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Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Art by Jin Suk
Milosz, Simic, and the Mask of the Prodigal

Observations on the Anniversary of Milosz’s Death

By the time of his death at ninety-three last summer, Czeslaw Milosz had established himself as the greatest living world poet of the late twentieth century. Having won the Nobel Prize in 1980, Milosz did not fade into retirement but rather went on to compose some of his most dramatic, engaging work, enjoying another twenty-five years of productivity. Though widely adored, Milosz’s poetry is marked by anonymity. It belongs to no country. Milosz, too, aimed to defy poetic strains and movements. He was like no other. He achieved that distinction by cultivating his ever-identifiable yet indefinable tone, sometimes bubbling with philosophy and playfulness, sometimes grave and brooding. He often qualified his inexhaustible passion for life, his self-proclaimed insatiability, with the stark realism of one who has experienced exile. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel, he claimed, “I am ‘A Child of Europe,’ as the title of one of my poems admits, but that is a bitter, sarcastic admission.”

Milosz resided forty years in this country, but American readers have tended to associate him with his native Lithuania and his remarkable old-world imagery. It was in America, however, that his work flourished, evolving finally to its full magnificence. Perhaps, as Americans, we commiserate with this voice, one that has consistently integrated the longing for a return-to-prosperity with a laughing disinterest. The dissent and sarcasm with which he invokes the name of Europe, the broken Europe of his memory, is equaled only by the sweetness and enthusiasm with which he portrays his early life. For Milosz, art is a dream of reunion and a sour lamentation. His best poetry indeed captures this strange urge: this desire to rejoin, this need to rebuke.

Long before the prolific late years, his emigration to America in the Sixties, his exile in France in the Fifties, or even his short-lived career as a diplomat for the People’s Poland, Milosz was recounting the Edenic Old World as a kind of therapeutic escape from the modern realities of war and atrocity. In “The World” (collected in Rescue, a book published at the end of the war), Milosz withdraws into his memory to literally map the aristocratic household in which he was raised, in Szetejnie, Lithuania. He called the tone of the poem “deliberately naïve” in the notes of his Collected Poems. In the following, the tiny “Father in the Library,” the image of father evokes the elderly God of Genesis, or perhaps Urizen, the Blakian logic god:

A high forehead, and above it tousled hair
On which a ray of sun falls from the window.
And so father wears a bright fluffy crown
When he spreads before him a huge book.

His gown is patterned like that of a wizard.
Softly, he murmurs incantations.
Only he whom God instructs in magic
Will learn what wonders are hidden in this book.

This monarchical, crowned father, whose very forehead captures a sunbeam of light, holds in his possession the huge book of “wonders” and “magic.” He is an image of knowledge, of one who sits in direct contact with higher consciousness. But relegated to the deep past, exiled there like Prospero on his island, the father of “The World” remains distant from the speaker, who can barely make out his murmured incantations. In the section entitled “Fear,” Milosz writes, “Where are you, Father? The night has no end. / From now on darkness will last forever…. / Where have you gone, Father? Why do you not pity / Your children lost in this murky wood?”

In the late 1930s, Milosz had left his native Lithuania to live in Warsaw, where he worked for underground papers and witnessed the forced relocation of Jews, the slow liquidization of the Ghetto, and the Uprising. He was an “insider” and he was not. He was an outsider from very far away, a non-Jew, witnessing and chronicling the events of his century—take for example the still widely read “Voices of Poor People,” written as a report on conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto—and he was a man simultaneously embroiled in the currents of the disaster. In 1944, his poems appeared in Z otchlani or “From the Abyss,” an anthology of non-Jewish poets writing of the Jewish tragedy. His affluent upbringing, prosperous and nurturing, defined only one aspect of his mottled consciousness; the other was informed by harsh experience. The result is that voice whose melancholy feels centuries old, a wandering Dauphin’s, that of a homeless prince lost in the modern ruins. Szetejnie, which he did not return to until after the fall of communism in Lithuania, remained a symbol of a lost Eden his entire life.

Milosz’s early privilege and ultimate exile bear rich similarities to the story of the prodigal son, to the extent that the opulence and joy of childhood are too soon forfeited for the sake of adult experience. In effect, everything good and beautiful is suddenly lost to the young fortune-seeker. The important difference for Milosz was that he did not squander or even fully collect his inheritance, though he did leave home to “seek fortune” (as a writer) in the early 1930s, first traveling to Paris to learn his trade from a distant French cousin, the poet Oscar Milosz. For Czeslaw Milosz it wasn’t irresponsibility or immaturity that caused the door of the Old World to slam behind him. Rather, it was history itself. “A poet who grew up in such a world should have been a seeker for reality through contemplation,” he once said. “If books were to linger on a table, then they should be those which deal with the most incomprehensible quality of God-created things, namely Being, the esse. But suddenly all this is negated by demoniac doings of History which acquires the traits of a bloodthirsty Deity.” The tragic injustice of Milosz’s loss is felt in the poems—and may be just the thing that elevates them. We feel compassion for the voice of this man who, though blameless, nevertheless blames himself for the actions of his generation. Consider these lines from “Child of Europe”:

Having the choice of our own death and that of a friend,
We chose his, coldly thinking: let it be done quickly.

We sealed gas chamber doors, stole bread,
Knowing the next day would be harder to bear than the day before.

As befits human beings, we explored good and evil.
Our malignant wisdom has no like on this planet.

There can be no fatted calf to slay, no celebration and return to the father in Milosz’s poetry, though he did return to his homestead in the late 1980s. He wrote of Szetejnie with despair at its destruction, yes, but with a soft heart for the people who once inhabited it. As prodigal, his story never realized its tearful reunion. What makes Milosz great—as he will be lauded not only on the one-year anniversary of his death but a century from now—is his acknowledgment of what can never be regained, and his passion for life nevertheless.

For Charles Simic, often compared to Milosz, the prodigal story is again of deep importance but pans out very differently. Together these poets enact the role of a virtual Janus, their faces gazing off in opposite directions from the same point. In Dublin last month, having the good fortune to attend Charles Simic’s acceptance of the Griffin International Prize for his Selected Poems 1963-2003, I was reminded of the aspects of range and temperament shared by these poets. Not only do they have in common a Central European heritage, but their alternating humor and darkness are also remarkably similar. Though his landscapes and upbringing could not be more different from the laureate’s protected one, Simic’s poems regularly take strange comic turns, like Milosz’s. At the reading that evening, June 16, 2005, Simic recalled a “wonderful”—his word—childhood in war-ravaged Serbia, during a time when all was chaos and play, when no restrictions could be placed on a young boy’s life, all adults being too busy with the problems of food and shelter. Simic recounted his memories of the last day of the war, his disappointment that, from then on, there would be no more fun, only books and expectations and a return to normal life. What a revelation I had, who’d always imagined Simic’s childhood as one long, terrifying nightmare: both men, Simic and Milosz, associated their childhoods with a kind of gaiety, though in different contexts. For Simic, the gaiety will always be hitched to the dangers of war; for Milosz the gaiety came with separation, protection, and the hawk-like presence of the father.

Nevertheless, house and homeland stir up very different emotional energies for Charles Simic, who is less a beloved son of the land than a marginalized peasant. The dissimilarities seem as profuse as the similarities. Where Milosz longed for his father’s orderly, old-world home, Simic’s house became fatherless. By the end of the war his father had departed for America and awaited the family in New York. The father was “out there” in the future and the modern, where in Milosz he was exiled to the past. Where Milosz’s poetry focuses on the heroic figure, for example the monarchical father of “The World,” the myth of King Popiel, or the classicism of “Greek Portrait,” a Simic poem will home in on the extra in a cast of thousands, his concern lying with the servants, not the owners; the waiters, not the patrons; the nobodies over the somebodies. He worships the lesser gods and comic sidekicks, the very small—those swallowed up by the whale of history. “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he said in one interview. “Being one of the millions of displaced people left an impression on me.” In response to questions about his memories of war, he has remarked,

Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor. I would go boom, boom, and then they would go boom, boom. Even after the war was over, I went on playing war.

For Simic, the gaiety and wonder of childhood are indelibly attached to memories of the war. His compassion for the prototypical “lost soul”—including the homeless of our modern cities—immediately reflects those years in which he marched anonymously on the streets of Belgrade. That said, note the delicious, strange echoes of Milosz’s “World” series in a poem like “A Book Full of Pictures”:

Father studied theology through the mail
And this was exam time.
Mother knitted. I sat quietly with a book
Full of pictures. Night fell.
My hands grew cold touching the faces
Of dead kings and queens.

And in the final stanza:

The pages I turned sounded like wings.
“The soul is a bird,” he once said.
In my book full of pictures
A battle raged: lances and swords
Made a kind of wintry forest
With my heart spiked and bleeding in its branches.

The father, the beacon of wisdom—theology—is again cast in the role of the wizard, receiving God’s word. He’s studying for exams, and (it is hinted) his cramming keeps him distracted, even absent. The father’s theology, though, has come through the mail, cheapening its authority and calling into question its credibility. The book is also here: in the child’s hands. There are no words, only pictures, but its knowledge becomes a flight of the soul. The boy is drawn to and desensitized by the book (his “hands grow cold”), a story of unending violence in which the Christ-like speaker finds himself hung upon a holy rood, his “heart spiked and bleeding in the branches.” I read this poem and sense that the child speaker has acquired too much knowledge too early; I sense that, like the prodigal, he falls victim to his early inheritance (in this case the experience of total freedom during the war). Like the prodigal who is reduced to an eater of husks, and like Christ who is crucified for his knowledge, the child is doomed and fascinated at once. Here too, readers feel compassion for the voice. As Milosz suffers an ejection from Eden via the hand of History, Simic is exiled from childhood by the tumult of war. With one foot rooted in his peasant innocence and the other in the new-world imagery of war, of random destruction and the bright American City (where his father awaits), he finds a balance akin to Milosz’s, though to inverse effect. Milosz’s foreboding seriousness is silver lined and celebratory, while Simic’s deadpan comedy has a sinister side.

The lives of these poets—Milosz’s as a child of privilege and agrarian aristocracy, and Simic’s as a child of the disenfranchised, the marginalized—have guided their responses to the prodigal myth. But the myth, the desire for “inheritance” (in this case, self-knowledge) and, consequently, for a return to the father, remains a vital theme in the poetry of both. As they balance their ideal sides with the shadows, each inflects his longing in a unique direction. Yet both have found in their art a way of exalting life, its vagaries and conditions secondary to the wonder it confers.

David Keplinger is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Most Natural Thing (New Issues, 2013) and has been awarded the Cavafy Prize, the Colorado Book Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the T. S. Eliot Prize, and grants from the Danish Council on the Arts and the DC Council on the Arts. The Art of Topiary, translations of the German poet Jan Wagner, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press. He teaches at American University and has also co-translated Carsten Rene Nielsen’s World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors (New Issues, 2007). (updated 9/2015)

Read Nicky Beer’s conversation with David Keplinger and Patrick Phillips.

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