(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Czesław Miłosz’s most recent poetry volume, Provinces, is a work of remarkable energy and vision. At an age (eighty) when other poets have left their major work behind them, Miłosz continues to produce an impressive body of new poetry. The forty-two new poems in this collection continue to explore lifelong themes: the nature of the real, the contrast of youth and age, the dualism of spirit and matter, the struggle to express the incomprehensibleness of human experience.

In his 1980 Nobel Prize lecture, Czesław Miłosz spoke of the two attributes of the poet: “avidity of the eye and the desire to describe that which he sees.” The poet’s quest is a quest for reality. Miłosz accepts the self-evident realism of the external world and refuses to become entrapped by philosophical doubts or language games. Yet his pursuit of reality exposes some inherent contradictions in the real: between being and action, art and human solidarity, good and evil, despair and hope. He speaks of the poet as riding Pegasus, the winged horse, enabling him to look down upon the domain of the real. The poet rides above the ground, and yet he sees the earth in all of its rich details. For the poet, the domain of the real also extends into the past. “‘To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes,” he observes. “It may mean also to preserve in memory.” Present reality is connected with historical memory: To deny one is to deny the other. Miłosz warns of the danger of the loss of historical memory in the West, especially regarding the Holocaust. He sees his role as a poet from the “other Europe” to be a bearer of memory.

The opening poem of Provinces, “Blacksmith Shop,” serves as an ars poetica. Miłosz reflects that perhaps he was called “to glorify things just because they are.” Here and in other poems, Miłosz shows an almost childlike fascination with details: the hand-operated bellows, the blazing fire, the red-hot metal, the ring of hammer on anvil, the sizzling, steaming water, and the horses, tossing their heads, waiting to be shod. All these details he sees through the eyes of his imagination, as he recollects this childhood scene from his native Lithuania.

The poet’s role is not only to celebrate the real but also to help shape that reality by naming things and thus calling them into being. In “Creating the World,” he speaks, almost as a Neoplatonist, of the artist (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in this case) composing music already in existence (as innate idea, perhaps) before he was born. The poem celebrates the sheer joy of creation, as a celestial Board of Projects bursts into laughter at the sight of their absurd terrestrial creations: a hedgehog, a soprano, a hippopotamus, a toucan, a hammerhead shark. None of this is permanent, however: The earth has the iridescence of a soap-bubble. It seethes, sparkles, and passes.

In the poem “Linnaeus,” Miłosz honors another kind of creator or discoverer, the great eighteenth century naturalist who introduced the binomial method of plant and animal classification. Like Adam in the Garden, Carolus Linnaeus, gathered and named the unknown abundance of nature. Miłosz compares Linnaeus’ system of classification to a great hymn to God. He envisions the aged Linnaeus at home in his gardens, surrounded by gifts sent by his disciples—plants, seeds, and drawings brought by sailing ships from exotic places. Miłosz offers his own tribute in the form of a “verse imitating the classical ode.”

Still another kind of creator is the philologist, the dictionary-maker, the shaper of language. In his poem “Philology,” he praises the seventeenth century Polish Jesuit Kostanty Szyrwid, who assembled the first Lithuanian-Polish-Latin dictionary. Miłosz imagines the old Jesuit running in the snow, cloak in hands, to record a word recalled from his youth, to write it down next to its Latin cognate before he forgets it. In the seventeenth century, Miłosz’s native city of Vilno was a Baroque outpost of learning surrounded by a remote Baltic peasant culture of rough pants, jerkins, burlap, and steep-roofed wooden huts. From this time only the words survive, to be summoned forth from a dictionary as if from “lofty ethereal domains.” Miłosz is keenly aware of the cross-cultural dimension of language, since he still composes in his native Polish and then translates his poems into English.

Miłosz views himself as a poet of exile and often alludes to Dante Alighieri as the “patron saint of all poets in exile.” The persona of Dante looms large in Miłosz’s imagination: Both are political exiles who continued to compose in their native tongues. Dante, exiled from Florence, composed in Ravenna and elsewhere; Miłosz, who chose political exile from Poland in 1951, has continued to write in Polish from his position (until his recent retirement) as a professor of slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In his poem “Dante,” Miłosz honors the creative instinct he shares with...

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