Unattainable Earth, first published in Polish in 1984, is Czeslaw Milosz’s fourth book of poems to appear in English translation, following Selected Poems (1973; revised ed., 1980), Bells in Winter (1978), and The Separate Notebooks (1984), a bilingual collection. There are about thirty new poems in Unattainable Earth, most of them short. These poems, however, make up only part of the text; in his preface, Milosz explains the book’s distinctive organizing principle:It is customary among poets to gather poems written during a few years and to compose them into a volume provided with a title. That custom, upon reflection, persists by dint of inherited habits, but has nothing self-evident in it. For a given servant of the Muses was in that period not only busy creating ideal objects that bear the name of poems. He lived among people, . . . and tried to capture the surrounding world by any means, including the act of the poem, but not only. In everything he wrote then the same striving . . . could be discerned, as we move in our life through successive renewals and incarnations, each of which has its own tone.
In this “mosaic,” poems written in the years 1981 to 1984 are interspersed with brief reflections in prose, wide-ranging quotations (here called “in-scripts”) drawn from Milosz’s reading, and excerpts from two letters to him; there are also three poems by D. H. Lawrence and a dozen by Walt Whitman, quoted in their entirety. (In the Polish edition, the poems by Lawrence and Whitman appeared in Milosz’s translation.)
In his preface, Milosz expresses the hope that “under the surface of somewhat odd multiformity, the reader will recognize a deeper unity.” It is difficult to imagine a reader complaining of lack of unity in this volume; more plausible (though wrongheaded) would be a charge of obsessive preoccupation with certain recurring themes. Above all, the book is unified by an attitude, a disposition, a quality of mind well defined by the poet himself:Perhaps one thing only is of great concern to me: whether I come closer, slowly, by detours, circling here and there, moving away, returning, but always with one aim. Coming closer to what? To a knowledge, though of what kind I do not know, to comprehension. Fear of my early youth: that I grow up, i.e., that I lose intensity in pursuing things of the mind. But I am past seventy and I have been living guided by incessant curiosity, passion, striving.
The ongoing quest described here is given emphasis by the book’s title.
The original Polish title, Milosz explains, “means roughly ’earth too huge to be grasped.’” This cumbersome, more literal rendering catches a nuance which is lost in the title used for the English translation. “Earth too huge to be grasped” is a figure for man’s relationship to the Earth and earthly life. It is both negative and positive in its connotations. It suggests that we can never understand our experience. It evokes the staggering multiplicity of all that exists—an abundance beyond all grasping. It says that reality is at once mysterious, cruelly incomprehensible, and unimaginably rich.
These themes run throughout Unattainable Earth, both in poetry and...
(The entire section is 1337 words.)