Book Review

A Worker in the Vineyard

When Czeslaw Milosz went into exile in America in 1960, aged 49, he left behind friends, family, several languages he spoke better than English, and most of his readership. Although admiration for his work in prose as well as poetry was instrumental in bringing him to the University of Berkeley in California, no large audience for his work existed on this side of the Atlantic. Yet when he died forty-four years later, in 2004, he had joined the very small number of recent poets who can be called “international” in their appeal. Where Derek Walcott sized up the colonial experience and its outfall, and Joseph Brodsky the vicious death-spasms of Soviet Russia, and Seamus Heaney the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Milosz addressed the defining Western wars of the twentieth century. In other words, Milosz’s eventually large readership, like that of his great peers, is a measure of the sheer scope and depth of his subjects.

Also like Heaney and the distinguished few, Milosz combined an immensely ambitious reach into the external world with an equally subtle exploration of the internal self: of innate human resourcefulness, and of the comforts that philosophy and religious conviction might bring. It is to the combination of these things—of expansiveness and tight focus, of spontaneity and tradition, of big ideas and close attention to detail—that we turn in order to measure his stature. When we celebrate him, we simultaneously admire the steadfastness with which he endures the Gorgon stare of History and relish the way he pays attention to the little guy—the one we recognize as being like ourselves, bent on tying up our tomatoes as Armageddon approaches.

Such a large life, such a noble enterprise in writing, deserves a masterful biography, and in Andrzej Franaszek’s book Milosz finds one.[1] Although its style defaults to a tone of understandable though rather drab earnestness, Franaszek is a thoughtful critic of the poems: helpful to those who might not be familiar with their background and refer­ences, and also alive to their characteristically “dialogical” structure. (“Energy should encounter resistance,” Milosz says in his Notebooks; “resistance keeps it in practice, rescues it.”) Furthermore, Franaszek tells the story of Milosz’s life in a way that puts writing at its center, where it undoubtedly belongs, but also allows it a degree of accidentalness that reflects the unpredictability of events themselves. The result is a book at once controlled and flexible, clear-eyed but capable of wonder.

“We see the world once, in childhood, the rest is memory.” So says Louise Glück, and her remark is full of wisdom. In Milosz’s case, the sheer eventfulness of his adult existence means that once his childhood was over, “the rest” of his life contained a great deal more than just memory. But there’s no question that the habits and insights of his maturity rest on the foundation of his earliest perceptions. He was born in 1911 to a Polish-speaking family in Szetejnie, Lithuania, which like the adjacent territories of Poland, Latvia and Estonia, was at the time a part of the Russian empire. His family, although not wealthy (his father was an engineer), occupied a somewhat patrician position within this mix of traditions, languages and cultures; despite (and because of) the turbulence produced by the outbreak of the First World War, which resulted in Milosz’s first experience of deracination, he inherited from both his parents a remarkable sense of centeredness. A feeling, that is, not just of why education and high culture mattered, particularly in times of jeopardy, but also of how such things were inextricably bound into the traditions of the Catholic church.

And into the traditions of the countryside. In his entrancing autobiographical novel The Issa Valley, Milosz remembers the landscape around Szetejnie in terms that blend delight in everyday things with the same exalted sense of “something far more deeply interfused” that Wordsworth wrote about in “Tintern Abbey”: “Happy the child,” he says in one typical passage, “who wakes on a summer morning to the oriole’s song outside his window, to a chorus of quacks, cackling, and gaggling from the barnyard, to a steady stream of voices bathed in never-ending light, to appreciate the futility of such musical exertions. Touch was also a kind of ecstasy—the feel of naked feet racing over smooth boards on to the cool of a corridor’s tiled floor, over a garden path’s circular flagstones still wet with dew . . .”

These country pleasures were clearly their own reward, but in the context of Milosz’s work as a whole they tell us something important about the sources of his power. Their blend of “high” (“never-ending light,” “ecstasy”) and “low” (“quacks,” “gaggling,” “futility”) show that distinct parts of his personality were tied very closely together at the outset, laying the platform for an aesthetic which in his maturity combined an appetite for transcendence with an equally powerful attraction to earthliness. This not only helped to create the common touch that allowed later readers to identify with his writing, even when it engages with elevated speculations or extreme states of being; it also bred in his bone a practicality and robustness that helped him endure the horrors which would subsequently be visited on him.

We can see clearly the shape and effect of both these things by glancing ahead to his great critique of totalitarian culture, The Captive Mind (1953), where he remembers a scene from his war experience in Warsaw: “A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city,” he says. “He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones 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 man judge all poets and philosophers.” This passage is important not simply because Milosz is making a point about stubbornly human humanity—although that is a part of his purpose; he is also saying that the way we contemplate the world in crisis is a reflection of our deep natures. As our senses work, they show us who we are; they are the measure of our best and/or worst selves.

The implication, evidently, is that Milosz’s own deep nature was founded on his original experience of combining things seemingly at odds with one another—things natural, as well as things cultural and religious. Through his schooldays in Wilno (now Vilnius), then in law school at the local university, he was able to consolidate these lessons (not just the grip of his roots on the local landscape, but, as he says in one of his essays, “Christmas carols . . . the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and . . . the Bible”). At the same time, when he began writing poetry, he also started pondering seriously how the lyric impulse derived from his formative days might be reconciled with the need to write about urgent political matters of the moment. “I was fully aware,” he remembered later, thinking back to 1933 when his first slim volume appeared, “of what poetry meant to me: healing lack, hurt, a need for self-defense. But to expose oneself publicly?”

Not for the first time, History refused to give him much space in which to find an answer. Instead, it demanded that he find it in travail and drama—while falling in love for the first time; while moving to Warsaw, while making a trip to Paris (where he met his uncle Oskar, a writer with “the fervor of a prophet or evangelizing disciple,” who helped to sharpen his sense that his own epoch was not “completely doomed”); while meeting Janka, the woman who would eventually become his first wife; while continually recalibrating his sense of the role of the Catholic church in his life. It was a helter-skelter existence, and Franaszek follows it with a likeable clarity—catching well the paradox that for all Milosz’s busyness, he was still able to refine “the religious perspective in contemplating humanity and the sense of art it created.” Contemplating, that is, while being actively engaged. As Milosz said himself, in an essay written in the late 1930s: “No more remaining silent. No more constant silence, no more deep sleep without dreaming in the midst of meanness, doing everything that is human, apart from scoffing food, making love and resting, apart from artistic creation even, which does not encompass everything, and which deceives when unable to bear the burden of wrong.”

The invasion of Poland by the Nazis in 1939, by which time Milosz was working for a radio station in Warsaw, inevitably dramatized these conflicts and coherences in much graver and more brutal ways. In particular, it brought to a head the question of how Milosz might best defend his principles while saving his skin—producing a zig-zag in the trajectory of his life that was to cause him a good deal of grief and guilt. His first impulse was to flee to Bulgaria (about which, Franaszek says forgivingly, his memories were to remain “sketchy”), even though this meant “abandoning” Janka. Then he obtained a transit visa from the Soviet authorities which, when he showed it to his “radio colleagues,” seemed to suggest that he had approached the Soviets “in order to get to Lithuania”—and thereby “avoid sharing the fate of the Poles during the war.” As Franaszek concludes: “At the beginning of 1940, Lithuania was still an independent country, and entering its territory could not be construed as an act of treachery. It was a different matter that, while he had been staying in Bucharest, Milosz showed no interest in joining the Polish army to help restore Polish independence.”

None of this is to say Milosz had an easy time of it. On the contrary. He was interrogated by the NKVD; as he travelled through Kiev, Orsha and Vitebsk en route to Wilno, he lived in constant fear of arrest; from Wilno (and desperate to reunite himself with Janka) he travelled into Eastern Prussia (where at one point he was taken into custody by the military police and became so alarmed that he “ate his Lithuanian passport, because the data in it did not match” the data on his pass); eventually, after travelling thousands of miles, he arrived back in Warsaw and found Janka waiting. Here, and (Franaszek admits) “shocking as it may sound,” the next few years “brought personal happiness.” But they also surrounded him with “unspeakable horrors”: the violent oppression of his people and their cultures; the massacre of innocents; almost daily encounters with terror and dismay.

If Milosz’s childhood provided him with the foundation of his mature vision, much of his most compelling later work derives from these Warsaw years. While keeping body and soul together by writing journalism, by planning a film, and by translating, he also began producing the poems for which he is best remembered. Poems that prove their distinction by making room for the monstrosities taking place around him (“A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” for instance), but also by insisting on the health of experience that by its very nature embodies the opposite of brutality. Of his original childhood experience, in particular—which in one of his greatest poems, “The World,” is minutely reconstructed in several short lyrics. This is probably the poetry that speaks most directly to his international audience. Its focus on little insignificant-seeming things is at once a way of celebrating universal familiars, but also of insisting on the deep sanity and sanctity of things that appear to be ordinary. The first poem in the sequence, “The Road,” is as good an example as any:

There where you see a green valley
And a road half-covered with grass,
Through an oak wood beginning to bloom
Children are returning home from school.

In a pencil case that opens sideways
Crayons rattle among crumbs of a roll
And a copper penny saved by every child
To greet the first spring cuckoo.

Sister’s beret and brother’s cap
Bobbing in the bushy underbrush,
A screeching jay hops in the branches
And long clouds float over the trees.

A red roof is already visible at the bend.
In front of the house father, leaning on a hoe,
Bows down, touches the unfolded leaves,
And from his flower bed inspects the whole region.

This is the true note, the calm voice that mixes faithful memory with trust in time-honored things; the very blend that Seamus Heaney meant to conjure when he referred to Milosz’s “credibility” (it is of course a mixture that Heaney also had in abundance). In later work, this note is enriched and to some extent complicated by a more evidently philosophical endeavor, and also to some extent elaborated (maybe some- times even a little over-elaborated) by Milosz’s interest in writing much longer poems. But its essential qualities never leave him. It is always the earth, and the earthiness of things, that have the last word. In “Orpheus and Eurydice,” an elegy written after the death of his second wife, and the final poem in his Selected Poems 1931–2004, we find him speaking in the voice of Orpheus to ask, “How will I live without you, my consoling one!,” before concluding: “But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees, / And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.”

The intensity of these war years, and the excellence of the poetry that emerged from them, makes it difficult to credit that, when the conflict ended, Milosz had not yet lived half of his long life. But even when peace returned to Europe, History would not stop shaking him. The first important work he undertook was as a diplomat, travelling in the early winter of 1945 to London (where he met T. S. Eliot), before being appointed the cultural attaché at the Polish consulate in New York, and the following year to the embassy in Washington D.C. Just as the early wartime had mired him in controversy, so did this. By accepting a post that would allow him to travel abroad, he admitted that he risked seeming to “prostitute” himself. “Undoubtedly,” he said, “it was a pact with the devil, bearing in mind what was happening . . . millions of people in gulags, deportations after 1939, Katyn, the Warsaw Rising in 1944, terror in Poland—I was fully aware of all that.” Furthermore, and in a text written in 1957 but not published until Franaszek prints it here, Milosz felt that his “awareness” in fact constituted a kind of culpability, no matter how dire the choices might have been. “Representing a country that was turned into the province of a totalitarian state was wrong and degrading,” he wrote, “which I feel ashamed of today. To take a diplomatic position overseas without breaking ties with my country seemed to me, however, the lesser of two evils.”

In the heat of his departure and its immediate aftermath, it is perhaps not surprising that Milosz should have been so self-critical—and perhaps not surprising either that some of his contemporaries should have judged him very harshly. The political activist and theatre critic Jan Kott, for instance, attacked him in the early 1950s as someone “who had the audacity to write that a man should not lie, because a lie is a terrible thing, and a source of all crime. This man [however] . . . fails to mention that he acquired and used a Lithuanian passport to avoid the fate and misery of the Polish nation . . . he lied, for many years, working in our diplomatic service. . . .” With hindsight, such criticism—whether made by Milosz himself or others—seems too blunt an instrument to describe accurately the true nature of his actions, or to characterize accurately the true state of his mind. But the assault was fierce enough to make Milosz feel and appear an outcast, and for the work of rehabilitation to be arduous. At a personal level, conversations with certain enlightened fellow exiles—among them, crucially, Albert Einstein—helped Milosz to heal his self-inflicted wounds. As far as the world was concerned, his publishing record had to do the necessary work.

The process accelerated decisively in 1953, with the publication of The Captive Mind, which demonstrated not just his intelligent courage in the face of oppression, but the deep foundations of long-held beliefs. But if this book inaugurated a more tranquil passage in his life, Milosz only reached it after a further set of trials. In 1950 he had left his family in America and returned briefly to Poland, where his passport was confiscated because the regime doubted his loyalty. The following year, uprooting himself for the umpteenth time, he sought political asylum in France and began trying to gain a visa to the United States. Shortly after the publication of The Captive Mind Janka arrived in France (with their—by now—two children, one son born in 1948 and another in 1951), where they became husband and wife, eventually settling in Monteron. In 1960 Milosz was offered a post in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Berkeley—and two years later was granted a green card.

Even now, as Franaszek points out, Milosz’s difficulties were not over. Although America brought him security and stability—and the space in which to write much of his best work—it also put him at the furthest remove he had ever been from his home and its languages. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that while the first half of his life was a battle to manage external evils and create poetical structures capable of accommodating them, the second half of his life was a struggle to cope with the consequence of these evils and to elaborate the forms in which they might be mulled over and seen in their largest manifestation. Both efforts are in their different ways heroic, and both brought Milosz distinct literary rewards.

Distance from his birthright was one focus of his difficulty. The circumstances Milosz found in America was another. As far as the former was concerned, he felt simultaneously anguished by the cold facts of exile, and troubled by his “detestation of . . . orthodox ‘Polishness.’” As for the latter: there was not only the difficulty of fitting into a new job (he said that he felt like “a cow that joined the ballet” when giving lectures at Berkeley), but also discomfort at the mixture of sublimity and emptiness he found in the American landscape, and the equally disturbing mixture of opportunity and shallowness in American society. These tensions, although nothing like as violent in their effect as the deracination of his first forty-odd years, had their own powerful impact—at once troubling and stimulating. And under their influence, his poems acquired their distinctive late preoccupations: with notions of forgiveness; with the pursuit of goodness; with a constantly-evolving attitude to faith and the Catholic church of his childhood (which Franaszek describes as “an act of will, driven by the convictions that ‘it is not for me to live my life without constantly offering prayers to God’”); and also with the relationship between poetry and death.

In his brief essay “Anus Mundi,” Milosz states that “Life does not like death. The body, as long as it is able to, sets in opposition to death the heart’s contractions and the warmth of circulating blood. Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction. . . . They comfort us, giving us to understand that what takes place in anus mundi is transitory, and that harmony is enduring—which is not at all a certainty.” The first part of this statement looks back specifically to the achievement of “The World,” in which local and particular things are presented as a stay against nightmare. The later part glances across the whole corpus of Milosz’s late work, in which fidelity to things-in-themselves becomes the mainstay of a large philosophic position. The last verse of “In Common” catches it in miniature:

I am submerged in everything that is common to us, the living.
Experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh.
Walking past the vague outline of skyscrapers? anti-temples?
In valleys of beautiful, though poisoned, rivers.

The Earth is wounded, these lines say, but the Earth is still where we have our happiness or not at all—and late poem after late poem reinforce this belief. “Blacksmith Shop,” for instance. “I stare and stare,” the poem says. “I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.”

It would be too glib to say that for Milosz such happiness was at last easily and confidently possessed. The strength of his work depends on the way it registers the perpetual elusiveness of peace, and to a significant extent is a record of continuing dis-consolation: the death of his first wife; the tragically early death of his much younger second wife; the steady encroachment of his own mortality.

Yet for all this, a sense of elevation becomes Milosz’s dominant note. Because Franaszek keeps the historical context so clearly in view, he allows us to consider the extent to which this depends on the changes in Poland during the 1980s, and the revolution which followed the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the razing of the Berlin Wall. And the degree, too, to which it reflects the enormous increase in his readership and recognition following the award of the Nobel Prize in 1980. Not to mention the obvious and deep satisfaction of being able to return to his native land in the last years of his life, confident that he would die among his own.

Franaszek also helps us to understand that while all these things are vitally formative of Milosz’s late attitudes, they are not the whole explanation of his final character as a writer. This has as much to do with internal organizations as it does with external influences. With faith in particular—religious faith, and faith in the role and value of poetry itself, which—as he understood and demonstrated better than most—depends on a poet possessing in equal measure an iron self-belief and proper self-deprecation:

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
As are all men and women living at the same time,
Whether they are aware of it or not.

[1] MILOSZ: A BIOGRAPHY, by Andrzej Franaszek. Trans. by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $35.00.