Monday, October 1, 2007

He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers...

Dangerous Considerations: A Notebook

by Adam Zagajewski



I'm reading Milosz's Last Poems, published by Znak two years after their author's death. Milosz's foes — and there's no dearth of them in this polemical, sometimes petty nation, where his towering stature guarantees that he won't be spared the resentment of greatness that typifies democracies — claim that his poetic power waned near the end. You only need to read a few lines of his “Orpheus and Eurydice” to be convinced of his critics' error:

He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
Of his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

Milosz's Polish opponents may be grouped into several types. There are those who have no interest in poetry but charge the author of The Captive Mind with treason, since he served in the Communist diplomatic corps for several years. (But he didn't praise nothingness. He never wrote a single poem fit for inclusion in an anthology of Stalinist poetry.) Others can't tolerate his aversion towards Polish nationalism. (This aversion is, I should add, completely justified.) Just before his funeral some accused him of being a bad Catholic — and thus not worthy of sharing a crypt with various Polish national 
luminaries. Those who do read his poetry sometimes attack its lofty, hymnic tone. These days one should write only flat, ironic poems and wait for better times.

When I read the line “Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,” I'm reminded of a conversation with Milosz I had a few years ago. M. and I were vacationing then with Milosz near Lucca, in Tuscany, along with C.K. Williams. Once we set out for the beach at Bocca di Magra, a little town in Liguria (from the highway you see an ad for the hotel “Shelley”: the poet drowned nearby). The Magra is a river that reaches the sea at this point. Milosz heard this and began reminiscing. He'd vacationed in Bocca a couple of times with Mary McCarthy, Nicola Chiaromonte, and other friends — he'd also gone swimming there and always remembered the white marble cliffs that might be mistaken at first for snowy mountainsides. But it's marble, not snow; Carrara, a town famed among sculptors, sits at the foot of the white marble mountains. And the sea is deep blue, warm, salty, with little waves. Lines and irregular geometric forms take shape briefly on the water's velvety surface and then vanish — the ocean's papillaries. Gulls circle over fishing boats. The shoreline is steep, as it should be above the Mediterranean, since flat, sandy beaches plastered with the huge towels of sunburnt German tourists don't match the sea's nature, but turn it into the pale, chilly Baltic, and it loses its deep cobalt hue.

Milosz died thinking, working, writing poems right up to the very end — as if he had swum far out to sea, toward Carrara, toward sky-blue mists and white mountains.

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