The Gift

I came across this poem again (written 52 years ago, by a man who had lived through World War II in Europe) just as the dense gray fog was tuning to tepid sun this morning. It was in another of Sean Singer’s composite emails. It’s uncharacteristically short and tender, and the line “To think that I was the same man did not embarrass me,” makes me remember what I love about poetry.

The Gift

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body, I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

Czesław Miłosz, Berkeley 1971
translated by the poet

Summer reading

I know that you’re supposed to take up some frivolous books for the summer, but perhaps influenced by the morning and evening fog that characterizes coastal California, my reading has been more dour. I mentioned these books in an earlier post: A Century of Horrors, by Alain Besançon, Hope Against Hope, by Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, and most of Secondhand Time (I couldn’t get through all of it), by Svetlana Alexievich. I also just reread Czesław Miłosz’ The Captive Mind. All of these books deal with the phenomenon of Communism as it has been practiced since the Russian Revolution. Besançon’s thesis is that while Nazism was horrific, it was a brief nightmare compared to Communism. The Shoah was intense, killed millions, but was defeated and rejected.

Communism, on the other hand, while originating in an idealistic set of premises, has for over a century imprisoned, murdered, and instilled terror in many more millions, and is still doing so. It’s a powerful book, and lays out facts in a reasoned argument that’s hard to deny. Continue reading “Summer reading”

Polish poetry

481cf0f2b6a30ad8986c6e.L._V339163520_SX200_I’ve been reading through the luminous translations Mira Rosenthal has done of the work of Tomasz Różycki, a contemporary Polish poet. It’s a delight to read them here in Krakow, where they take on an additional resonance, although Różycki is from Opole, northeast of Krakow. This poem, dedicated to one of the most famous Polish poets, Czesław Miłosz, gives a sense of a land and a poetic spirit that has survived a tortured history.

The Rainy Season

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxFor Cz. M.

We drove through Wrocław, black sea of ruins,
which exiles later wanted to rebuild
to look at least a little like Lwów
so that it did not become a dream, a dream. Continue reading “Polish poetry”

Robinson Jeffers

At one time, Jeffers was quite the rage, but by the time he died in 1962 he fallen almost completely out of fashion. Today he is mostly known as an early environmentalist. Nonetheless, his best work is still fresh, and as today is Monday, here’s a sample. The only thing out-of-date in this poem is ‘milch cow’ for milk cow and some odd punctuation:

Carmel Point Continue reading “Robinson Jeffers”

What’s news?

The air you breathe may be killing you. More at 11.

Okay, this isn’t a real leader for the news, but it represents the whole take on news these days–the scarier the better. I remember Emily Littella’s protest against “violins on television,” and the Kingston Trio’s Merry Minuet. There is always so much to worry about!

Czesław Miłosz wrote “What is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.”

And so I rely on Larry to filter the news for me, as he provides a little order and beauty. We were wondering the other day why the comic strip “Pogo” seems to have disappeared while so many others (Peanuts, for example) continue long after the creator’s death. Walt Kelly, the strip’s creator, was aware that buffoons were spread equally among all parties and denominations, and coined the famous phrase “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Yesterday Larry was talking about the world’s money woes, and noted that economists track something called the “velocity of money,” or how quickly money circulates. The more it slows down, the less of it around for all.  He remembered reading a British economist who summarized this with a pity quote:

“The busy shilling does more work than the lazy pound.”

Last year for my Christmas card, I sent out this little poem:

Meditation on Money

I am thinking about a day forty years ago
when we were down to our last fifty cents,
and our friends drove up
with a month’s rent and groceries,
and after we ate and talked, we sat together
on the edge of the dock, saying nothing,
and watched the barnacles
slowly open their feathery lips,
slowly close them.

And that’s enough for this blog on the financial crisis.

Though I do want to add a big thank you to Melissa Donovan, who restored the format of the blog which had mysteriously deconstructed. Yay for Melissa and her unfailing help.

Lucky in lunch

How lucky to live in the Bay Area, with its surfeit of poetry events. Today, I heard Bob Hass talk about and read from the work of Tomas Tranströmer and Czesław Miłosz. The one-hour event is from a series at UC called “Lunch Poems,” and was billed as Hass reading from the work of Miłosz. News had just come in that Tranströmer had won the Nobel Prize and Bob talked about and read a few of his poems, too. He has translated both poets, and said that the three of them once had a meal together in Paris.

It was wonderful to hear Bob’s exposition on both these poets. I don’t have copies of exactly the poems he read, but soon the reading and Bob stories will be on YouTube, you can search for it.  In the meantime, here is a famous poem by Miłosz, who lived in exile from his native country for several decades in Berkeley. Until he received the Nobel Prize in 1980, he was almost unknown here, a professor of Polish literature at UC, writing in Polish, not largely translated.

This poem is fairly typical, starting with an event, seeming to meander along, almost prose, in reminiscence.  The “magic mountain” itself is a reference to Tomas Mann’s novel by that name, about a man exiled to a sanitorium for tuberculosis. But as the poem meanders it gathers to a fierce anger–the poet blazes out at his lack of recognition, the absence of fame, his inability to change the world. From there it moves to acceptance, endurance, and a wonderful couplet about how the work of poetry itself is a kind of salvation:

With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.

Then, the poet is back in the real world, a little self-mocking, a little disdaining of the pomp of caps and gowns. He returns to July in Berkeley, hummingbirds and fog. It must have been hard for a poet whose work over and over seems extraordinarily alive to place to have lived most of his life estranged from home.

A Magic Mountain

I don’t remember exactly when Budberg died, it was either two years
ago or three.
The same with Chen. Whether last year or the one before.
Soon after our arrival, Budberg, gently pensive,
Said that in the beginning it is hard to get accustomed,
For here there is no spring or summer, no winter or fall.

“I kept dreaming of snow and birch forests.
Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by.
This is, you will see, a magic mountain.”

Budberg: a familiar name in my childhood.
They were prominent in our region,
This Russian family, descendants of German Balts.
I read none of his works, too specialized.
And Chen, I have heard, was an exquisite poet,
Which I must take on faith, for he wrote in Chinese.

Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not forecast spring.
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it that way.

I sensed Budberg was right and I rebelled.
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.

What a procession! Quelles délices!
What caps and hooded gowns!
Most respected Professor Budberg,
Most distinguished Professor Chen,
Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz
Who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue.
Who will count them anyway. And here sunlight.
So that the flames of their tall candles fade.
And how many generations of hummingbirds keep them company
As they walk on. Across the magic mountain.
And the fog from the ocean is cool, for once again it is July.

Berkeley, 1975

Two more poems from Saturday’s Salon

Both of these are by Lisa Rappoport:

Czeslaw Milosz Buys Lion or Tiger Urine at the Oakland Zoo

—or so it has been reported: or rather, so goes the report
of his intent, unaccompanied by any definitive evidence
of whether he did so, or no. He loved the deer, he loved
their musky attendance at his dwelling in exile on the Western
coast of this country, in the hills above Berkeley, at the edge
of the regional park called Tilden. But he loved also his garden,
the trees, the new life that both burgeoned and was encouraged
to burgeon; and the deer loved these also, but after their fashion,
which tended toward destruction. So other than building
eight-foot-high fences to exclude the visitors, the best
modern alternative to discourage their appetite
was to spread the urine of their enemies
about the perimeter of the property.

Although I cannot say whether the intended purchase was made,
the end of the story is that on the morning when news arrived
of Milosz’s faraway death in his once homeland, deer congregated
in the small yard, more than had ever been seen there. I like
to imagine them pushing and milling, crowding, stamping, bidding
a cervine farewell to a poet and a century, creating presence
in a place of absence.

The Death of Longing

In that alternate universe
where desperation is an aphrodisiac,
happiness is visible, palpable, and smells
like bubblegum; but poetry has shriveled
and you see people barfing all day long
from their disgust at reading, viewing,
and living a life of schmaltz. The word
longing means going for a lengthy walk,
and to miss someone is as rare and outmoded
as to contract a case of the vapors. Hearts
don’t break, they bend, like malleable rubber
balls that bounce without bruising themselves
or their targets. The more one is hurt, the more
confidence he gains, and slights are regarded
as compliments and exercise opportunities. Instead of
black holes physicists discuss white mounds: places
of infinite lightness, outside of the pull of gravity,
which reflect and turn back all that approaches.
The few remaining poets write mainly about latitude, longitude
and trigonometry, and are read only by the few remaining
librarians, those specialists whose job descriptions do not forbid
the reading of banned books. Some inhabitants have never returned
from their youthful longings.

Zbigniew Herbert

This Polish poet is one of my favorites. He has many dark poems, having survived the second world war and the subsequent Soviet regime in Poland.  But this is a light, acerbic little prose poem. I disagree with his assessment of the hen, though I love the poem.

The Hen

The hen is the best example of what living constantly with humans leads to.  She has completely lost the lightness and grace of a bird. Her tail sticks up over her protruding rump like a too large hat in bad taste. Her rare moments of ecstasy, when she stands on one leg and glues up her round eyes with filmy eyelids, are stunningly disgusting. And in addition, that parody of song, throat-slashed supplications over a thing unutterably comic: a round, white, maculated egg.
The hen brings to mind certain poets.

More typical is his poem, “Five Men.” This poem astonished me with its power when I first read it, perhaps 40 years ago. In an essay about another poem, Herbert said:

“If a school of literature existed, one of its basic exercises should be the description not of dreams but of objects. Beyond the artist’s reach, a world unfolds–difficult, dark, but real. One should not lose the faith that it can be captured in words…I do not turn to history to draw from it an easy lesson of hope, but to confront my experience with that of others, to acquire something I might call universal compassion, and also a sense of responsibility, responsibility for the state of my conscience.”

This poem seems to me to fulfill that responsibility.

Five Men

They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall 

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged

nothing more
can be said about them

when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken

now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttons straps
and steel helmets
are more alive
then those lying beside the wall

I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers
what did the five talk of
the night before the execution

of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruits
of life

thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

Zbigniew Herbert
both of these were translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, and are from the Penguin 1968 edition of Zbigniew Herbert Selected Poems,