Posts Tagged ‘Alex E. Lessard’

Czesław Miłosz’s final resting place and the church that gave Robert Hass “the creeps.”

Saturday, July 16th, 2022
Miłosz’s burial place: “Not liking the fact that it is,/Perhaps, what he would have wanted.”

Long ago, in 2008, I wrote a Los Angeles Times article about the death of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and its aftermath, called: Czeslaw Milosz: a poet’s long passage back home.

It begins like this:

During a late night in Krakow, nonagenarian Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz was tipping back the vodka with
Jerzy Illg, editor in chief at his Polish publishing house, Znak. Late in the evening, a touchy topic dropped on the table: Where would Milosz like to be buried?

Should his final resting place be with his mother, in a city near Gdańsk? Illg dismissed the notion outright. “Who will light a candle for you there?” he asked.

Should he be buried instead in his beloved homeland, Lithuania – perhaps in Vilnius, the city of his youth?

Illg proposed the famous cemetery in the Salwator district of Krakow. Many poets and critics were buried on the hilltop graveyard. It would provide “good company and a good view.”

When, sometime later, Illg told Bronislaw Maj about this conversation, the younger poet chided him. Milosz had been fishing for the obvious answer, the mollifying answer: Wawel, the ancient castle/cathedral complex at the very heart of Krakow. Poland’s leading poets are honored there – Norwid, Slowacki and, of course, the nation’s ur-poet, Adam Mickiewicz, another Polish-speaking Lithuanian. “Of course it was a joke,” Illg recalls, “but it has a deep truth.”

You can revisit the fuss over the funeral towards the end of my article here, from the University of Notre Dame’s eminent journal.

I remember what his foremost translator and close friend, the poet Robert Hass told me, as recounted in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz: “I was walking with Adam Zagajewski and Seamus Heaney down the middle of this jammed medieval street, following the casket from St. Mary’s in the Square to the Church of St. Peter on the Rock, where he was going to be buried in this crypt—it gives me the creeps to think he’s buried in the basement of the church.”

Well, “basement of a church” has certain limited connotations, of potluck dinners and bingo games, for example. He wrote about the church that gave him “the creeps” many years later, in his magnificent poem in his award-winning collection, Summer Snow, entitled “An Argument about Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley after a Night Walk under the Mountain.” An excerpt:

Czesław was buried in a crypt – in the Krakovian church
Of St. Peter of the Rock – among other Polish notables.
I hated the idea of it and still do, that his particular body
Is lying there in a cellar of cold marble and old bones
Under the weight of two thousand years of the Catholic Church.
(Thinking about this still years later, imagining this dialogue
In the Sierra dark under the shadowy mass of the mountain
And the glittering stars.) Not liking the fact that it is,
Perhaps, what he would have wanted. You should
Have been buried – I’m still talking to him – on a grassy hillside
Open to the sun (the Lithuanian sun the peasants
Carved on crosses in the churchyard in your childhood)
And what you called in one poem “the frail light of birches.”
And he might have said no. He might have said,
I choose marble and the Catholic Church because
They say no, to natural beauty that lures us and kills us. …

So here are some photos of the famous church, which the Poles call Na Skałka. It’s not Wawel, nor does it have the cosy familiarity of the Salwator district, but it has charms of its own. Photos courtesy of Alex E. Lessard, who sent them after a recent visit to beloved Kraków.