Archive for June, 2016

Happy birthday, Czesław Miłosz! He was no hero, and he knew it.

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Outside his birthplace in Šeteniai, Lithuania. (Photo: Humble Moi)

When I wrote my first of many articles on Czesław Miłosz oh, some sixteen years ago, the editors suggested a headline that had the word “hero” in it. I knew he would have cringed at such a notion, and talked them out of it. He had, after all, served the Stalinist government of Poland, and he always remembered it.

His turnabout came one winter night in 1949 as he was leaving a lavish evening party attended by Poland’s ruling elite. On his way home at abut 4 a.m., he passed some jeeps carrying the newly arrested. “The soldiers guarding them were wearing sheepskin coats, but the prisoners were in suit jackets with the collars turned up, shivering from the cold. It was then I realized what I was part of.”

A happenstance Californian.

Birthday boy.

He compared the process to swallowing frogs: you could perhaps swallow one or two, but at the third the stomach revolts. It was not ideology or philosophy – but a revolt of the stomach. (Read more about what happened afterwards here.)

It’s Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s 105th birthday today, but Robert Zaretsky‘s article in last week’s New York Times wasn’t the best prezzie we could think of for the occasion. A salute to Miłosz all too quickly descends to another ritual denunciation of Donald Trump. Milosz’s vast and nuanced experience is put in service of a crude political end. This complicated poet’s oeuvre is marshaled to support today’s political grievances. Of course he had strong opinions, but the whole point of Miłosz is that he never saw himself apart from what he observed.

He never saw himself as the “good guy,” but rather as fallible and flawed, as cruel and indifferent as anyone else, given the same trials. Somewhere (I’m unable to find the reference) he described himself in wartime Poland averting his eyes from his Jewish neighbor on the staircase. He is the poet of guilt. (I wrote more about that here.) Said fellow Nobelist Joseph Brodsky of Miłosz’s wartime experiences: “Out of these ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor.” Hence, “Campo dei Fiori,” cited in the New York Times piece, is not an indictment of his fellow human beings, but an indictment of himself, also. That keen self-knowledge kept him far away from the soapbox. (He made an exception for his poem, “Sarajevo,” which he thought was sub-par. As he said, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed than silent.”)

invisibleHe was not always sympathetic to the self-righteous. In my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszCalifornia poet Morton Marcus recalls a 1970 reception that Miłosz hosted for the visiting Serbian poet Vasko Popa. The Polish Nobelist encountered several Berkeley students, wearing white armbands, en route to a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. After some belligerent inquiries from a slightly drunken Miłosz, the students made the mistake of saying that they were protesting for peace and love.

“Love, love, love!” mocked Miłosz, his voice rising to a shout. “Talk to me about love when they come into your cell one morning, line you all up, and say ‘You and you, step forward. It’s your time to die—unless any of your friends loves you so much he wants to take your place!’”

In The Captive Mind, he writes that whenever he is “drunk with the beauty of being alive amidst living human beings,” one image obstinately returned to him:

“I see before my eyes always the same young Jewish girl. She was probably about twenty years old. Her body was full, splendid, exultant. She was running down the street, her hands raised, her chest thrust forward. She cried piercingly, “No! No! No!” The necessity to die was beyond her comprehension—a necessity that came from outside, having nothing in common with her unprepared body. The bullets of the SS guards’ automatic pistols reached her in her cry.”


Na Zdorovie

“Are Americans really stupid?” writes Zaretsky at the beginning of his piece. I wonder. A review of Captive Mind in Goodreads: “Excellent work about the intellectual deadening of Western Culture. A polemic on living under facist [sic] control and what it does to the mind.” It makes one wonder if people have lost their ability to read altogether. The book is a study of Miłosz’s experiences and observations under Communism, not Fascism. And his experience happened in Poland, not “Western Culture.”

Well, there you have it. Here’s to you, Czesław. Lifting the spiritual essence of a glass of Szarlotka to you, as I did on your centenary way back in 2011, celebrating in your home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley.

Mike Kitay remembers poet Thom Gunn: “He liked to clown around.”

Monday, June 27th, 2016

gunn3Poet Thom Gunn left England for America in 1954. A big part of his reason for departure was Mike Kitay. They lived together until the poet’s death in 2004. I had to reach Kitay last week. But how? I phoned the old phone number I had kept since the time I interviewed Thom in August 2003. To my surprise, the famous address on San Francisco’s Cole Street still had the same phone number and, even more to my surprise, the cordial Kitay picked up the phone.

Anyway, the search led me to this interesting piece he wrote in The Threepenny Review, in the summer of 2005 (a few months after my Q&A with Thom Gunn ran in The Georgia Review). A few excerpts, in case you missed it a decade ago:

At home, if you didn’t know who he was, you’d never guess. He liked to clown around. He’d do his Vincent Price limp; his Instant Face Lift; make one of many rude sounds. His energy was awesome and he did a kind of tap dance with a big finish: one hand over his head, he’d twirl around. If you didn’t laugh, he’d twirl the other way and add a curtsy.


After he retired, Thom kept saying how happy he was. He said it often; too often and too loudly. He wanted to have A Good Time and he wanted to have A Good Time the way he’d always had A Good Time. But he was seventy now, a seventy-year-old gay man. Healthy, yes; lucky, yes; but still…

And he couldn’t write.


Thom was easily bored but slow to anger. I can’t think of a time when he lost his temper. When he got angry with me, he didn’t let on. He didn’t like shows of emotion. He didn’t like problems. And most certainly he didn’t like to talk about problems, which was a problem for me: I’m Jewish.


When people asked me right after he died if there was going to be a service for him, I thought: They’re kidding, right? A service? For Thom? He’d turn over in his urn! But what if there had been? Would I have said anything? “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”? And I choke up. Because one morning, less than a year before he died, out of the overcast gray sky, Thom told me how little he liked those lines, how sentimental they were. “That may be,” I said, “but they work; they make me cry.” “That may be, but what do they mean? Angels! Really. Flights of angels.” Well, perhaps; but I think of those lines now, and of him, and I cry.

Read the whole thing here.

Library porn: The Cincinnati Public Library, circa 1874

Friday, June 24th, 2016


It’s been awhile since we featured library porn, more than four years, in fact – try here. Or gaze at the photo above. The “Old Main” library of Cincinnati was once one of the nation’s most beautiful public libraries and one of the city’s most stunning buildings. It was demolished in 1955, and the current address, 629 Vine Street, is now a parking garage. Go here for more views of the library, and the people who visited it, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Life and Fate: “There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction.”

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

War correspondent Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Germany.

Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics) was deemed so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only was the manuscript confiscated – the typewriter ribbons used to type it were taken as well. As Book Haven readers know, I’ve been ploughing through the 880-page epic tale of World War II, which eloquently, powerfully, unforgettably describes the dark forces that shaped the 20th century (more here and here). It made a five-hour delay at the Denver Airport bearable, certainly by comparison with the circumstances writer and journalist Grossman describes. The author had witnessed the Battle of Stalingrad as a war correspondent, and provided the first eyewitness accounts of an extermination camp, from Treblinka.

Here’s an moving excerpt, from a conversation in a German concentration camp. The characters: Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy is an Old Bolshevik, often in fierce argument with Chernetsov, a former Menshevik. Ikonnikov is a former Tolstoyan; Gardi is an Italian priest (and a “Vernichtungslager” is a German extermination camp):


Russian soldiers and inmates at Treblinka. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

Ikonnikov’s hands and face were smeared with clay. He held out some dirty sheets of paper covered in writing and said: ‘Have a look through this. Tomorrow I might be dead.’

‘All right. But why’ve you decided to leave us so suddenly?’

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’

Chernetsov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Do you think we’re in England or something? Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn’t change anything. They’d be dead in less than an hour.’

grossman‘No,’ said Ikonnikov. ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it.’

‘Then that’s the end of you,’ said Mostovskoy.

‘He’s right,’ said Chernetsov. ‘This comrade knows very well what it means to attempt to instigate a strike in a country where there’s no democracy.’ …

Chernetsov’s blind, bloody pit stared at Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy.

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’

C’est son métier,” added Mostovskoy.

‘Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully.

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No.” There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre, je dirai non.’

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head.

‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said.

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.


David Mason remembers friend Patrick Leigh Fermor: “What a life!”

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

The poet remembers…

Someone we did not see at West Chester last week was poet David Mason, currently the Colorado poet laureate.

Fortunately, fortunately, we were able to connect to David cybernetically, via the Wall Street Journal this weekend, where he recounts an unusual friendship in “So No More He’ll Go A-Roving”:

“Toward the end of his life, the great writer, war hero and traveler Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on June 10 at age 96, grew deaf and suffered from poor eyesight, sometimes wearing a rakish eye patch to correct his vision. But when I saw him last September he was still volubly alert, his memory undimmed as he retold stories of World War II. His hair was thick, hardly grayed, and his hands resting on the tablecloth resembled knots of wood. We were seated outside for lunch beneath the Byzantine-styled arches of his villa in southern Greece. Ilex trees cast shadows on the stone walls, and waves washed the rocky beach nearby.”

An excerpt:

 Dimitri Papadimos

Verbal embroidery? (Photo: Dimitri Papadimos)

Paddy was not a travel writer—the term is an idiotic reduction for the purposes of marketing. He was a poet, a fantastic re-creator of experience, a maker of paradisiacal sentences that leave me hungry for life. Chatwin chided him for his verbal embroidery, but what a rare thing it is to find the baroque in our time, and Paddy was just as capable of the simple observation—turning on a tap in an overheated Greek village and seeing nothing but a lonely cockroach crawl out of it, or hearing the conversation of Greeks muffled by a bedroom wall, as he noted in “Mani”: “The soft murmur of the town was suddenly drowned by the furious jay-like voices of two women below my window, arguing across a narrow lane about something I couldn’t catch. It didn’t matter. The point was the inventive richness of the language, the splendour of the vocabulary, the unstaunchable flow of imagination and invective. . . . I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like long balloons in comic strips.”

He had the good luck, or bad, depending on your point of view, to become a legend in his own lifetime. He saw the remote part of Greece he had chosen for his home commercialized and was himself the subject of innumerable tours by people far less likely to sweat for their adventures. None of this bothered him, as far as I could see. Now that he is dead, friends exclaim to me: “What a life!” Indeed, and what books he made of it—their breadth and style worthy shadows of the man himself.

Read the whole thing here.

Poetry, passion, politics: translator Dick Davis and the poems of Fatemeh Shams

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

A poet and a gentleman: Dick Davis at the West Chester Poetry Conference last week. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Poet Dick Davis was staying at the home of Persian scholar Asghar Seyed-Gohrab in Leiden a few years ago. As he headed for bed one night, his host suggested he take a look at a sheaf of poems by Fatemeh Shams. The British poet, who is the foremost translator of Persian literature into English, ever (as well as a gifted poet in his own right), followed his advice.

He was up most of the night. He was hooked. And last week at the West Chester Poetry Conference, we had a chance to hear the collaboration that resulted from a late night in the Netherlands. When They Broke Down the Door: Poems was published a few months ago by Mage Publishers, which also published his translation of the eleventh-century Vis & Ramin (500 pages of rhyming couplets).


She’s coming to the U.S. in 2017. (Photo: Mage)

Dick Davis is the translator of another eleventh-century masterpiece, The Shahnameh – well, we wrote about the poet and his translations here – so the poems of this poet, born in 1983, provided an especial challenge: “I usually read medieval Persian poetry, not modern poetry, and the idiom is different, so I had to read them slowly to be sure I was getting everything – even so I’m sure there were things I missed,” he explained to me.

Yet powerful affinities link The Shahnameh with the poems of this 21st century poet. The Persian “Book of Kings” echoes with a “recurrent cry for justice against cruel or incompetent kings,” Dick writes in the introduction. Prison poems begin during the same era in Persia as well – Mas’ud Sa’d (1046-1121) starts the sad tradition, and it continues to this day. Political anger bubbles below the surface in Persian poetry throughout the last millennium.

And so it does with Fatemeh Shams. “It is an association that may at first sight seem counter-intuitive – the privacy of erotic passion allied with the public stance of political protest,” the translator writes, “but the link is of course that both the passion and the politics are subversive of the status quo – of patriarchy that would deny women erotic autonomy, and of political authority that would deny them social freedom.”


Shams was born in Mashhad, the second most important city in the Iran for Shia pilgrimage (it has the tomb of Imam Reza, the eight Shia Imam). Simin Behbahani was a notable influence, and perhaps encouraged the younger poet to write on contemporary subjects in traditional forms, though Shams is equally at ease in free verse.

As an undergraduate at the University of Tehran, her political involvement led to a warrant for her arrest, and she fled to her hometown Mashhad. Later, while studying in England, the government crackdown on the Green Movement meant that she was effectively an exile. Her sister was imprisoned, and the poet’s eight-year relationship cracked under the strain.

“Her poetry comes most strikingly out of a response to human suffering, that of others and her own, and one of the reasons that politics is so omnipresent in many of her poems is that it is seen as the chief cause of such suffering,” yet “during the dark days of her exile it has been poetry that has saved her, and clearly for her, poetry – despite the political implications of her own verse – is something inward and personal rather than public and propagandistic…”

She is joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in January, as assistant professor of Persian.

Three poems reprinted below. (I was going to make it two, but I couldn’t decide among them). The first is the poem about the city of her birth, Mashhad; it’s the poem that opens the collection. The next two … a different kind of suffering.


I come from a town of beheaded closed cafés
from a town of latticed houses
from a town whose old execution square is now called Martyr’s Square
from the meeting place of cigarette smoke and angels’ wings
they’ve named the barracks The Resting Place
which makes no reference to the Restlessness of the Sentries
polluted by two strands of a woman’s hair
two strands!
I come from the town of stubborn singers
from the place of my own martyrdom

Even If You’re Never to Be Here

I want you in my moments of uncertainty,
Asleep, awake, and in this night of watching endlessly
I want you on cold silent days, I want you in
This wave of pointlessness, this vain futility
I want you season after season in my life
On snowy days, hot days, and spring’s vitality
I want you, I want you every moment of each day
Oh blood that flows within my every artery
I want you even if you’re never to be here
And even if you never give a thought to me
I want you from afar, from near, from everywhere
With all you have and are, wherever you may be.


I curse your gray overcoat
that all at once pours
the smell of your body
and of wanting you,
and the rare expensive scent produced
by that damned company that’s bankrupt now
into my heart
I curse your gray overcoat
not you.

Postscript: A quick note from poet David Mason: “Dick is a genius. His project is one of the most humane literary projects of our time.” By “project,” he qualified, he means Dick Davis’s whole body of translations – and his own poems, too. We couldn’t agree more.