Milosz: Poetry and Politics
The intellectual history of our century might almost be written as a study of what has been achieved by all the imaginative writers, philosophers, social theorists, and scholars violently uprooted from their homelands in Eastern and Central Europe and transplanted, as a rich and exotic new stock, in the West. Although some observers, like George Steiner, have been tempted to project a shared vision of “extraterritoriality” onto this extremely diverse group of intellectuals, their literary careers in exile have in fact been as various as their individual sensibilities and experience. Some have, accommodated to the beguilements of their new surroundings all too well, like Jerzy Kosinski; others, like Vladimir Nabokov, have spun out of the remembered world before the deluge a luminous personal myth; still others, haunted by the past and its vistas of violence, have finally been unable to go on, like the remarkable German poet Paul Celan, who survived the slaughter of his fellow Jews in Bukovina only to take his own life in Paris twenty-five years after the war.
As a rule of thumb, displacement is probably hardest on poets, because of their intimate linguistic attachment to their native sphere, the ultimate un-translatability of what they do, and their consequent dependence on an audience in their own language. A good many modern poets have been forced to leave their homelands with little or no choice in the matter; a few others have, paradoxically, made the decision to leave in order to be faithful to their own calling as poets.
Such is the case of Czeslaw Milosz. Among the disparate writers in exile who have played an important role in the cultural history of our times, he stands out as at once a stubbornly peculiar figure and an exemplary one—peculiar in his unflagging adherence to what he himself has called “modes of eccentric vision,” exemplary in what he has shown about the possibilities and responsibilities of poetry in an age of totalitarianism.
Milosz first became widely known in the West in 1953, two years after his defection from the Polish diplomatic service, with the publication (in both English and French translations) of The Captive Mind. That compact, quietly mordant volume, which begins with an account of the fate of truth under the Communist system and ends with a series of portraits of actual writers transformed or deformed by the new regime, is still one of the best general accounts of what totalitarianism does to intellectual life. Western readers of The Captive Mind in the 50’s, or of its fictional companion piece published the same year, The Seizure of Power,1 a somber novel of Poland at the end of World War II, would have had no way of knowing that the author was one of the leading Polish poets of his generation, or that there was an essential connection between his stance as a poet and his critique of totalitarianism. That connection was dramatically revealed by an unforeseen turn of history two years ago, during the heady days of Solidarity, when his poems became rallying points in the movement for new freedoms and when he himself was lionized on a brief return to Poland after three decades of expatriation.
Meanwhile, enough of Milosz’s literary production had become available in English, even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, to give a fuller sense of what has impelled him as a writer. Poetry, however, remains at the center of his enterprise, and one must assume that readers of Polish have much more to draw on than the two suggestive but rather modest volumes that have appeared in English (most of the pieces collaboratively translated by the author), Selected Poems (1973) and Bells in Winter (1978). Two collections of Milosz’s essays are now also available in English translation, Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (1978) and the newly published Visions from San Francisco Bay,2 both of them philosophic or rather meditative in character, the former devoted to a series of idiosyncratic writers from Swedenborg to Simone Weil and the latter to reflections on the American landscape and the American condition. To these various probings into the surrounding world of culture and nature, one must add Milosz’s remarkable autobiographical volume, Native Realm (1968), in some ways perhaps his most compelling prose work and certainly the one I would recommend to readers of The Captive Mind who are curious about the sources of its tough independence of spirit. Finally, Harvard University Press has just brought out Milosz’s Norton lectures, The Witness of Poetry, which is both a poet’s credo and a kind of supplement to his spiritual autobiography as an exiled Pole.3
Milosz was born into a Roman Catholic family in 1911 in a rural area of Lithuania and was educated in Vilna. Thus he grew up not in a simply demarcated national culture but in a complex interplay of languages, national memories and loyalties, and political power. Despite the fact that his own family was Polish-speaking, the first layer of national identification was Lithuanian, not Polish, and in Native Realm he devotes a long introductory section to an evocation of the past glories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and how they continue to affect the thinking of his compatriots. From childhood, then, he heard around him four languages—Polish, Lithuanian, Yiddish, and Russian. The last, of course, was the language of the resented conquerors, who in 1945 would return to impose a far more systematic and ruthless mode of occupation, annexing Lithuania and making Poland (from the late 30’s Milosz had lived in Warsaw) a vassal state that reproduced the totalitarianism of its Soviet overlords.
Milosz’s awareness of the dense Jewish population of pre-Nazi Lithuania would, as I shall try to indicate, also play a certain role in the evolution of his moral imagination. As one might suppose, he had ample models of anti-Semitism in the surrounding milieu, but once having almost succumbed to the temptation in a childhood incident he recounts in Native Realm, his attitude toward Jews has been marked by an unusual combination of decency and clarity, while certain aspects of the Jewish spiritual legacy and the Jewish historical predicament have contributed directly or obliquely to his own formation.
As a Lithuanian, Milosz’s exposure to endemic violence did not begin in 1939 but at the very dawn of his conscious memory, in 1914: “My first awareness came with war. Peeping out from under my grandmother’s cloak, I discovered horror: the bellow of cattle being driven off, the panic, the dust-laden air, the rumbling and flashing on a darkened horizon.” The Germans had invaded Lithuania, and Milosz’s family was soon traveling eastward with the retreating czarist armies because the father, an engineer, had been mobilized to build roads and bridges for the Russians. There followed six years of nomadic existence, living, as the mature Milosz recalls it, like an American pioneer family, out of a covered wagon, surrounded by constant dangers. The period of disruption was six years rather than four for these Lithuanians because the Great War was followed by an armed conflict between Russia and Poland from 1918 to 1920. Milosz’s recorded memories of this whole period are sober, wry, understated—one of his great resources as a witness of horror is a kind of constitutional antipathy toward any kind of melodramatic flourish—and there is an almost Goya-like power in his evocation of some of the war scenes, as in this moment from a Polish retreat:
The highway was a swarm of interlocking wagonshafts, eyes of the terrified horses, manes, mouths open in a scream, whips raised. Along the ditch by the side of the road, a soldier without cap or gun was slipping past, bareback astride a colt and lashing it with a switch. . . . In the middle of the street stood a huge tank, and my memory of this sight is so intense that I feel as if I could reach out and touch every rivet.
One consequence of having undergone such experiences in the first decade of his life is that Milosz entered the still greater cataclysm of 1939-45, to be followed by the imposition on Poland of what he calls the Imperium, with a certain ability to expect the worst and to stand apart skeptically from the intoxications of ideology and the blandishments of power. “Such a lack of stability,” he observes at the beginning of his chapter on World War I in Native Realm, “the unconscious feeling that everything is temporary, . . . can be the reason for taking governments and political systems lightly.” And he adds, in a comment that suggests one reason for his capacity of imaginative identification with the Jews, “History becomes fluid because it is equated with ceaseless wandering.”
This presence of a certain “Jewish” theme in Milosz’s biography deserves a little reflection. To some extent it is connected with his actual contact with Jews and, especially, as he reached maturity, with Jewish intellectuals. When his family settled in Vilna after the war, he discovered an intensely Catholic city where he would be given a thoroughly Catholic education, though one modern enough to admit the contradictory presence of evolutionary science in the curriculum. But he also became aware of Vilna as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” (he himself alludes to this designation proverbial among Jews), and as he came of age he encountered large numbers of young Jews entering into cultural and political life, often through what he viewed as a dismaying readiness to renounce their own heritage. By the time he reached the university, he also came to realize that the split between Left and Right in Poland was closely bound up with attitudes toward the Jews, the nationalist Right, of course, being associated in principle and in practical program with virulent anti-Semitism. Milosz’s stance, then, toward Jews, from the imperiled minority of prewar Poland to the isolated Israel of the 1980’s, has been a staunch defense of their fundamental rights as individuals and as a group.
What is more significant, however, for his imaginative relation to history is a repeated analogy of position to the Jewish one, an analogy of which he often seems quite conscious. I have already noted the life of “ceaseless wandering” that constituted his early formative years, and implicit in that condition was a sense of constant vulnerability, of being at once deeply rooted in a national identity and apart from the nations of the earth, without the secure moorings of a permanent place and power that could be taken for granted. At school, where Milosz continually sought to find a bridge between Catholicism and science while his classmates were happy to keep religion compartmentalized from the rest of their education, he was perceived for this reason as an odd type, a predicament he puts in the following terms: “My intensity won me the position among them of a Jew among goyim.” Again, observing how traditional Poland was subject to occupation by a Russia professing a very different kind of Christianity, he insists on a parallel between Polish Catholicism, with which he still feels a strong connection, and Judaism: “Thus religion was turned into an institution for preserving national identity; in this respect, the Poles were like the Jews of the Roman empire. To make the analogy more complete, messianic currents were as popular with the Poles as they had been with Israel.”
The deepest level, in any case, of Milosz’s identification with the Jewish experience is in his abiding attachment to the Bible, which for him means not just the New Testament with the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the New, but the Hebrew Scriptures as the articulation of a world view and a set of poetic visions that constitute the matrix of consciousness of the Jewish people and, in turn, of its Christian heirs. I hardly need to say that this makes him a rather untypical Catholic, both because of the very emphasis on an immediate engagement with the Bible and because of the forthright sense of it as the great document of the Jewish people. In describing his Catholic education, he draws a memorable portrait of the fervent priest who was his instructor in religion, and whom he compares with Naphta, the Jesuit polemicist in Mann’s The Magic Mountain. In retrospect, he argues that the priest, in the rigid traditionalism of his Catholic views, missed a great opportunity by leaving the Hebrew Scriptures a closed book to his students:
He could . . . have shown us that Judaism, contrary to its rival beliefs in antiquity, with their cyclical vision of the world, conceived of Creation in a dynamic way, as a dialogue, a perpetual up-surging of constantly modified questions and constantly modified answers, and that Christianity inherited this trait. Had he proceeded in this manner, he would have vaccinated us against the reality that things human not only are but become. To put it another way: he would have accustomed us to history.
Through whatever channels, literary or experiential, Milosz himself had already been vaccinated against history when the Nazi epoch of progressive mass murder overtook him in Warsaw in September 1939. During the six terrible years of the occupation, he worked as a writer and editor in the Polish underground press. He underwent, as witness and then as witness-participant, two great traumas—the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 and the lethal suppression of the Warsaw uprising in 1944. The latter was a collaborative effort of German thoroughness and Russian cynical calculation. The Red Army waited patiently just to the east of the city while Nazi tanks and guns pounded much of Warsaw and its inhabitants into rubble—waited, until it was certain that all armed elements of the non-Communist resistance had been “eliminated” so that the new Soviet order could be installed without obstacle. The new order quickly became a third major historical trauma in Milosz’s life. These three grim events—the destruction of the ghetto, the destruction of the city, the corruption of the nation—have remained, I would suggest, focal points in Milosz’s perception of history and in his understanding of the task of poetry under the pressures of history.
After the war, as a prominent poet loosely associated with the Left, he was accorded a privileged position under the new regime, serving as a diplomat first in Washington and then in Paris. But he was soon dismayed by the pervasive subversion of freedom of thought, belief, expression, and action under the Communists, and in 1951 he chose exile instead of complicity with oppression. For ten years he lived in Paris, continuing to write in Polish and finding outlets in translation. Since then he has been professor of Polish literature at Berkeley, an idiosyncratic and thoroughly unacademic figure within the academic community, pursuing his enterprise as a poet and essayist, and using his location on the rim of the ultimate West to ponder, as his latest book of essays makes evident, the abiding strangeness and rawness of America’s relation to landscape and history.
I have intimated that the strength of the critique of totalitarianism offered in The Captive Mind is fully perceived only when one understands the seriousness of its author’s commitment to poetry. What could poetry have to do with a critique of totalitarianism? Milosz shrewdly observes at the beginning of The Captive Mind that in one crucial respect the totalitarianism of the Left has been more successful than the totalitarianism of the Right because, at least for intellectuals, it is powerfully seductive as well as oppressive. That is, both varieties of police state depend on the agency of fear, but the totalitarianism of the Right has little to offer beyond “collective warmth” and ad-hoc solutions to national problems, while its counterpart on the Left stirringly promises to solve all our dilemmas, collective and individual, with “a single system, a single language of ideas.”
The language of ideas, then, and before that, language itself, are very much at stake in the kind of oppressive order established all across Eastern Europe in 1945, and in this regard poetry as Milosz conceives it might be relevant as an inward source of opposition. “Official language,” one of the characters in The Seizure of Power reflects, feeling the weight of the new Communist bureaucracy, “deprived experience of reality.” When, in the manipulated system of official language, what you yourself have seen and undergone can be made to seem unreal, you may be led to see, undergo, tolerate, perpetrate almost anything—hence the danger of that infinite plasticity of the human animal about which Milosz writes so effectively in The Captive Mind. Against this palpable danger, poetry is a way of using language that tightens our grasp on the reality of experience, whether the experience is joy or pain or something in between.
In this connection, one might note the political impetus in Milosz’s latest literary project, a new Polish translation of the Psalms. The Psalms, of course, are not widely read in so Catholic a country, but Milosz, by going back both to a 19th-century version, on which he frequently draws, and to the original Hebrew, which he learned for the purpose, is able to make available to his now numerous Polish readers a kind of primary language of poetic and spiritual expression, entirely untainted by four decades of mind-numbing official jargon and its waste products in everyday speech.4
What is the experience with which poetry might keep us in touch? Very much an East European in this regard, Milosz has a keen appreciation for the aesthetic sphere but a good deal of skepticism about a wholly autonomous realm of aesthetics, about aesthetics as an end in itself. In The Captive Mind, he observes in several different connections that daily life under the new order is drained of aesthetic stimulation: in place of the teeming variety of urban scenes that have excited the literary imagination ever since Balzac and Dickens, the Imperium proliferates bleakness and monotony in everything from the drab clothing and the ubiquitous painted slogans to the monumental ugliness of the new public buildings.
The point is not merely that the subjects of the Imperium are deprived of the pleasurable or recreational advantages of aesthetic stimulation in everyday life but that such deprivation is a prime symptom of the systematic extirpation of spontaneous feeling and personal perception. “How can one still the thought,” Milosz asks rhetorically, “that aesthetic experiences rise out of something organic, and that the union of color and harmony with fear is as difficult to imagine as brilliant plumage on birds living in the northern tundras?” The simile of brilliant plumage might seem to imply a rather decorative notion of aesthetic experience, and Milosz is far from dismissing the sheer pleasure of reveling through art in sensory delight (a pleasure occasionally indulged in his own poetry), but in speaking of the inner contradiction between totalitarianism and the aesthetic realm, he has something else in mind. An earlier passage from The Captive Mind offers an odd and instructive illustration of the triple nexus by which aesthetic experience, poetry, and reality are tied together. It is very much the perception of a member of the resistance who survived the devastation of Warsaw:
A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobble-stones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers. . . . The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions.
What may seem strange on first reading is the appearance of “a very amusing sight” in the midst of deadly battle and the leap from amusement to a rigorous judging of poet and philosopher (the man on his belly is imagined as a successful poet who now suddenly realizes that his poems are “diseased and highbrow”). The sight of the cobblestones as porcupine quills—it is, we should note, at once an immediate perception and already a metaphoric linking—is amusing because of the surprise of spontaneous observation and the sheer incongruity of what the observing eye catches under the threat of death. We generally live floundering in an endless tangle of clichés. The highbrow poet whom Milosz invokes makes poems, one assumes, out of other poems, juggling the most elaborate and sophisticated literary clichés in a kind of sleight-of-hand illusion of the expression of reality. On a much cruder level, totalitarianism systematizes the reign of cliché in dress, décor, architecture, social behavior, and, above all, in language. The last thing, of course, one would look for in a cliché is the unexpected, the incongruous. If a socialist freedom fighter is crawling over cobblestones raked by enemy machine guns, we must have no odd tilts of vision like the perception of porcupine quills, nothing that will detract from the stereotyped image of the dauntless soldier of progressive forces, nothing, in other words, that will wrench a general formula of ideological conviction into the concrete peculiarity—the nakedness, as Milosz says with italic emphasis—of individual experience.
It follows from this sense of a rigorous self-judging poetry of reality that Milosz consciously sets his own enterprise apart from some of the main currents of modern poetry in the West. It is characteristic that he has devoted poems and essays to friendly polemics with writers like Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller, to whom he is somehow attracted but who in his view have chosen a perilously wrong path. “The war years taught me,” he observes toward the end of The Captive Mind, “that a man should never take a pen in his hands merely to communicate to others his own despair and defeat.” The purveying of wasteland visions, he continues, at a moment when the literary imagination is called on to encompass historically concrete manifestations of abysmal destructiveness, easily becomes a “cheap commodity,” and elsewhere he remarks that his fellow East Europeans could not be content with a literature that merely stirs sensations or merely confirms the essential meaninglessness of life. “They want bread, not hors d’oeuvres,” he says sharply (and one might recall that Osip Mandelstam, a poet for whom he has expressed the deepest admiration, wrote in a memorable late poem that the people need poetry like bread, to keep them alive).
By the end of World War II, Milosz had come to consider his own poetry, as he puts it in Native Realm, “a kind of higher politics, an unpolitical politics.” Sufficient weight should be placed on the unpolitical component of this formulation. He does not have in mind a Sartrean ideal of littérature engagée and certainly not a conservative notion of poetry as an ideological response of opposition to the regnant Communist ideology. He goes on to characterize his own verse as a fusion of “individual and historical elements . . . one seldom encounters in the West,” and while it is hard to get hold of a single distinctive voice and style in his variegated poetic production—I am told this is also a problem for those who read him in Polish—that fusion is nevertheless repeatedly evident, especially in some of his strongest poems.
The historical elements are, first of all, the actual evocations of particular historical events Milosz witnessed, especially during the war years in Warsaw. More fundamental, I think, is his sense of history as a finely woven fabric where no thread, however ancient or exotic, is ever wholly lost as new patterns are added to the old. It is an idea he touches on at several points in Native Realm in explaining his native Lithuania and its relation to Russia. In Visions from San Francisco Bay he announces this involvement with the past as a defining principle of human freedom, mankind’s means of escape from the rule of necessity, of senseless birth and decay: “We alone among living creatures have a history, we move in a gigantic labyrinth where the present and the past are interwoven.” And at the end of The Witness of Poetry, he evokes what amounts to an eschatology of historical consciousness, seeing in the deep awareness of the past a hope for mankind’s future.
Ideologies of the Left, of course, are impelled by their inner logic to eradicate the past, or at least any just and complex sense of it, while in his new American setting, Milosz finds himself in a world that, without explicit ideological motive, has in many respects torn itself away from the subtle integument of the past. An important part of his task as a poet, from the 1940’s to the present, has been the imaginative enactment of a Catholic humanism, using the inherently recapitulative dynamic of the poetic medium to show how the present is profoundly caught up in the web of the past, how it needs the background of the past to be seen in proper depth. The opening lines of a poem called “Readings” are paradigmatic:
You asked me what is the good of reading the
Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be more attentive we shall think
of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads
On coins are different today.
Although there are certainly modernist features in Milosz’s verse—disjunctures, incongruities of imagery, enigmatic dream sequences—the prevailing mode of expression is traditional in its strong and explicit clarity (indeed, some poems may be a little too discursive) because of this powerful sense of historical continuity and because of his commitment to preserve “the true dignity of speech” in an age when language has been corrupted by the bureaucratic implementation of terror. A poem entitled “Dedication,” written in Warsaw in 1945 and addressed to all the recent dead, gives a still more particular rationale for the attachment to a simple dignified style:
You whom I could not save,
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would
be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or tree.
In the same poem, three stanzas down, he offers what at first blush may seem an extravagantly unrealistic program for the function of poetry in a devastated world:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut
in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
Milosz is clearly not a man to use words like “save” and “salvation” lightly (in this instance, the translation of the original Polish text happens to be entirely his own), and it is worth pondering what, on the evidence of his poems, he might have envisaged in stating so far-reaching a goal for poetry.
The implicit model for an uncompromising poetry of spiritual truth that can save nations would seem to be the biblical prophets, and there are in fact certain prophetic and apocalyptic motifs in Milosz’s verse. He is constantly aware, however, that it would be presumption for a modern poet to assume the prophetic mantle, and also that while some aspects of our reality are shown forth in the dark mirror of eschatology, there are also unresolvable discrepancies between the world as we see it and the world imaged in sacred text.
One impressive poem written in 1944, “A Song at the End of the World,” turns entirely on this sense of tension between text and world. The end of days has surely come, the speaker argues (one could hardly ask for stronger evidence than the Third Reich), and bees are circling clover, fishermen are mending their nets in the sun, sparrows are playing in rainspouts. “. . . Those who expected lightning and thunder/ Are disappointed,” and yet, the poem concludes, “There will be no other end of the world.” Having both invoked and dismissed the traditional apocalypse, the poem hovers delicately over contradictory implications, which is perhaps the only adequate way to take in the true imponderability of the historical moment. On the one hand, the speaker implicitly impugns the complacency, the total failure of response, of the human and natural world to the advent of the final catastrophe. On the other hand, he suggests that the final catastrophe, whose comprehensive devastating sweep can scarcely be gainsaid, may not after all be final, for there is a manifest impulse of renewal in man and nature, an eternal reassertion of pastoral in the eye of the apocalypse.
One revealing move in Milosz’s poetry is a quick glide from the public stance of prophet to the unassuming and at times wryly self-critical voice of the witness-survivor. These lines from a 1942 poem are exemplary:
I have seen the fall of states and the perdition of
the flight of kings and emperors, the power of
I can say now, in this hour,
that I—am, while everything expires,
that it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion
as the Scripture says.
The shift in backgrounds of allusion here is beautifully apt. The first two lines, with their grandiloquence, their insistence on rendering modern terror in terms of antique tragedy or prophecy, are one version of the poet’s hewing close to the timeless “dignity of speech.” But this high style will clearly not do for the speaker who, in all honesty, has only the unadorned fact of his own minimal survival to show to the world, and so he invokes a sardonic verse from Ecclesiastes, that most skeptical and shrewdly unillusioned of all biblical books. Ecclesiastes, we might recall, is generally quite bleak without ever being entirely despairing: everything may seem an endless cycle of futility, but at least survival is promoted, at a couple of points the enjoyment of life is even made a positive value, and the book concludes on a note of affirmation.
I don’t mean to extend this local allusion to Ecclesiastes too far into the definition of Milosz’s imaginative world, but there is an instructive analogy here. He has not permitted himself grand affirmative gestures as a poet, which would inevitably seem false in the historical moment he addresses, but there is an implicit hopefulness—it is the very faith on which his Catholic humanism rests—even in the poems he wrote in great anguish at the nadir of recent history. Such poetry has at least a small role to play in the saving of nations because it avoids the poisoning “connivance with official lies” and manages to bear true witness to the terrible events, and at the same time it does not respond to those events with finally paralyzing emotions like self-pity, anarchic rage, or mere despair.
The traditionalism, then, of Milosz’s view of poetry is not a reflex of aesthetic conservatism but flows from his sense of certain impelling responsibilities of poetry that make the freedom of the avant-garde look like callow self-indulgence. In The Witness of Poetry, he quotes a vehement attack by Simone Weil, written in 1941, on Dadaism and Surrealism, and then soberly notes that the scorn for democracy of these movements did, after all, have some link with the weakening of resistance against totalitarianism.
One remarkable illustration of this capacity of spiritually stalwart response is a haunting poem, “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” which Milosz wrote in 1943 after having witnessed the final incineration of the Warsaw ghetto. The first two stanzas are a powerful evocation, through a catalogue of burnt remnants, of the devastation itself. The third stanza curiously introduces a “guardian mole” with a kind of miner’s lamp on his head, poking about among the ashes and charred bodies. This quasi-mythic creature, it is clear, is a kind of archetypal representative of the Jewish people through the ages, somehow stubbornly managing to survive underground with its special wisdom and its peculiar spiritual authority, even when total annihilation has seemed to have overtaken it.
One might usefully juxtapose the guardian mole of this poem with that other odd animal image, the porcupine-quill cobblestones, for on the more complex scale of historical rather than visual perception this is also a sudden, almost whimsical, tilt of vision that enables us, as poetry can, to see things freshly, perhaps in their naked reality. Here are the concluding lines of the poem, in which, it should be noted, the hitherto impersonal witness finally switches into the first person singular:
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testa-
Waiting two thousand years for the second com-
ing of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of
This is, of course, in one respect an expression of guilt on the part of the Christian observer who has been spared victimhood and who cannot escape a certain historical complicity—at least in the eyes of the victims as he imagines them—with the murderers. The poem, however, holds in fluid suspension a complex of attitudes more interesting and potentially more sustaining than mere guilt. Three thousand years of history have not ended with this awful episode of genocide, and the suggestive implication of the poem’s conclusion is that things, after all, go on, however ambiguously and precariously. The patriarchal underground survivor makes his way onward after the destruction by the red glow of his headlamp, a wary eye to the world around him, with a sense of dogged loyalty to his origins, a determination to continue. The Christian witness still awaits the Second Coming through this dark night of the Western soul, conscious that the very vision of redemption of the New Testament to which he clings is rooted in the Old, aware of the chasm that separates him from the Jew but also of a solidarity derived from a common spiritual heritage. One sees how Milosz’s poetry can be an “unpolitical politics,” how the rigorous ordering of language in the poetic medium can be an instrument for grasping a reality more complex than the reality of the senses, far deeper than the thin surface of ideological and literary clichés.
Milosz’s verse is often strongly personal, but as one can see in “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” it is never altogether personal in the manner of the confessional poetry of postwar America because man as he imagines him is always connected by a fine capillary system to nation, creed, culture, and all the potent presences of the past preserved in the texts and symbolic systems of those large contexts of individual life. A poem entitled interrogatively “Ars Poetica?” observes this with great nicety, suggesting why poetry as Milosz has practiced it constitutes a principle of opposition to a political realm that fosters secretive privacy through fear and flattens speech into the iron frame of slogan:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
1 Recently reissued in paperback by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 245 pp., $6.95.
2 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 226 pp., $14.95.
3 Harvard University Press, 116 pp., $8.95.
4 I am indebted to Regina Grol-Prokopczyk for her informed advice on the language of Milosz's translation.