Posts Tagged ‘Czeslaw Milosz’

Wigilia, or, how to have a Polish Christmas

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
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Bells and beads and little Polish flags. Photo and centerpiece courtesy Caria Tomczykowska.

I tried doing Wigilia on my own a few years back – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are a dozen courses in the traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal, which is largely vegetarian (they don’t count fish, apparently; as a vegetarian, I do). I thought it was time I went to the experts, so I accepted a Wigilia invitation from Caria Tomczykowska of the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation last weekend in Walnut Creek.  With about fifty happy Poles, or Polish wannabes, we had course after course, including creamed herring, cheese pierogi and sauerkraut and potato pierogi, barszcz with uszka, a dried fruit compote, and a poppyseed roll. That’s all I can remember – except for more fish.  Oh yes, and a California Chardonnay … Stag’s Leap, I think … and vodka.

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We’ll have to practice, Maureen.

That was just the beginning … or rather, the beginning was earlier before we even sat down. A traditional Wigilia begins with the youngest child in the household being sent outside to spot the first star. Then it begins – with opłatki. We skipped the kid (the star came out anyway, on its own) and moved directly to the opłatki. According to Sarah Zielinski on NPR, writing about opłatki here:

Nothing says “I love you,” at least in my Polish-American family, quite like the sharing of a thin, flat, tasteless wafer called an opłatek at Christmas.

We’re not alone. Before sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner, many families with roots in Poland and other Eastern European countries will take part in this tradition, which has roots dating back hundreds of years.

“For us, Polish Americans, the opłatek, that wafer, is Christmas Eve,” says Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of the book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore

At the start of dinner, just after grace, the male head of the household takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the new year. He might wish her good health, or ask for forgiveness for some fault.

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He loved them, too.

“My father used to say, ‘OK, I’m not the best, but I’ll try harder,’ ” Knab says. “My mother would always say, ‘You work so hard and I appreciate you for that.’ “

The wife breaks off a piece of the opłatek and eats it. She then reciprocates the good wishes and shares the wafer with her husband. And the ceremonial sharing of wafer and good wishes continues with older relatives, guests and children, starting with the oldest.

“The sharing of this unleavened bread with another person is sharing all that is good with life,” says Knab. “It’s a time to tell each other, ‘I love you, I care about you.’ And you do it in an open area, where everyone else can see you.”

legs3According to one of my dinner companions, the charming Maureen Mroczek Morris, Americans don’t know how to do it right. We just break off a piece, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas!” Like we’re in a forced gift exchange at the office. We don’t get all warm and squishy, or even very sincere. In Poland, she says, it’s a very moving experience. Well, I had no one to ask forgiveness of, since I was surrounded by strangers. Perhaps I should have asked Maureen to forgive me, for being so Americanski. (She is Californian born and reared, so she’d understand.)

pierogi2And of course there were Christmas carols – and Polish Christmas carols really are lovely. Czesław Miłosz fostered my enthusiasm, ending his book A Year of the Hunter with a story about attending the Pastorałka: “Without a doubt, Polish carols possess a particular charm, freshness, sincerity, good humor, that simply cannot be found in such proportions in any other Christmas songs, and perhaps one ought to look at them for the essence of Polish poetry,” he wrote. “My susceptibility to that performance can be explained by my having listened to carols from childhood, but also because only the theater has such an impact, appealing to what is most our own, most deeply rooted in the rhythms of our language.” More on that here. Or watch the short clip below of a “Bóg sie rodzi,” a mazurka, which is to say a Polish folk dance in triple meter.

And there was a little poetry, too. I was asked to read Miłosz’s “Winter” – I had to read it from Caria’s smartphone, but I brought the inspiration with me. After all, I was wearing my amazing Miłosz legs. I wrote about them here.

To each and everyone, “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia!”

Poland’s Adam Michnik: “I think Putin is going to break his neck with his reckless policy.”

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014
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A simple impulse of compassion

Adam Michnik is a legend in the history of Solidarity movement in Poland, and though we had  corresponded a few years back, we’d never actually met (we had a close call in Kraków, here).

Hence, I made the hectic rush-hour trek to Berkeley to hear him speak at the cozy, wood-paneled Morrison Reading Room of the university’s Doe Library last week. The venue has warm associations for me – it was the site of the last public appearance of Czesław Miłosz in America in 2000, and the place where I met the Nobel poet before our first interview a few days later. It was a fitting association for Michnik, too: he told me later that Miłosz is his “guru,” as well as the man he considered the greatest Polish poet of the 20th century.

I arrived at a few minutes late for the gathering (parking at Berkeley is worse than Stanford, which takes some doing nowadays), but I caught most of historian John Connelly‘s opening remarks, which were excellent – more on that later.

Freedom in 1989 was the miracle that no one expected to happen so soon, said Michnik, speaking through a translator. It was also the year when “the fridge broke and everything began to stink. Bad spirits and good spirits were released,” he said, recalling the challenges with lustration and various ethnic and social disputes.

He didn’t stick to script, which was officially titled “25 Years of Democracy in Poland: Accomplishments and New Challenges.” No wonder, given events in Eastern and Central Europe right now. He called Putin “a gangster” who led “a bandits’ regime.”

“Russian propaganda today resembles the Moscow propaganda of 1937,” he said. It was “very effective – effective because it divided opinion in Europe.” He recounted the complicated and long history of moving borders, which left open a situation where any boundary can be challenged as inauthentic and provisional, and used to legitimize land grabs. “There are no ‘just’ borders in Central and Eastern Europe,” he said. “The easiest way to destabilize is to encourage disputes among ethnic or social groups.”

He said his Russian friends are pessimistic about the future. However, “I am an optimist. I think Putin is going to break his neck with his reckless policy, and the people around him may be the ones to break his neck. I won’t cry over him.”

Connelly-Publicity

“Democracy needs ordinary heroes.”

Now, the introduction: Connelly described Michnik in the days before Solidarity, the Polish trade union that became a national non-violent movement to oust Communism. It’s a history worth recounting, because American politics has become so parochial and blinkered that most folks don’t seem to know much of any history before George W. Bush, or the backstory of any place even farther away than  Texas or Iowa.

Connelly explained that, as a young student at Warsaw University,  Michnik was suspended from his studies several times, once for organizing a historic meeting and talk by Leszek Kołakowski in 1966. Michnik was also a major figure in the 1968 events in Poland in which students demonstrated for greater freedom and were suppressed. In 1969, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “hooligan-like” behavior.  In 1976, he helped found KOR , the Committee to Protect Workers, “one of the most important civil society organizations ever founded, in Eastern Europe or elsewhere,” said Connelly. Michnik was, of course, a major figure in Solidarity, in its legal and underground incarnations.

In 1989, he founded what has become Poland’s most important daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza – he’s still the editor-in-chief of Poland’s version of the New York Times. “Michnik is not only a historian, but a leading public intellectual , author of many books of political commentary, and some of the most influential essays ever written, for example ‘A New Evolutionism,” said Connelly.

“What I have just given you is a skeleton biography,” he said. Then he offered a few vignettes “to give you a sense of Adam Michnik body and soul, flesh and blood.”

The first was poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak, a member of KOR, who recalled one scene “with particular vividness,” said Connelly. “I always read this anecdote to students who think that change is impossible and that one person can make no difference.” Here goes:

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

“We stood—Adam and a group of friends—in a corridor of a Warsaw court where the participants of the June strikes in the city of Ursus were being tried. No one was admitted into the courtroom except close relatives of defendants, mostly the workers’ wives. We did not know what was going on inside the courtroom but after an hour or so we heard a sudden outburst of women’s crying piercing the walls. And a while later those weeping, wailing cursing women left the courtroom and made their way through the crowd—each of them stupefied by the fact that as a result of this sham of a trial she would not see her husband for the next two, three, five years and that nothing, nothing could be done about it. I stood next to Adam at that moment. His eyes were dry but I knew him well enough to know that he had just hit upon one of those ideas of his—ideas that at first seemed foolish even to his friends but then somehow always turned out to be right. The same afternoon he started collecting signatures for another letter of protest. KOR, the Workers Defense Committee, was formally founded a few months later, but for me that July afternoon will always remain the actualy beginning of KOR and everything that happened in Poland afterward. It began not with anyone’s political program or ideological statement. It began with a simple impulse of compassion.”

In the second passage, Connelly recalled that Miłosz likened Michnik’s “unbending commitment to non-violence” to Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, in a 1985 essay otherwise permeated with the “gloom of the late cold war of the cynicism and despair.” And so Miłosz wondered:

“What is the efficacy of nonviolence elevated to the level of principle, and applied to the conditions of our contemporary life?…Purely peaceful movements – the Prague Spring of 1968 and Solidarity of 1980-81—have been smashed…What is then the use of nonviolence and what would Mahatma Gandhi have to say on that topic if he were still alive?

“It seems to me that habitual notions of links between causes and effects enclose us in simplistic, mechanistic, and desperate dilemmas. The history of the century provides us with a number of proofs to vindicate the role of actions that appear insignificant and likely to fail, yet are potentially fecund.”

Connelly concluded with a few reflections from Berkeley colleague Ken Jowitt: “Without heroism, public virtues cannot be sustained; they gradually deteriorate into egotistical calculi of social, economic, and political self-interests. … And yet … the charismatic hero abhors, is incapable of, democratically appreciating the deficiencies of average people.”

The lavish Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley

The cozy Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley

Said Connelly: “Michnik responds to this dilemma in a Weberian spirit. All historical experience, says [Max] Weber, “confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.’”

“In short, democracy needs ‘ordinary heroes.’ Adam Michnik is an ordinary hero, a genuine man whose contributions to the culture of democratic individualism and toleration in Poland and the world are fallible and invaluable.”

Michnik seemed to be overwhelmed by the kudos, remarking that they were the kind of remarks usually heard only at funerals. “When you know me better, I lose a lot,” he told the audience.

After the talk, an equally intimate venue – dinner in a private room in Berkeley’s Cafe Liaison. Though the menu was French, the jovial mood was pure Polonia. Wonderful food, great conversation (mostly in Polish), and plenty of French wine – the label was “Ventoux,” which has all those Petrarch associations. Then I headed off into the night to find my car, somewhere in a dark hillside parking lot in Berkeley…

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My amazing Miłosz legs

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
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legs3Can poetry matter? At a time when poetry is put on subway signs and the backs of buses, in a desperate attempt to show its relevancy to our times, I decided to vote with my feet. Or rather with my legs.

Okay, okay … I know it was a bit naff. But when I saw poet Molly Fisk‘s Facebook post about a woman in Israel who makes Emily Dickinson tights, I knew I had to have a pair. But given a choice among poems to choose … with myself as a sort of billboard… what could I do?

The international package arrived a few days ago from “Coline” in Netanya – elegantly wrapped and tied with a red ribbon. Black letters on dark gray tights, in a photo taken by my artiste daughter, Zoë Patrick. (Here’s the link for Coline’s magic tights – here.)

What did I choose? Who else but Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz! It’s poet Jane Hirshfields favorite poem, and soon became one of mine – she reads and discusses the poem in the video below. Not the usual thing to have on one’s legs, admittedly but it’s a great poem for the middle-to-the-end of life, and a great poem as we roll into a California winter. So here’s what’s written on my legs (translation by Robert Hass):

Winter

The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

"An omnium-gatherum of chaos..."

“An omnium-gatherum of chaos…”

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.

You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.

And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.

You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.

Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.

Nobelist Wisława Szymborska on “work as one continuous adventure”

Friday, October 24th, 2014
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May in Kraków – must they be compared?

When I saw her Kraków, with poet Julia Hartwig (at right) – in May 2011

An embarrassingly long time ago, someone from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute’s online magazine, Culture.pl, wrote to bring my attention to a recent post about Wisława Szymborska and her “9 Secret Sides” – I’ve written about the poet here and here, but not much since. I liked this story about getting the Nobel Prize, though I’m not sure how “secret” it is. In Kraków, I spoke to the friend, Michał Rusinek, who “cut the cord,” literally, after the announcement was made, severing her endlessly ringing telephone line with a pair of scissors. Anyway, from the website:

“Szymborska was notoriously private and rarely gave interviews. It is thus not surprising that she met the sudden global recognition thrust upon her with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 with great hesitancy, calling it the ‘Stockholm Tragedy.’  Szymborska was at a writers’ retreat in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane when the prize was announced and initially refused to take calls with the news, preferring to instead finish her lunch privately.  It was only after a number of calls – including one from her friend and colleague Czesław Miłosz – that she agreed to speak to the press.  By the end of that day, however, she’d had enough and retreated to place even more remote, where she hoped she would not be found by reporters.

“Though the majority of media coverage of the prize feature quotations from her colleagues, rather than from Szymborska herself, she was, of course, center stage at the awarding of the prize.  She admitted to Miłosz that ‘the most difficult thing will be to write a speech.  I will be writing it for a month.  I don’t know what I will be talking about, but I will talk about you.’  In the end she delivered one of the shortest Nobel Lectures to date, the beautiful The Poet and the World.

Szymborska

With “love and imagination”

She didn’t mention him in the speech, actually, but it’s a good Nobel talk nevertheless (translated by the incomparable Stanisław Barańczak over here). I picked this passage out, in particular, on today’s rereading:

“I’ve mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

“When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’

scissors“There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t got even that much, however loveless and boring – this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.”

I may not be a Nobel poet – but let’s raise a glass in thanks from those of us (Humble Moi included) who get to do our jobs with love and imagination. It’s always a privilege. I never forget it. Now let me get back to my work…

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.”

romas

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.

7a_foto_©Zygmunt_Malinowski

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.