The Collected Poems, 1931-1987
Were there still any doubt concerning the preeminence among poets of Czesaw Miosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature and the man many have called Poland’s greatest living writer, The Collected Poems: 1931-1987 will surely put that doubt to rest. Slightly more than five hundred pages long (yet still not “complete”), this volume bears witness to its author’s power, compassion, and moral commitment. The poems appear nakedly, as it were, accompanied only by a short preface, a handful of notes, and an index. In the preface, Miosz points out that the collection was not his idea but that of Daniel Halpern, director of Ecco Press, and that the poems are neither solely nor uniquely his. Rather, as translations, they are the result of a cooperative effort, a vast collaboration. (His assertions here are typical of Miosz’s style: blunt, open assaults on the reader’s complacency.) “The existence of this body of poetry in a language different from the one in which it was written,” Miosz notes, “is for me the occasion of constant wonder.” That Miosz is fluent in English and has in fact translated a number of his own poems and helped in the translation of others seems to accentuate the subtle relationship that exists between the poems in Polish and the translations in English. It is a relationship involving simultaneous reflection and distortion, so that the translation both does and does not say what the Polish original sought to say. The original work exists (in this edition, which is not bilingual) as an idea only—which is to say that it both declares its presence and disappears.
Not surprisingly, exile plays an important part in the works of a man who has himself lived in exile since 1950 but who continues to write in Polish, out of necessity as much as out of longing. “I muse on the meaning of being this not that,” he writes. Divided from home and self by virtue of time, place, and language, he articulates in the most compelling manner possible the theme of so much twentieth century writing: that “so much disinheritance is our portion.” (As the preface makes clear, these translations form part of that disinheritance; they exist as an act of dispossession, or, more optimistically, by an act of communal sharing and responsibility.) The exile inevitably becomes the wanderer, the voyager, the explorer. Born in rural Lithuania, Miosz is Adam expelled from Eden, eternally in search of the home he has lost. His exile—his having chosen not to live under a totalitarian government in postwar Poland—is at once crushing and Catholic. It brings him both freedom and
A shame of failing to bewhat I should have been.The image of myselfgrows gigantic on the walland against itmy miserable shadow.
In the relative Eden of California Miosz finds less than he has hoped and searched for. The loveliness of the landscape and the year-long temperateness of the climate lull him into a nearly timeless state, where even death no longer seems to matter. Berkeley makes him physically comfortable yet morally uneasy. There he cannot believe in the power of poetry to effect change (or at least a change in the poet’s and the reader’s awareness), and this may be the reason he longs “to find my home in one sentence.” His wandering is not, therefore, merely geographical and political; it is linguistic as well. His home is alternately Lithuania or Poland or California or the word to which he ultimately turns in triumph and despair. What saves him from that despair (and from that triumph too) is his belief in some truth, or some homeland, that lies beyond his power and his poetry: a world beyond the word and, alternately, a word beyond the comprehensible, sensuous world. His is a faith challenged at every turn by skepticism and self-doubt, which in turn combine with a typically Polish faith in the poet as national hero and savior, as in his “Confession”:
Faithful mother tongue,I have been serving you.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .You were my native land; I lacked any other.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Now, I confess my doubt.There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life.For you are a tongue of the...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)