Posts Tagged ‘Mark Danner’

“Heaven is the third vodka” — Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011


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.


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.”

A “military campaign against nothingness”: Robert Hass on Czesław Miłosz

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

I’m settling in for a long weekend with the proof pages and indexing for An Invisible Rope. A large pile of books have accumulated next to my bed, waiting to be read as I finish up a three-year endeavor.  I expect most of them will be waiting there for some time.

One of them is Robert Hass‘s The Apple Trees at Olema. It’s hard to sink into a volume of poems and enter someone else’s internal world when you are already being pulled into several directions, so I had postponed even cracking the spine.  Hass’s poems are a bit like talking to him – digressions and self-interruptions, even in mid-sentence, predominate in conversations.  An interview that enthralled at the time can require serious rethreading once you get an actual transcript.  I wrote about his Pulitzer-winning Time and Materials (and predicted it would sweep the Pulitzer and National Book Awards at the time) for San Francisco Magazine — it’s here.

One thing Bob and I have in common is our longstanding enthusiasm for Czesław Miłosz.  Among the finest things that Bob ever said to me was when he was relating how he came to be the chief translator for the elderly Polish poet, a collaboration which continued for decades:  “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.” That kind of humility is rare in a world of large egos.

In Time and Materials, several poems (“For Czesław Miłosz in Krakow,” “Czesław Miłosz: In Memoriam”) were dedicated to Miłosz.  Among the 40 pages of new poems, I found this one, “After Coleridge and for Miłosz: Late July”:

Headquarters of the campaign, Kraków (Photo: C. Haven)

“… I think of the old man’s
dark study jammed with books in seven languages
as the headquarters of his military campaign
against nothingness.  Immense egoism in it,
of course, the narcissism of a wound,
but actual making, actual work.  One of the things
he believed was that our poems could be better
than our motives. …”

Some of the weapons

I wonder which “dark study” he is remembering: the comparatively airy one in Kraków, which had been tidied up by Angieszka Kosińska by the time I saw it several years after his death; or the far more familiar Tudoresque cottage on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, a winding street in the Berkeley Hills that is now a legendary name to all Poles (perhaps the best-known American street in Poland)?  They both look curiously the same — both emphasized what Richard Lourie, in my forthcoming volume, called a premiere architectural virtue for Miłosz — “coziness.”

Curiously enough, the Grizzly Peak dwelling was bought by Miłosz’s friend,  Mark Danner.