I announce what you may already know (I just found out): former poet laureate Robert Hass has just won the $100,000 Wallace Stevens prize for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” from the Academy of American Poets. We’ve written about him here and here and here, and for San Francisco Magazine here, and for Stanford Magazine here. It’s been a good year for the Hass family – Bob’s wife Brenda Hillman won the Griffin Award in Canada earlier this summer (we wrote about that here).

Bob is a MacArthur Fellow, and won a National Book Award in 2007, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, among other prizes. (Read two of his poems here.) We met over a common interest: Czesław Miłosz. Bob, who met the Polish poet at Berkeley in 1978, became his foremost translator into English, and diverted much of his own creative energies to collaborate with the elderly poet laureate. “So by accident, in the course of this, at an age when I was really too old to have a master anymore, I got to apprentice myself to this amazing body of poetry,” he told me.

When I received his manuscript for Time and Materials, I predicted it would go on to win every possible national prize, and it did. In the 2008 San Francisco Magazine piece, I ask: “Hass’s latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion. What could be more Californian?”

From my piece:

VermeerAll morality is banal. To write that war is bad, honesty is the best policy, death imminent for us all is to court cliché. It’s all true, but to make it felt? The art of poetry is making the obvious become lovely and new again, coaxing it into memorable speech. Robert Hass’s poems, especially in his long-awaited fifth collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005, can have just that effect.

“Art and Life,” for instance, an extended riff on Vermeer’s “Woman Pouring Milk,” explores art, restoration, light, paint, and rebirth—almost in one long, miraculous breath. Hass, who teaches at UC Berkeley, resists the quick quote or easy quip: the wonder of this remarkable poem is how it quietly circles round and round back into itself over three-plus pages.

What’s rarer still is the quiet moral authority that speaks through the new poems, the assuredness of a voice that can take on the horrors of war and the huckleberries of Inverness in the same measured way, without hysteria or hyperbole. Each poem resists the obvious showstopper line, instead incorporating slow effects that build momentum over the whole collection, measuring our actions and choices against a backdrop of silence and death. Hass has always attempted to link the historical moment with the intimate, but here the fusion is close to perfect. The voice that speaks through these poems is wiser, more seasoned, more certain of itself and its terrain.

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More champers, please.

 

Tracy K. Smith, who in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for “Life On Mars,” is also a winner in the same award cycle. The Academy of American Poets also announced the winners of six other awards, including Tracy K. Smith, who won the $25,000 Academy of American Poets Fellowship.  Rigoberto González, who won the $25,000 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Read about other awarded poets here.

When I interviewed her after her Pulitzer, she was bubbly and courteous.  She had celebrated the Pulitzer on her 40th birthday, with champagne.  She talked about her upbringing and her father, who had been one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Science and space infuse and inform her poetry.  From her oft-quoted “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” in which the universe is:

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Our great error (Photo: NASA/ESA)

. . . sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

Or this, from the same poem:

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Award winners will be honored at a ceremony on Oct. 17 at the New School in New York City.

Happy 103rd birthday, Czesław Miłosz!

Monday, June 30th, 2014
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“Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually.”

 

Hurricane comes to the Book Haven

Monday, June 9th, 2014
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It’s been awhile since we heard from our friend Patrick Kurp, who runs the excellent blog, Anecdotal Evidence. It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from pretty much from anyone, hunkered down over a book manuscript as we are. However, he sent me this recent photo to add to our gallery of best book cats. This one is his own feline, Hurricane, who is keeping on top of Polish literature, as you can see below. I recognize two of my own books on the shelf: An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz and Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. It’s nice to be nestled in-between two beloved poets: the Polish Nobel laureate himself, and Adam Zagajewski, via his prose,  In Defense of Ardor: Essays and his memoir, Another Beauty. Why such an ominous name for this handsome tabby?  Patrick explains that his son Michael, then about four, named him in December 2005, when the furball showed up at the door just a few months after Katrina and Rita. Welcome to our pages, Hurricane! (Photo: Sylvia Wood)

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Postscript: Patrick posted about his “Pole Cat” today here. He pointed out that Zbigniew Herbert (who shares the bookshelf) would have approved. Don’t we know it. We visited the poet’s cat a few years back in Warsaw. That’s Herbert’s big cat Szu-szu at right, and Mouszka at left, a later addition to the family by Madame Herbert. Stroking Herbert’s cat made a wonderful frisson of connection with the poet through time.

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Book Haven at the opening of new Monte Cassino museum

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014
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Many visitors who see the Polish War Cemetery in Monte Cassino don’t know why over a thousand Polish soldiers are buried there, how they came to be at this place about 80 miles southeast of Rome, and what they fought for when they were there. Indeed, one of the most important battles of one of the fiercest campaigns of World War II is often overlooked by tourists and pilgrims, who often pass en route to the nearby 6th century Benedictine monastery. As the years go by, the memory of the Monte Cassino battle fades away, even among the people who live nearby.

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Monte Cassino after the battle

So what does that have to do with the photo above? You may recall the photo above from my post about my visit to Kultura, in Maisons-Laffitte outside Paris. Kultura was in many ways the cultural center of Poland during the Cold War years – it ran a publishing house, a literary journal, and even provided shelter to émigré writers and artists, including Polish poet and diplomat Czesław Miłosz after his defection (read about that here).

And now many more people will be seeing the photo in Italy. Six weeks ago I received an email from Piotr Markowicz at the Polish Embassy in Rome: “Since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, Polish veterans’ associations and the Embassy of Poland in Rome are preparing a permanent exhibition in newly built museum memorial situated within the premises of the Polish War Cemetery at Monte Cassino, Italy. The exhibition will be permanent and free of charge for public.” He asked if the Kultura photo could be included in the exhibition for this week’s opening of the museum memorial. We’re honored, of course.

The beautiful new building (you can see it in the video below) was designed by Pietro Rogacień – the son of a Polish soldier of the 2nd Polish Corps who fought at Monte Cassino. The rotunda-shaped building is made in local stone and situated next to the entrance of the cemetery. Such a location fits well with the surroundings and the architecture of the cemetery. It will host a permanent exhibition illustrating the history of the 2nd Polish Corps: the deportation of thousands of Poles to Siberia, the formation of General Władysław Anders’ army and its odyssey through the Middle East to Italy.  And my photo.

Salman Rushdie, Timothy Garton Ash chat at P.E.N. festival in NYC

Monday, May 5th, 2014
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He’s still here, 25 years after the fatwa. Rushdie and Garton Ash chat. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

“If we all had a right not to be offended by anything that offended us, no one could say anything,” said Salman Rushdie at the P.E.N. World Voices Festival in New York City, in an onstage conversation with Timothy Garton Ash.  The man who has lived under a fatwa since Valentine’s Day, 1989 hasn’t given an inch: “I would not allow one of my books to be published with passages missing,” he said.

placard-1Zygmunt Malinowski recorded the event yesterday afternoon with scribbled notes and photos – alas, that appears to be the only recording of the event. However, Garton Ash’s “Basic Principles of Free Speech” are here. The Guardian columnist discussed how our idea of privacy has changed because of the internet and “that’s the side effect that we created ourselves.” Rushdie was amused at the modern “obsession with selfies.”

For its 10th anniversary, the P.E.N. Festival celebrates those who have dared to stand “on the edge,” risking their careers, and sometimes their lives, to speak out for their art and beliefs – the website is here.

Since we couldn’t attend in person, we’ll settle for Zygmunt’s account: “As I approached the stately Public Theatre downtown on Lafayette Street, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large colorful billboard advertising P.E.N. World Voices Festival. The photo on the placard, taken by the innovative photographer Sylvia Plachy, who lives near my neighborhood, is unusual. It depicts a mountain climber’s feet dangling over a precipice. It reminded me when, a few years ago, I was in an open-door vintage helicopter with my feet over the floor edge, photographing Colca Canyon in Peru, considered deepest canyon in the world. ‘On the Edge’ was the subtitle of the placard and it seemed such an appropriate image for this afternoon’s event. Weren’t writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz or Joseph Brodsky pushing the boundaries of literature, courageously ‘offering a vantage point from which to develop a deeper understanding of the intellectual landscape around the world’?”

The end of a world: Poet Tadeusz Różewicz died today at 92

Thursday, April 24th, 2014
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RóżewiczTadeusz Różewicz died today at 92 years old. It hasn’t made the Western press yet. He was one of Poland’s greatest poets, of the generation after Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert.  Miłosz described him as “the most talented among those who began to publish immediately after 1945.”

“By contrasting the scenes of war that he had witnessed with the entire heritage of European culture, he arrived at a negation of literature because it seemed to be no more than a lie covering up the horror of man’s brutality to his fellow man,” Miłosz wrote. Różewicz served in the Poland’s Home Army, loyal to the government-in-exile in London. His older brother Janusz, also a poet, was shot by the Gestapo. I learned this today. Back in 2008, much less was known about this poet.

I tried to arrange a meeting with him during my first trip to Poland that year, but his home was in a remote rural area nearest to Wrocław, and I was far away in Kraków. The attempted meeting was arranged through Maria Debicz. As I recall, he didn’t speak English well, or perhaps at all … that added an extra layer of difficulty to any potential tête-à-tête. I seem to remember that an illness put the meeting out of the picture altogether. Of course I regret now what wasn’t possible then.  It will have to be another time. Au revoir, though there wasn’t a “voir” in the first place.

I posted a few Polish articles on my Facebook page, then scoured to find the small, award-winning Archipelago Books volume of his poems, translated by Bill Johnston. I failed, but I found on a dusty shelf on top of a wardrobe, Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski, who encouraged the meeting. His nervous, sometimes comically irritable essay is called “Preparation for a Poetry Reading.” It’s a reading the maestro didn’t want to give. One paragraph:

polish_comp_selected_10_5_10Poetry has to consummate a given place and time. If it does, it is perfect. How easy it was to create poetry and describe poetry, while it existed. Poets still use this kind of phrase: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ As if they didn’t understand that there is no ‘poetry.’ They are like children. Worse: They are merely childish. Poetry! If they’re not comparing a fist to an eye, they don’t feel like poets. What empty gibberish: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ What confidence in oneself and in ‘poetry.’ What if ‘poetry’ died in you a long time ago and you feel happy? Is poetry in you as a kind of foreign body? Poetry? The happy knew where poetry began and ended. Critics could pinpoint the place in a poem where there was poetry. They feel unhappy if they’re not describing poetry. Until you feel unhappy, ‘poetry’ won’t be born in you! That’s better. But there are even poorer poets. They say: ‘Poetry is like a bell’ or ‘Poetry is a moonlit night.’ They make comparisons. They clutch comparisons as a drowning clutches driftwood. They already know what poetry is. So they can create poetry, have poetry in them. They can feel happy. But there is no poetry. They sense this, but they don’t want to touch on the truth. They’re afraid. The old and the young.”

Then a friend, Erdağ Göknar, posted this poem on Facebook, “on the way consciousness gropes to order the world after catastrophe.” Can’t do better than this, at least not today. The fifth stanza alone is worth the price of admission:

In the Middle of Life

new-poems-coverAfter the end of the world
after my death
I found myself in the middle of life
I created myself
constructed life
people animals landscapes

this is a table I was saying
this is a table
on the table are lying bread a knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread

one should love man
I was learning by night and day
what one should love
I answered man

this is a window I was saying
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree blossoms
the blossoms fall off
the fruits take form
they ripen my father is picking up an apple
that man who is picking up an apple
is my father
I was sitting on the threshold of the house

that old woman who
is pulling a goat on a rope
is more necessary
and more precious
than the seven wonders of the world
whoever thinks and feels
that she is not necessary
he is guilty of genocide

this is a man
this is a tree this is bread

people nourish themselves in order to live
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly

this water I was saying
I was stroking the waves with my hand
and conversing with the river
water I said
good water
this is I

the man talked to the water
talked to the moon
to the flowers to the rain
he talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
if he heard a voice
which flowed
from the earth from the water from the sky
it was the voice of another man

.                                 –  translated by Czesław Miłosz

Sławomir Sierakowski: “You cannot change anything with irony.”

Saturday, February 1st, 2014
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Photo: Jarek Kruk

Searching for the missing “other.” (Photo: Jarek Kruk)

Cutting-edge Polish intellectual Sławomir Sierakowski breezed through town last week. I’d been alerted to the visit by Shana Penn of the Taube Foundation. In a busy schedule, I made the time, and I’m glad I did.  The 34-year-old wunderkind is founding director of a publishing house and magazine, Krytyka Polityczna, the focus of a left-wing movement, and of a think tank, Warsaw’s Institute for Advanced Study. The author is also a Harvard fellow this year. His project at hand (and the reason for Shana’s note): he is writing a book about the political, social, religious outlook of Czesław Miłosz.

Because of an earlier appointment, I arrived after his noon talk, “Time for Neo-Dissidents,” was well under way. Against my better judgment (knowing they’d be piecemeal and wouldn’t nearly capture his quick, wide-ranging intelligence), I began scribbling notes.  

He urged us to reconsider whether democracy equals party politics. Political parties?  ”It’s a social construct,” he said, an outgrowth of the late 19th century, and somewhat irrelevant in his native land, since “there’s no social consensus about anything in Poland.” I, for one, would celebrate a dissolution of political party power in the U.S., which has increasingly turned to brainless slogans and character assassination to pull down the worthy and the worthless on all points of the political spectrum. I’d like to see an outbreak of goodness instead.

Sławomir said that to get anything done in Poland, one must bypass political parties and “negotiate between a coalition of NGOs and certain ministries and departments. You cannot do too much with parties; it’s not the decisive access. … if you want to change something in politics, don’t go to Parliament.” The task facing the nation of 40 million is “how to create trust, how to create social glue.” We discussed that and Miłosz at a small lunch afterwards.

His most passionate comments were reserved that evening for “Beyond the Dialogue: Jews, Poles, and What is Left?” and a screening of Yael Bartana‘s film, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), in which he is the sole actor.

The 11-minute film is done in Leni Riefenstahl mode, the style of the propaganda movies that are a familiar staple to Eastern Europeans over the age of thirty, but it has a different message.  ”Propaganda movies are always about community, togetherness,” he said, and so is this one.  But he’s speaking instead about the millions of missing Jews in Poland, the “other” that gave depth, meaning, and (that buzzword of the age) diversity to the social tapestry in Poland.

“It’s easy to be ironic,” he said. “But you cannot change anything with irony…All of us are liberal ironists.” He opted for pathos instead, and “saying something bluntly.”

“Any dissent today is easily corrupted by mass culture – it becomes another commodity on offer.” Hence the easy option of irony. “To say something serious today is to be for something,” he insisted.

Humble Moi … in Polish!

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
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polishbook3

Three books on my Warsaw tablecloth.

So look what arrived in the post today! Three thick books of Czesław Miłosz: Rozmowy zagraniczne, 1979-2003.  I’ll bet it means nothing to you.

miloszTurn to p. 435. That’s right. That’s me.  “Świętość istnienia.” My Q&A with Czesław Miłosz, “A Sacred Vision,” which ran in the Georgia Review in 2003, is finally in Polish.  Wydawnictwo Literackie in Kraków, the co-publisher of the Nobel poet’s work in Poland, has just released another volume within its Collected Works of Miłosz series. This time it’s a volume of interviews published outside Poland – that may sound like a narrow niche, but recall that  Miłosz wasn’t getting a lot of press in Poland between 1951, when he defected, and the 1980s.  For that matter, he didn’t get many interviews in the West before the Nobel in 1980. Clearly, he made up for lost time: the full edition of Miłosz’s conversations that Wydawnictwo Literackie is planning will run to several volumes. The endeavor is a prestigious one, my contact at Wydawnictwo Literackie said, but at the same time a non-profit effort. Go to the publisher’s website here; the list is pretty impressive.

I was pleased that the volume picked up thirteen interviews from my own Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. Some of those, such as James Marcus‘s excellent interview for Amazon, might have disappeared in the whirlpool of time without republication – it’s no longer online, and hasn’t been, to my knowledge, for years. I’m not sure Carl Proffer‘s 1983 interview, from the pre-internet days, is that easy to find, either. The Polish publisher expressed gratitude for my humble book, which helped them greatly in culling for the best interviews.  Delighted to have been of service.

“Świętość istnienia” is the very last interview in the volume.  The first shall be last, or the last shall be first…something like that. I was the last person to interview Miłosz on Grizzly Peak before he returned to Poland in 2000.  Maybe it’s simply that the last will be last. In any case, you can still get my volume, in the English tongue, here.