Posts Tagged ‘Jane Hirshfield’

Jane Hirshfield: two new books and the mysterious nature of fado

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015
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Jane in Marin (Photo: Adam Phillips)

Jane in Marin, writing. (Photo: Adam Phillips)

“At a certain stage, I realized a life is written in indelible ink.” Jane Hirshfield made an appearance at Kepler’s Books on Tuesday evening – and I know just what she means.

“Certain doors close,” she said. “It’s too late to be a bronco rider” – not that she ever wanted to be, she quickly added.

I’ve tried explaining this realization to friends. It’s not that there won’t be big surprises, new beginnings, unexpected turns, but I know I’ll never be a neurosurgeon – not that I wanted to be. Or an astronaut. When one enters the harvest period of life, one will reap not only as but where one has sown – a lifetime of planting fields of wheat won’t yield cabbages and thyme. A life with a pen … or a computer screen … means one won’t be a ballerina. This is hard to explain to the young ‘uns, for whom life and hope and joy is a world of almost endless possibilities – they may have ten children, or none. And everyone of them can still be a president. Yet I think today’s youth suffers greatly from unlimited possibility, and the uncertainty and burdens it brings – especially in modern Western culture, where we task our children with the creation of a whole life by the time they’re twenty or so.

There is a profound peace in doing the chosen thing well, and continuing to pick the fruit from efforts long made. It’s akin to the ideas percolating in a poet’s head and verse – “It changes, but only more into the person.” We become more and more ourselves. I’m happy to know my Zen friend Jane is a fellow traveler to the same psychological city. As she writes in the last line of one of her poems: “There was no other life.”

That realization permeates her new collection, The Beauty (Knopf), in such poems as “Perspective: An Assay,” “My Life was the Size of My Life,” “In My Wallet I Carry a Card,” “My Sandwich,” as well as “A Cottony Fate,” quoted above. (The Beauty was named a “best book of the year” by Amazon.)

“Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly,” she writes in the preface of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf), a book of essays published at the same time as The Beauty (it was named by Publishers Weekly a “pick of the week”): “It is also a changing. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, and thinks in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us – more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstunted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.”

beautyDuring a conversation at Kepler’s with poet Ellen Bass, she said finds poetry easier than prose – she has had eighteen years between volumes of essays; not so with writing poems, although “it’s not like I’m knocking them out like pancakes,” she said. While she considers herself a private person, and not at all a confessional or autobiographical writer, she said her poems are “completely nude portraits – but at the level of an X-ray.”

“Poems are not about expression. Poems are about making a discovery – not about what you really know and feel,” but rather weaving a basket that will carry “unknowable things.”

“Life is an unsolvable mathematical problem – and a lot of the wonderful and technological way of looking at things,” she said, trains us for a life in which there is “a single, correct answer.” If you’re working on the rings for a Challenger spacecraft, for example, “there is one correct answer and you better get it right.” But will it tell you why you want to travel to Mars in the first place? Can we get to the root of human aspiration and sorrow? Why can’t we have both?

“Why can’t we find the astonishment? Why can’t we find the precision?” she asked. She spoke of the opening poem of her new collection, Fado” – which is a Portuguese song of longing and loss and the sea and (she learned later) the word also means “fate.” She described the perplexing process of its creation, “I have no idea where the fado singer comes from. Why is the woman in a wheelchair? She was completely unlimited by her situation.” As for the quarter and dove the or trickster finds on the girl, “Even if you know it’s a trick, it’s still a dove. It flies off. You can buy something with the quarter.”

Precision and uncertainty, uncertainty and solace: “There’s a way to feel alright with that, and not be undone by that.” At “Fado”‘s end, “what trembles in the pan has something of the uncertain. That’s what a poem does.”

.

Fado

tenwindowsA man reaches close
and lifts a quarter
from inside a girl’s ear,
from her hands takes a dove
she didn’t know was there.
Which amazes more,
you may wonder:
the quarter’s serrated murmur
against the thumb
or the dove’s knuckled silence?
That he found them,
or that she never had,
or that in Portugal,
this same half-stopped moment,
it’s almost dawn,
and a woman in a wheelchair
is singing a fado
that puts every life in the room
on one pan of a scale,
itself on the other,
and the copper bowls balance.

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.

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. …

 

Read the rest here. Or listen to Jane below:

Seth Abramson dons “Kick me!” sign; makes list of top 200 advocates for poetry.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
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Jane-Hirshfield

Jane made the cut.

Seth Abramson is an intrepid man in a country that publishes 20,000 books of poetry each decade, among 75,000 poets (who counts them, and how?) Here’s why: he has issued a list of “The Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013)” in the Huffington Post – it’s here, as well as on dartboards across the U.S.  We all love lists, of course, and everyone has an opinion on how they should be done – this one, particularly.  Two hundred is long enough to give the impression that everyone ought to be included, but short enough that not everyone can be. So Abramson’s gesture is akin to wearing a “Kick me!” sign on your back. He begins by almost apologizing: “The poets favored by one reader will invariably not be the poets favored by another; in fact, it’s getting harder and harder to find two readers whose reading interests or even reading lists exhibit much overlap at all. Too many such lists, such as the widely- and justly-panned one recently published by Flavorwire, exhibit obvious age, race, ethnicity, and (particularly) geographic biases.”  We would like to fault him, first of all, for hyphening an adverb that ends in “ly,” which is never done – moreover, it’s dangerous to begin a list by dissing someone else’s. In that way, you’ve made your first enemy already.

Wilbur2

Lifetime achievement, for sure.

He continues for some paragraphs in the same vein: “As a contemporary poetry reviewer who publishes his review-essays in The Huffington Post, I have no special access to knowledge of who is or isn’t doing the most to be an advocate for American poetry (a term I define very broadly) on a national or global scale. While I’m lucky to have access to many more published poetry collections than most poets or poetry readers do, as like any reviewer I regularly receive poetry collections in the mail from U.S. and international publishers, because the list below isn’t intended to detail who’s presently writing the best poetry, but is rather simply a list of who’s doing the best to advocate for American poetry by any and all means (including by writing it, but by no means limited to the authorial function), I’m not in a much better position than others are to generate a list of the most influential poetry advocates in America and beyond.”

Well, sure, I guess.  That said, we were pleased to see a number of friends and colleagues on the list – Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield,  W.S. Merwin, Don Share, Ron Silliman, Helen Vendler, Heather McHugh, Allison Joseph, Eavan Boland, Mark McGurl – and nonagenarian Richard Wilbur, a lifetime achievement award, for sure.

hirsch

Where’s Ed?

Abramson qualifies that “the list below is neither exhaustive nor authoritative nor superlative. I have no doubt that I’ve missed a number of important names, due either to forgetfulness or an unconscious bias or simply (and most likely) sheer ignorance of who’s doing what across the vast landscape of American literature. … Those poets and allies of poetry offering contributions to American poetry commensurate with the contributions of the individuals listed below should therefore consider themselves honorary members of the ‘Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry” list as well.’

RSGWYNNThen he issued this invitation: “I strongly encourage readers of this list to contribute their own names to the comment section below the article.”  Needless to say, there were a number of people ready to take him up on the offer, including other friends’ names.  What?  No Edward Hirsch?  What?  No Robert Hass?  And no mention of Dana Gioia, whose work at the NEA was tireless?

Naturally, Humble Moi didn’t make the list – but to my surprise, I did make it in the first few comments in the section afterward, for which I’m grateful to R.S. Gwynn, another friend, who did make the list:

“I’m happy to be listed here (even though I’d like to be known as ‘poet and critic’) but I miss the presence of such names as Alfred Corn, the late Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Cynthia Haven, X. J. Kennedy, and David Mason, all of whom are (or were in Tom’s case) great advocates.

As a small plug, I’d like to mention that I edited a book of the works of modernist poet-critics some years ago. Its title?  The Advocates of Poetry.

Just for that, here’s a picture of Sam Gwynn’s book, which discusses John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Ciardi, and Robert Penn Warren – great advocates of poetry all.

 

Jane Hirshfield, “the youngest and last of Czesław’s American poet-friends”

Sunday, October 14th, 2012
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Some time ago, the Book Haven wrote about California poet Jane Hirshfield‘s appearance at Kepler’s (we’ve also written about her here).  Jane and I came together over Czesław Miłosz a dozen years ago, when I interviewed her about her friendship with the Nobel poet for California Magazine. Two books and many articles later, after I have crossed the world tracing Miłosz’s journeys and speaking about him during Rok Miłosza, it was pleasing to find Jane’s elegant post about him on the Library of America blog “Reader’s Almanac” this week, as she remembers “Czesław Miłosz, (California) Poet.” (We’re also grateful to Jane and LOA for the mention of An Invisible Rope, in which Jane was one my contributors, and also for the hat tip to the Book Haven.)

Here’s an excerpt from Jane’s piece:

In late 2002, at ninety-one and returned to Poland from his long self-exile (ten years in Paris, then forty as professor and poet in Berkeley), Miłosz wrote this small poem in his notebook:

I pray to my bedside god.
For He must have billions of ears.
And one ear He keeps always open to me.
(tr: Anthony Miłosz)

Reading this in English eight years after the poet’s death, I was struck by its curious “bedside.” A translator’s note explains: the original adjective means “near-at-hand,” “handy.” The Polish words for a first aid kit, a home-library reference book, and hand luggage all use some form of podręczny. This would, then, be not the distant and fearsome God of Judgment, but the rescuing one who knows every sparrow that falls, and the poem points toward a fully-felt fulcrum of balance: its god is local and large, intimate and immense, able to carry in a small, household form something vast, life-saving, and essential. Even the typography holds dual vision: the “g” of “god,” is lower-case; the pronoun is “He.”

All those years ago, when I first spoke to her on the phone, she told me how she had initially befriended the Polish poet.  At a large outdoor gathering, the hostess approached Jane and suggested she introduce herself to Czesław Miłosz and his wife Carol.  Everyone was intimidated by him, and so these gatherings could often be lonely affairs. Jane described it in An Invisible Rope:  “I was, I believe, the youngest and the last of Czesław’s American poet-friends.  I met him only after he had already turned seventy-five, when we were both invited to a group picnic on Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  Not long after, he invited me to dinner after translating one of my poems into Polish.  He showed me how largely it is possible for a person to live, even in old age, rapacious for knowledge, experience, and –though it is not a term he would use – the understanding of wisdom. His investigation of good and evil was not conceptual but personal and pressing.”

And so her journey began – just as it began for me a dozen years ago, when I inadvertently became the last person in the U.S. to interview Miłosz (without warning, he returned to Kraków forever a few months after my California Magazine profile).  Jane does her best to describe the impression, and does it much more eloquently than I can in this midnight blog post:

“Perhaps I am trying to sketch here a premise too complicated for such a brief form as this virtual Library bookshelf. But Miłosz, a poet of almost incalculable range, continually reminds us also that poems, and poets, live in the small, in the local and comic recognition, in the living and perishing real. We do not, cannot, live in general; even exile takes place in a place, a deck overlooking a Bay, on which a poet with extravagant eyebrows turns the pages of a New Yorker for its cartoons. We breathe the air that is near to us, scented with redwoods and lemons, or with the exhaust of refineries, power plants, airplanes, wars. If a poet in exile continues writing, he or she will be sustained by that air and that place, and will become of it.”

Then she cites the poem that I know is her favorite … or at least one of her favorites (can there ever really be a favorite?)  She also reads and discusses the same poem, “Winter,” in the video below:

Leonard Nathan: At the end, still himself, says poet Jane Hirshfield

Monday, September 12th, 2011
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"Finely woven intelligence"

I “met” the poet and translator Leonard Nathan in 2000 – actually, it was a telephone interview, hence the quotes.  I never had the privilege of meeting face-to-face with one of Czesław Miłosz‘s earliest translators, and the man who translated Anna Swir into English by the Nobel laureate’s side.

After our short interview, we kept in email touch over the years.  I told him about my plans to compile the essays for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and he contributed his previously unpublished memoir.

Some time afterward, I got a phone call from him out of the blue.  He saw my name on a his phone list, and wondered if I was a photographer – or who, actually, I was.  He was his usual chipper and polished self, but I had already lost a mother to the early onset variety of Alzheimer’s in 1988, and the odd and cheerful phone call struck a familiar chord.

During her reading of her latest collection of poems, Come, Thief, at Kepler’s tonight, my friend Jane Hirshfield described how Leonard Nathan had been very open about his disease, calling Jane before she had even noticed anything amiss to warn her he would be having good days and bad days.

Jane told the story of visiting him in a nursing home when he was in a more advanced stage of the disease.  When she asked what to expect, she was given a “dire, dire” description of his condition.

She was instead amazed at “how much he was still the eloquent, educated, finely woven intelligence he had always been.” Even as his mind deteriorated, he would be endlessly discussing Beaumarchais, or any of his other literary preoccupations.

So she wrote this poem for him, “Alzheimer’s”:

A good day for Jane

When a fine old carpet
is eaten by mice,
the colors and patterns
of what’s left behind
do not change.
As bedrock, tilted,
stays bedrock,
its purple and red striations unbroken.
Unstrippable birthright grandeur.
“How are you,” I asked,
not knowing what to expect.
“Contrary to Keatsian joy,” he replied.

“I couldn’t come up with a line like that on a good day,” said Jane.

(By the way, it was otherwise a good day for Jane today:  Garrison Keillor read her “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun” this morning on “The Writer’s Almanac” – it’s here.  Her “Three-Legged Blues” is here, with a blues musical setting by Kay Ryan‘s brother-in-law, David Fredrick Lochelt, here.)

Dana Gioia in WLT: “It’s better to be noticed than ignored”

Sunday, August 21st, 2011
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"Fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The new September issue of World Literature Today is out, including an interview with poet, and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. The Q&A was conducted by WLT‘s managing editor Michelle Johnson (who was also my editor for the July/August article on eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig).

Not online, alas – but here are a few excerpts:

On fame:

I try to accept the good and the bad with equanimity.  As Oscar Wilde observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I have been lucky to have enjoyed a degree of celebrity across my career, and the experience has taught me a lot about the nature of contemporary fame. Notoriety requires you to be simplified, usually into a neat and tidy headline. First, I was widely discussed as the “businessman-poet.” Then I became notorious as the ringleader of the New Formalists.  Soon thereafter I became famous as the literary maverick who wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” Then I became a public figure as the champion of arts and literacy who ran the National Endowment for the Arts. Each of these reputations contained an element of truth and a simplification. But it’s better to be noticed than ignored, and properly used, fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests as a writer.

On his legacy as one of the proponents of “New Formalism”:

It’s easy to forget how odd things were back in the 1970s. Form and narrative were almost universally denounced as dead literary modes. They were considered retrograde, repressive, elitist, antidemocratic, phallocentric, and even (I’m not making this up) un-American. It was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines. One journal even stated its editorial policy as, “No rhyme or pornography.” Poems wee supposed to be free-verse lyric utterances in a confessional or imagistic style. I’m happy to say that journals and presses are now open to formal or narrative poetry. This is a direct result of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” the long and loud debates over these issues that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s. …

I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for – and one really did have to fight back then – was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative. I never saw the movement as a rejection of modernism. Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry?

What’s next?

America's mystical composer gets National Medal of Arts

I am most eager to work with artists I admire unreservedly. Collaboration depends upon talent – the pairing of two talents that inspire each other. Morten Lauridsen, who seems to me one of the greatest living composers, wants to create a work together. That is very exciting. Helen Sung and I are going to write a jazz song cycle. The composer William Bolcolm has suggested doing a musical setting of my narrative poem “Haunted” for a pianist and an actor. Lori Laitman is writing a song cycle using my translations of Montale’s love poems. Paul Salerni and I have sketched out a dance opera. I also have a third opera subject in mind, but it is still in the early stages. But, of course, the important thing is to keep writing poems.

The article also included a poem from his forthcoming collection Pity the Beautiful (2011, Graywolf), titled “Finding a Box of Family Letters.” I thought it sounded familiar.  Indeed, it was. He read it to me a year ago, over wine at his house in Santa Rosa, at the same time he read “Haunted,” which I very much look forward to hearing with Bolcom’s musical setting.  The poem made a very strong impression on me then, and also when it was published in the Hudson Review some time later.

Some time ago, Dana sent me a DVD of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – please, please go find it, if you haven’t heard it.  He’s largely unheralded in the MSM, but is perhaps the most popular choral composer in the U.S.  Moreover, Lauridsen has been called “”the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.”

By the by, the magazine also has an essay by Jane Hirshfield, on American poetry.  Haven’t read it yet.

“The Wolf Who Ate Books”: Michnik, Vendler, Hirshfield, and others remember Miłosz

Monday, May 16th, 2011
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Aleksander Fiut in foreground, Michnik in striped shirt, Vendler in back (Photo by my Droid)

Jane Hirshfield recalls that Czesław Miłosz lived in a “storybook” cottage on Grizzly Peak in the hills of Berkeley.  But to describe the fairy tale that took place within the cottage, you’d need a new character, a new story – “The Wolf Who Ate Books,” she suggested.

In the elegant and newly revamped Szczepanski Square, the Miłosz Pavilion – a strange, science fiction-y formation of hemispherical  tents and tunnels – hosted a range of activities during the Czesław Miłosz centenary festival. One spotlighted reminiscences with, as well as Jane, scholar Aleksander Fiut, Gazeta Wyborcza editor Adam Michnik, poet Tomas Venclova, leading critic Helen Vendler, and poet Adam Zagajewski. As with so many of the events, Znak publisher Jerzy Illg hosted.  Here are a few of their memories:

Michnik recalled Miłosz trying to meet him at a very particular Bulgarian restaurant in Paris, where Miłosz spent the lonely, tormented decade following his lonely defection from Communist Poland.  “Then Miłosz said a sentence I would remember for the rest of my life:  ‘I wanted to meet you here, because here, in the 1950s, very often I kept feeling I would commit suicide,'” he confided to his friend.  Michnik recalled his famous essay of the time, “Nie” [No], where he explained his defection to the world.  It opened: “What I’m going to tell now could well be called a story of a suicide…”

He also remembered Miłosz’s triumphant return to Poland in 1981, with the heady rise of Solidarity.  “It was a time of euphoria, carnival – it was our victory,” he said.

Miłosz was more cautious.  He told Michnik, “The atmosphere feels like just before the Warsaw Uprising. Please be careful.” Tanks rolled into Warsaw and martial law was declared a few months later.

Tomas Venclova recalled when Stanisław Lem was rumored to be up for the Nobel prize.  “I don’t care about the Nobel prize,” Miłosz told him, “but if any other writer gets it, I wouldn’t be too happy.”

A 21st century monster of hemispheres and tunnels (from my Droid)

Aleksander Fiut traveled with Miłosz to Stockholm for the 1980 Nobel.  On the way to the event, in a chauffeur-driven limousine, Miłosz was hungry.  Where did they stop?  He told the chauffeur to pull into McDonald’s.  “Her facial muscles didn’t even move,” Fiut recalled.

Jerzy Illg recalls the poet at 90, looking deeply into a vodka and a piece of herring – two of his favorite things.  “Happiness is accessible,” he declared finally. Illg had him write that down and sign it. “It’s a valuable security paper I hold,” Jerzy reflected.

Jane met both Carol and Czesław at a Bay Area picnic, where the hostess urged her beforehand to chat with the Miłoszes, since many were too intimidated to be social.  So, unfortunately, was Jane.  It was as if, she said, she had been told, “Please go talk to Yeats.  Please go talk to Shakespeare.”

Jane also recalled the death of Miłosz’s much-younger wife Carol, in 2002.  At the memorial service in Berkeley, she remembers Miłosz sitting erect, “evidence of decades of unbearable loss being carried.” She spoke to him afterward, and “for three seconds he completely broke down.”

“I never held a grief that large in my arms,” she said.

From Kraków – a great queen, a green queen, and 2 heavy books

Thursday, May 12th, 2011
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The hotseat

The big day:  I spoke at the Collegium Novum of Jagiellonian University yesterday at the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival.

If you have to say anything at all, this is about the most intimidating setting that can be imagined to say it in.  Queen (and Saint) Jadwiga looked down on me from above, Pope John Paul II (an alum) gazed at me compassionately from a large portrait to my right, and farther down the hall, a young Copernicus (another alum) gazed up in astonishment at the night sky in a huge painting.  And then there was Humble Moi, in the prorector’s chair.

Nothing to do except take a deep breath, stand up, and imagine that everyone’s head is a cabbage.  Just me and Copernicus.

It’s humbling in other ways.  You roll your eyes at how boring some of the talks were – and then you get the opportunity to bore people yourself.  At least I kept mine beneath the requested 20 minutes.

Queen Jadwiga...not amused

It was nevertheless an honor to speak here.  A picture of the intimidating prorector’s chair I occupied is at right – the very first Book Haven photo from my brand new Droid.

Two years ago I fell in love with the university, one of the oldest in Europe, and Kraków as well, after a moonlight introduction to the city after a glass of wine with Adam Zagajewski. The city is charming at night, alive with lights and people and cafes against the dark backdrop of the trees in the Planty.  That impromptu tour, which included the famous, shadowlit arches of the Collegium Maius, helped me persevere in what sometimes seemed like a daunting,  Rupelstiltskin-type research task during my Milena Jesenská Fellowship with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.

I told many stories from the podium at Jagiellonian, but one of my favorites is another kind of Rumpelstiltskin-type odyssey explained by Clare Cavanagh, Miłosz’s American biographer, as she describes her relationship with the curmudgeonly Miłosz:

Green Queen

“Sometimes the doubts ran deeper—his life, his poetry, his soul. And sometimes the doubts were about me: ‘You will produce not my life, but only some facsimile,’ he said with a scowl in the summer of 2003. He spent several weeks that summer putting me through the biographer’s equivalent of boot camp. … every day he gave the same response: ‘Takie oszywiste pytania,’ ‘(Such obvious questions).’ Then he’d would invite me for another session the next day, when yet another set of questions would be dismissed and after an excruciating hour or two, I’d would be sent home to think up some ‘questions no one’s asked me yet.’ …

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

Clare, of course, is here in Kraków, too.  And still wearing her green jacket, her green glasses, and (I’ve learned in Kraków) she has a green backpack to match.  Daughter of Eire.

***

Today I got more swag.  After a seminar on translation with Agnieszka Kosińska, another of my contributors (the session was in Polish, but I went just for Agnieszka), we made a trek to the Book Institute off Kraków’s main square. The Book Institute is a wonderful organization in Kraków – funded by the Ministry of Culture, I think – that promotes Polish literature.

The books they gave me will tip the scales at the next airport.  Andrzej Franaszek‘s new 1,000-page biography of Miłosz, and a 1,400-page collected poems – both published by Znak. Clare told me that about a third of Miłosz’s poems have not been translated yet, to my best recollection of the size of the English-language Collected, that sounds about right.

During a visit with octogenarian poet and author Marek Skwarnicki (another contributor) way on the outskirts of Kraków this afternoon, he said the biography is a bit of a wonder in Kraków.  Andrew has spent 10 years working on the book, and is now only about 40.  Such a thick book from such a young man is not commonplace in Poland, Marek said.

Now.  All I have to be able to do is get on the airplane with all this.

Oh, oh, oh … I haven’t told you about the Miłosz pavilion yet.  And the reading with Adonis and Ryszard Krynicki and Ed Hirsch and Jane Hirshfield tonight. There’s more to come.

“Heaven is the third vodka” — Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
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One...

So far the events celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary have been marked by a special warmth and conviviality, almost like a family reunion – but nowhere was that impression more pronounced than at last Wednesday’s event at Wheeler Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.  No surprise.  Berkeley was the poet’s home for four decades.

Thanks to the notorious Berkeley parking — a university parking lot meter that would not take cards, not take bills, and, once I got about three dozen quarters, wouldn’t take those either (nor return them) – I arrived about 45 minutes late.

Adam Zagajewski was saying “Has he grasped the totality? … Well, yes.”

“It’s in ruins, because totality is in ruins, but it’s still a totality.”  I wasn’t quite sure what the “it” was – the world?  the Nobel laureate’s oeuvre? — nor did I get more than the gist of what he was trying to say, having missed the context, but it was vintage Zagajewski, so I pass it on.

“The world does not belong to any single poet,” said Adam.

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Robert Hass was the emcee for the event, and commented on Miłosz’s stunning memory, and also on the unusual and sometimes dark connections it made.  A singing of “happy birthday” would remind Miłosz of the crematoria at Auschwitz, and crematoria might remind him of strawberry jam.

Berkeley is also the home of the poet’s son, Anthony (or Antoni) Milosz.  I met him once before, several years ago at the San Francisco memorial organized by poet Jane Hirshfield, but the resemblance to his father did not strike me nearly so forcefully then.  On Wednesday evening, it gobsmacked me.

Toni has translated his father’s last poems (Wiersze ostatnie was published by Znak in 2006), to be published with the paperback selected this fall as Selected and Last Poems.

The younger Miłosz said that he was aiming at “sound translation,” and felt too often translations of his father’s poems “intellectual content dominates.”

He noted the rhythm of his father’s work, and that, among musical instruments, Miłosz favored the bass and drum – “though he claimed to like the harpsichord and more refined instruments.”

“My father’s poetry is immensely direct,” he said, adding that directness pits it against current trends.

He read his father’s late poem “In Honor of Father Baka,” which he described as “funky, short-lined” poems in the baroque manner.  It’s wry and mysterious – and I am looking forward to the November 15 publication.

Peter Dale Scott reiterated the claim that Czesław Miłosz was “perhaps the greatest poet of our time,” and called him  “a poet of radical hope” in a way “not seen since Schiller and Mickiewicz.” Miłosz saw poetry as “a home for incorrigible hope” — another feature of his work that was “in marked contrast to the times.”

Peter ranked Miłosz with poets from Dante to Blake, the poets who were “enlarging human consciousness.”  He discussed Miłosz’s poem, “Dante,” which concludes:

“The inborn and the perpetual desire
Del deiformo regno — for a God-like domain,
A realm or a kingdom. There is my home.
I cannot help it. I pray for light,
For the inside of the eternal pearl, L’eterna margarita.”

Miłosz, said Peter, was “obsessed with the need to reach the ‘second space’ – the world of paradise and perfection beyond this world we inhabit.”

Peter called Miłosz a “leading visionary of his time, looking into the open space ahead.”

Jane Hirshfield noted that for Miłosz, “everything was I and Thou, everything was personal.”

Most of the evenings speakers at the front of the room arrived via literature, said journalist Mark Danner. “I come here through real estate.”  (That’s not quite true; he was Miłosz’s friend for several years before he bought the poet’s house on Grizzly Peak.)

He described the roughstone chimney and the roughstone path of the house that has been compared to a cottage from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.  He also remembered “Czesław’s deer.”  “The deer populate the place,” even though Miłosz would chase them away from the garden they viewed as a salad bar.

Bingo! (But it's not Żubrówka...but would you notice by the third round?)

One morning he recalled seeing more deer on the lawn than he had ever seen before – over a dozen, as he recalled.  Bob Hass’s voice was on his answerphone – “Mark, I don’t want to leave a message on a machine…” Miłosz had died in Krakow.

Mark thumbed through a book Miłosz had inscribed to him, and was startled to read the reference he had apparently forgotten, the inscription “in the name of all generations of deer.”

Bob Hass’s wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, recalled the Monday translation sessions Bob shared with Miłosz — sometimes spending the session working on a single line.  Bob recalled Miłosz appearing on their doorstep, with the command, “Vodka, Brenda!”  A bottle was always in the freezer, waiting. I hope it was Żubrówka.

Brenda was, for a time, interested in the knotty issues the Gnostics raised, and asking Miłosz, “What is heaven?  What is it like?”  To which the poet replied:

“Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.”

Memorial reading for Morton Marcus on Nov. 6: a literary “bright spot” on West Coast

Friday, November 5th, 2010
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At Vasili's Greek Restaurant, 2009 (Photo: Valerie Marcus Ramshur)

“If you were going to make a literary map of America, there would be a bright spot on the map at Santa Cruz,” said Robert Hass, who will be the keynote speaker at the first annual memorial for poet Morton Marcus tomorrow night at 7.30 p.m., at the Cabrillo College Music Recital Hall, 6500 Soquel Drive in Aptos.  (Gary Young, Stephen Kessler, Joe Stroud will also read.  Tickets are gone — arrive at 6.30 for no-shows and returns.)

Perhaps Mort is a bright spot on the bright spot.

“He was larger than life,” said Santa Cruz poet Stroud, who knew Marcus for more than 40 years. “Mort loved nothing more than to have a meal and to have a conversation. I think of him as a conductor almost, eating and drinking and driving the conversation this way and that. It was an unforgettable experience.”

I met Morton Marcus via the world wide web — and our relationship, alas, remained an epistolary one.  Poet Jane Hirshfield brought my attention to his remarkable memoir of Czesław Miłosz in his autobiographical Striking Through The Masks, and I approached him about contributing to a book I had in the back of my mind.  (The book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, will be out soon — really it will.)  He wrote a note back in September 2006, with some evocative thoughts about Prague:

I’m back now. It was my second trip. This time I was there to teach a poetry composition class in the Prague Summer Program. It really is an incredible city, but a far as I’m concerned not for the reason other people are so enchanted by it. The Renaissance and baroque buildings are masks that cover centuries of suffering which are marked by the extraordinary number of memorials that dot the city. If one looks, one sees a microcosm of all cities in Prague, and one experiences the timeless misery and joy of being alive. Then going to Prague becomes a pilgrimage to pay homage to all our ancestors.

I’m not a professor, by the way. I’ve taught classes at UC, but mainly I taught Literature and Film for thirty-two years down the road at Cabrillo College.

Thanks for your interest, and I hope we’ll meet one day.

Jane Hirshfield

We didn’t.  But in a book that was filled with a not-always-harmonious assortment of contributors, he was one of the most easygoing of the bunch.   Good natured.  Not a prima donna.  It was appreciated.  As we were finishing up in June 2009,  he wrote to me the terrible news:  “I’m glad the book is coming out. When will that be? Since last year, my life has drastically changed: I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So before I go I have to get as many facts down on paper about new work coming out as quickly as I can.”

He sent me a brief bio for the book, and ended with the comment:  “I’m still standing.  Regards to all.”

I’m told he sank into pain, but never into less than good spirits.  I asked him about second opinions:  “It’s all through my bloodstream with growing tumors in my lungs and liver verified again and again. Second, third and fourth opinions, too. No problem; I’ve had a great life,” he wrote with daunting equanimity.  I offered at last to visit — but thought he might be less interested in meeting pen pals than gathering himself into himself.  I guessed right.  His last note to me said:  “Thanks so much for your thoughts, Cynthia, and the offer of a visit, but as you’ve guessed I’m more interested in solitude.”

Jane wrote to me to tell me he had died on October 28 last year.  His final words were, “I’m ready.”

Two poems from his last collection, The Dark Figure in the Doorway: Last Poems

ALL WE CAN DO

All we can do on this earth is step into the future
with a sense of the many people behind us,
the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies
like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,
continually reaching inside ourselves
to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us,
or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars
that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

WHAT IS ALIVE IN US

What is alive in us, what vibrates
in our animal skins, is a harp string
that is never still, a harp string
tuned to the drone of silence.
It is the single thread, the radiant filament,
that sews us to our coat of darkness,
the umbilical that holds us
to the planet each of us is
yet allows us to wander among the stars —
the guy rope that secures us
to ourselves, yet lets us venture
into the darkness all the way
to the planet of someone else.

One can see why Miłosz liked him.