City Without a Name

by Czesław Miłosz

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The Poem

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“City Without a Name” is a long, biographical poem in free verse divided into twelve sections. The speaker, the poet Czesaw Miosz, is physically traveling through Death Valley, California, but the landscape of memory and the people who inhabit his own personal city of remembrance, his “city without a name,” are emotionally and spiritually more real to him than the heat, sand, and salt of the desert. The first sections of the poem set up this juxtaposition between past and present in which, paradoxically, it is the present that seems motionless and almost lifeless; the only other person within three hundred miles of the poet is an “Indianwalking a bicycle uphill.” The past, however, changes constantly in a kaleidoscope of time and images of his native Lithuania.

The greater part of the poem’s beginning is made up of long, three-line stanzas, but, in the fifth section, the lines suddenly become short, curt, almost flippant as the poet tries to put the past behind him. “Who cares?” and “Rest in peace” he says, but this almost sarcastic mood soon changes back to the dominant meditative tone of the poem and its correspondingly longer lines when, in the seventh section, the poet considers his own personal situation as a man carried “By fate, or by what happens” far away from his homeland and his physical past. “Time,” he cries, “cuts me in two.” An emphatic “I” (distinct from “them”) governs this section but, as the perspective shifts again and the images or dreams return, the poet places himself within this movement of time as he realizes that he is a being whose own present time may be drawing to a close. He will then become part of the past as the people he remembers have become part of the past of their ancestors and country.

What is his country? Does the poet now belong in the past or the present? He asks himself why all these precise, generally trivial memories keep coming back to him and why they are more real than reality. Why, in the desert, does he think of, smell, and hear “the lands of birch and pine” and “the hounds’ barking echoes”? Why is the past “offering” itself to him? This questioning continues throughout the middle sections of the poem until, as if overwhelmed by the accumulation of images, the poetic line lengthens almost into prose and the poet sees himself living in the visions of the past. The last lines dwell on the poet’s seeming inability to reconcile this paradox. Even in his poetry, he cannot reconcile his two worlds or find the “desired” word so that the “bygone crying” of the past “can be transformed, at last, into harmony.” However, the poem does not end on a note of defeat. A final paradox or perhaps a moment of intuitive understanding is revealed as the poet asserts that perhaps he is “glad not/ to find the desired word.”

Forms and Devices

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“City Without a Name” is very representative of the poetry Miosz has written in the United States. He has relaxed the structural formality of his earlier poetry by lengthening and shortening the lines at will (the last section is almost prose), and little effort is made to rhyme. In the English translation (by Miosz himself), the fifth section does contain short bursts of rhyme: “lashes/Masses,” “night/light,” and “pity/highly”; the same device is also used in the more pensive but still short lines of section 7: “weepily/stupidity,” “snow/know,” and “new/two.” However, this is not typical of Miosz’s later poetry or of the structure of “City Without a Name.” In...

(This entire section contains 501 words.)

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fact, its presence is meant to highlight thematic mood rather than poetic form.

The absence of metaphor, simile, and symbolism is very typical of Miosz’s later poetry. Nothing is a symbol of anything, and nothing resembles anything else; everything is concrete and is exactly what it is. Miosz has said that “the accidents of life are definitely more important than the ideal object.” He perceives no difference between the language of poetry and the language of the “real” world and wants no poetic finery or linguistic gymnastics that, in his opinion, separate rather than reconcile. In “City Without a Name,” the dialectic between past and present is accomplished not through symbols or allusion but through the naming of concrete objects and people. Anna and Dora Druyno, for instance, are real people rather than memories because they are named.

One poetic device that is dominant is the juxtaposition of a succession of dualities. The starting point for “City Without a Name” is the contrast between the sterility of Death Valley and the fecundity of the landscape of memory in the poet’s mind or, more generally, between inner and outer reality. While camping in the desert in spring, the sound of bees unleashes the floodgates of memory as, in an almost cinematographic technique, the waterless silence of Death Valley, marked by the absence even of birds, dissolves into the shores of a river; the sound of flutes and drums is heard, and swallows fly over a pair of lovers. Something in Death Valley, perhaps a reaction to its aridity, has triggered the poet’s own valley of the dead. Together with this cameralike fade-in/fade-out of sensory images, the poet lengthens and shortens his lines to represent the contrast between the past and the present and to underline the changing moods of the poem. A long line indicates remembrance and corresponds to more reflective passages, while shorter lines identify the present and the poet’s reactions, often ironic and biting, to this involuntary time traveling. For example, the fifth section, with the shortest lines, is almost staccato in its sarcasm—“Doctors and lawyers,/ Well-turned-out majors/ Six feet of earth”—while the likewise short lines of section 7 mirror the poet’s sardonic contemplation of his present situation: “So what else is new?/ I am not my own friend.”