Posts Tagged ‘Morton Marcus’

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.

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

Friday, November 5th, 2010

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 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 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.