Czesław Miłosz. Six Lectures in Verse

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How to tell it all? Referring to what chronicles?

Imagine a young man walking by a lake shore

On a hot afternoon. Dragonflies, diaphanous,

Over the rushes as always, But nothing of what's to come

Has yet arrived. Understand: nothing.

Or perhaps it has, but is unfulfilled.

Bodies assigned for wounds, cities for destruction,

Pain of uncounted numbers, each pain one's own.

Concrete for crematoria, States for partitioning,

Assassins drawn by lot: you, and you, and you.

Yes. And the jet. The transistor. The video.

Men on the moon. He walks and doesn't know.

He comes to a little bay, a kind of beach.

People on vacation are there sunbathing.

Gentlemen and ladies, bored, talk about

Who is sleeping with whom, bridge, and a new tango.

That young man is me. I was him, perhaps still am

Though half a century has passed. I remember and don't remember

How they and he were at odds. He is different, alien.

Prisoners of his mind, they flash by and vanish.

He scorns them, a judge, observer.

Thus the sickliness of adolescence

Divines the sickness of an era

That will not end well. Those who are unaware

Deserve to be punished: they wanted only to live.

A wave, bits of reed on gravel, white clouds.

Beyond the water, village roofs, a wood. And imagination.

In it, Jewish towns, a train crossing the flatlands.

Abyss, The earth is swaying. Does it sway only now

When I throw open the labyrinths of time,

As if to know meant to comprehend,

And beyond the window hummingbirds perform their dance?

I should have... I should have what fifty-five years ago?

1 should have lived in joy. In harmony. In faith. In peace.

As if that had been possible. And later, stupefaction:

Why hadn't they been wiser? It all appears now as a sequence

Of cause and effect. No, that too is doubtful.

Everyone's responsible who ever breathed —

Air? Unreason? Illusion? Idea?

Like everyone who lived there and then, I didn't see clearly.

This I confess to you, my young students.





Mothers and sisters, tender wives and lovers.

Think of them. They lived and had names.

I saw on a radiant Adriatic beach

Between the Wars, a girl so beautiful

I wanted to stop her in the irrevocable moment.

Her slenderness clasped by a silk bathing suit

(Before the era of plastic), color of indigo

Or ultramarine. Her eyes, violet,

Hair, blond touched with russet. Daughter of patricians,

Of a lordly clan perhaps, striding confidently.

Fair-haired young men, as handsome as she,

Served as her retinue. Sigrid or Inge

From a house scented with cigars, well-being, order.

"Don't go off, fool. Better to take refuge

In hieratic sculptures, church mosaics, rosy gold auroras.

Stay as an echo on waters at sunset.

Don't destroy yourself, don't trust. Not splendor and glory,

But an apish circus calls you, your tribal rite".

So I could have told her. An essence, a person?

A soul, unique? While day of birth

And place of birth, like a planetary house,

Control what she'll be: seduced by her love

Of native customs, by her obedient virtue.

Dante was wrong, alas. It doesn't happen that way.

The verdict is collective. Eternal damnation

Should have afflicted all of them, yes, all.

Which is no doubt impossible. Jesus has to face

Flowery teapots, coffee, philosophizing,

Landscapes with deer, the sound of the clock on the town hall.

Nobody will be convinced by him, black-eyed,

A hooked nose, the dirty clothes

Of a convict or slave, one of those drifters

The State justly catches and disposes of.

Now, when I know so much, I have to forgive

My own transgressions, not unlike theirs:

I wanted to equal others, behave just like them.

To shut my ears, not to hear the call of prophets.

That's why I understand her. A snug home, a garden,

And from the depths of Hell, a fugue of Bach.





Poor humanity is camping on train station floors.

Caps with earflaps, babushkas, quilted jackets, sheepskins.

They sleep side by side, waiting for a train. Cold blows in through the doorway.

New arrivals shake off snow, adding to the mud.

I know it's not for you, that knowledge of Smolensk, Saratov.

And better it is not. If one can, let him avoid

Compassion, that ache of imagination.

So I won't labor this. Just fragments, an outline.

They appear. The guards. Three men and one woman.

The leather of their long boots is soft, first-class,

Coats of expensive fur. Movements arrogant, confident.

Leading on leash their German shepherds. Look at her,

Large, still sleepy, well fucked in bed,

Glancing scornfully from under a beaver cap.

Doesn't she clearly show who holds the power here,

Who takes the prize? Ideological,

If you prefer. For nothing here is professed,

All is disguised in a ritual phrase,

Though the fear is real, people obedient,

And where are these four coming from, in a snowstorm,

Real barbed wire, watchtowers of a camp.

At the Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris

In spring 1935, my fellow student,

Wandering across Europe, Gunther from Marburg,

Chuckled. An admirer of Stefan George,

He would write poems on knightly valor

And carried a pocket edition of Nietzsche.

He was to die, perhaps near Smolensk.

From whose bullet? One of those here asleep.

Of the guard with the dogs? Of a camp inmate?

Of this Nadia or Irina? About them, he knew nothing.





Reality, what can we do with it? Where is it in words?

Just as it flickers, it vanishes. Innumerable lives

Unremembered. Cities on maps only,

Without that face in the window, on the first floor, by the market,

Without those two in the bushes near the gas plant.

Returning seasons, mountain snows, oceans,

And the blue ball of the Earth rotates,

But silent are they who ran through artillery fire,

Who clung to a lump of clay for protection,

And those deported from their homes at dawn

And those who have crawled out from under a pile of bodies,

While here, I, an instructor in forgetting,

Teach that pain passes (for it's the pain of others),

Still in my mind trying to save Miss Jadwiga,

A little hunchback, librarian by profession,

Who perished in the shelter of an apartment house

That was considered safe but toppled down

And no one was able to dig through the slabs of wall,

Though knocking and voices were heard for many days.

So a name is lost for ages, forever,

No one will ever know about her last hours,

Time carries her in layers of the Pliocene.

The true enemy of man is generalization.

The true enemy of man, so-called History,

Attracts and terrifies with its plural number.

Don't believe it. Cunning and treacherous,

History is not, as Marx told us, anti-nature,

And if a goddess, a goddess of blind fate.

The little skeleton of Miss Jadwiga, the spot

Where her heart was pulsating. This only

I set against necessity, law, theory.





"Christ has risen." Whoever believes that

Should not behave as we do,

Who have lost the up, the down, the right, the left, heavens, abysses,

And try somehow to muddle on, in cars, in beds,

Men clutching at women, women clutching at men,

Falling, rising, putting coffee on the table,

Buttering bread, for here's another day.

And another year. Time to exchange presents.

Christmas trees aglow, music,

All of us, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics,

Like to sit in the pew, sing with others,

Give thanks for being here together still,

For the gift of echoing the Word, now and in all ages.

We rejoice at having been spared the misfortune

Of countries where, as we read, the enslaved

Kneel before the idol of the State, live and die with its name

On their lips, not knowing they're enslaved.

However that may be, The Book is always with us,

And in it, miraculous signs, counsels, orders.

Unhygienic, it's true, and contrary to common sense,

But they exist and that's enough on the mute earth.

It's as if a fire warmed us in a cave

While outside the golden rain of stars is motionless.

Theologians are silent. And philosophers

Don't even dare ask: "What is truth?"

And so, after the great wars, undecided,

With almost good will but not quite,

We plod on with hope. And now let everyone

Confess to himself. "Has he risen?" "I don't know".





Boundless history lasted in that moment

When he was breaking bread and drinking wine.

They were being born, they desired, they died.

My God, what crowds! How is it possible

That all of them wanted to live and are no more?

A teacher leads a flock of five-year-olds

Through the marble halls of a museum.

She seats them on the floor, polite boys

And girls, facing a huge painting,

And explains: "A helmet, a sword, the gods,

A mountain, white clouds, an eagle, lightning."

She is knowing, they see for the first time.

Her fragile throat, her female organs,

Her multicolored dress, creams, and trinkets

Are embraced by forgiveness. What is not embraced

By forgiveness? Lack of knowledge, innocent unconcern

Would cry for vengeance, demand a verdict

Had I been a judge. I won't be, I'm not.

In splendor the earth's poor moment renews itself.

Simultaneously, now, here, every day

Bread is changed into flesh, wine into blood,

And the impossible, what no one can bear,

Is again accepted and acknowledged.

I'm consoling you, of course. Consoling myself also.

Not very much consoled. Trees-candelabra

Carry their green candles. And magnolias bloom.

This too is real. The din ceases.

Memory closes down its dark waters.

And those, as if behind a glass, stare out, silent.


Berkeley, 1985


translated by Czesław Miłosz

and Leonard Nathan


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