(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It is fair, if not quite generous, to ask whether New and Collected Poems, appearing just thirteen years after Czesław Miłosz’s monumental Collected Poems (1988), amounts to anything more than a well-deserved ninetieth birthday present to one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets. The answer is that it does. The simple reissue of the earlier volume from a writer who has been “witness to poetry” and to history would be reason enough to celebrate, but fully one-third of the new volume comprises poems that Miłosz has written since 1987—an amazing feat for a writer who, as he approached ninety, continued not just to write but to write as well as ever. Readers who have aged along with Miłosz will witness no slackening of his poetic powers or any turning away from those most characteristic concerns that have made him one of the most compelling literary figures of the past century. They may lament the lighter typeface that strains the eyes and the decision to drop the 1988 preface, no less indispensable now than it was then, for its brief discussion of both the earlier book’s conception and the role that Miłosz’s many translators had in it. On the other hand, New and Collected Poems adds a brief but excellent introduction, in which Miłosz sums up certain of his views on his poetry—most important, his concern with “tangible reality” and with writing poems that are, although more objective than subjective, nonetheless “infused with personal struggle.” The new volume also greatly expands the notes appended to the earlier one. (Unfortunately, the notes for the new poems are both few and spare.) The real reason to rejoice over the publication of New and Collected Poems is the poetry itself: seventy years’ worth in “pursuit of the Real.” “How to tell it all?” Miłosz asks. How to encompass and comprehend “a life unendurable” that was nonetheless endured?

Miłosz first came to notice outside his native land in the 1950’s, with his defection from Poland and the publication of his book of criticismZniewolony umysł (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953) and the novelZdobycie władzy (1953; The Seizure of Power, 1955), which made him an especially attractive as well as articulate figure in (and to) the West during the early years of the Cold War. In fleeing Poland, first for France and later the United States, Miłosz became in fact what he had long been in temperament: exile, wanderer. He became, that is, the twentieth century’s representative man: the detached yet strangely involved—even implicated—as well as helpless I, the “Eye,” as “universal witness,” at once voyager and voyeur.

Forever between two worlds, two conditions, Miłosz anticipates without actually participating in the kind of hybridity that a later generation of postcolonial writers such as Salman Rushdie has celebrated. This basic and irreconcilable doubleness, so closely associated with his exile, becomes the focus of much of his poetry, leaving Miłosz between opposing claims and allegiances, every acceptance tinged with regret, with an intense awareness of the inadequacy of every choice. He exists at, and as, the point where opposites meet: the philosophical and the “flesh-enraptured,” the history-saturated Polish-Lithuanian past and the historyless American-Californian present. Exile only exacerbates a doubleness which precedes his actual defection; it is there in the twin realities of his native Polish Wilno/Lithuanian Vilnius and his adopted Warsaw of cafes and ghetto. It is there, early and late, in his oscillating between nature and history on the one hand and broader metaphorical and metaphysical claims on the other. The doubling appears in various forms, from the unbearably concentrated (“a million white fish leaping in agony”) to the tantalizingly metaphysical (“And the body is most mysterious,/ For, so mortal, it wants to be pure,/ Liberated from the soul which screams: I!’”).

For critic Aleksander Fiut, this doubleness, crystallized in Miłosz’s phrase “the eternal moment,” points to the poet’s larger subject, “the drama of the loss of God.” Fiut may be putting too fine a Polish and Catholic a face on writing that has come to resonate too widely to be quite so narrowly circumscribed, but his claim is suggestive, especially when read in terms of the complex role that witnessing plays in Miłosz’s art: “Though of weak faith, I believe in forces and powers/ Who crowd every inch of the air./ They observe us—is it possible that no one sees us?” The need to witness is balanced here by the need to be witnessed, seen and judged. The “drama of the loss of God” entails the loss of certainty that propels modern humanity into the postmodern condition. The exile as tragic figure, as Wandering Jew,...

(The entire section is 1976 words.)