Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Bypassing Rue Descartes” is a deceptively complex poem. Among its considerations are exile, the mutability of power through time, and guilt. The poem’s journey is in many ways a searching back to reach a personal moment of guilt, an original but personal sin that has resulted in what amounts to a life of punishment and purgation through the condition of exile. That everyone has committed transgressions against life, that everyone is guilty of destruction, is the human condition and not one borne of a strictly religious sensibility. Insofar as everyone is guilty of transgression, everyone lives in a condition of exile.
“Bypassing Rue Descartes” implicitly asks: For what do we live? It does not ask the question of dogma—how do we live?—but the question of choices, responses, and responsibilities. The poem offers many dichotomies: civilized-barbarian, abstraction-sensuousness, metaphysical-tangible, empire-local, universal-specific, and death-life. It traces the poet’s movement from desiring the universal to understanding it as part of the complex of empire, dogmatic politics, abstraction, and finally the force of death—the same force that has driven him into exile.
The poem insists on life: the sensuous particularity of life as illustrated by the catalogs of the provincial customs and the details of the street market as well as the symbolic value of the water snake as a sign of generative forces. The emphasis on the fully lived moment is found throughout Miosz’s poetry, as exemplified by “Rivers,” “It Was Winter,” “A Poetic State,” “Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826),” or the movement of the entire collection of poems Nieobjȩta ziemia (1984), translated as Unattainable Earth (1986).
Miosz’s poetry exemplifies what has become known as the poetry of witness. His work has revolved consistently around the question of history and the individual’s position within history. Poetry, for Miosz, is the witnessing of history. Poetry thus serves as memory; however, poetry is also moral, in that daily it stands before what is real and it must name that reality. “Bypassing Rue Descartes” is not a rejection of history, but an understanding of mutability. To be a witness, one must also be willing to bear responsibility of one’s guilt, which comes at the very moment of the exercise of power. No one can escape the judgment of history, for “just punishment/reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.”