December 04, 2006
Who could resist those eyebrows?
...what follows after the poem is an excerpt from one of my four essays on the outstanding poet Czeslaw Milosz, forthcoming in the Companion to Twentieth Century World Poetry (ed. R. Victoria Arana, Facts on File). I could faint from happiness simply to have them done...
On his poem, "Dedication":
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 a tree.
What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.
Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.
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.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
“You whom I could not save,” Czeslaw MIŁOSZ implores, “Listen to me” (ll. 1-2). In classical tradition, a “dedication” is a formal act, a delineation of space in response of loss. The poet offers up Warsaw to the memory of the dead: “Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers … the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave” (ll. 10,12). ...But the speaker is not pure in his “dedication,” either to the dead or poetic principle. Miłosz subtly complicates the poem by resisting the siren’s call to self-sacrificing devotion, which is the secondary meaning of “dedication.” The speaker is haunted not by the ghosts of idealized ancestors, but instead by peers whom he knew in all their human compromises. He cannot help but remark “What strengthened me, for you was lethal” (ln. 6). The elegant closing gesture is one of appeasement, not of martyrdom: “They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds / To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. / I put this book here for you, who once lived / So that you should visit us no more” (ll. 22-25). The poet knows that holocaust has, paradoxically, given life to these poems, and he feels the burden of having survived. He can only pray that the hungry dead will be content to consume the art—and not the artist.