Nobel laureate Czesaw Miosz, who witnessed the Nazi atrocities in Warsaw in his native Poland, became active as an anti-Nazi poet in the Resistance movement. In 1944, the Germans seized him and his wife as they attempted to leave Warsaw, but they were released after a brief detention in a makeshift camp. They spent the next few months wandering about as refugees until the Soviets’ Red Army completed its annihilation of the German forces and Poland was at last liberated after more than five years of Nazi rule. These experiences no doubt laid the groundwork for much of Miosz’s later work, including “Elegy for N. N.”
Written in free verse, “Elegy for N. N.” consists of seven irregular verse-paragraphs that form an extended meditation on human love, remorse, and memory. It is addressed to “N. N.,” a woman who is not so much the subject of the poem as its audience and who shares with the poet certain memories of youth in Lithuania. Elegies are traditionally occasioned by a death, but here it is not a person but the poet’s sense of connection to his past that has been lost. The poem is composed in the first person, and the reader seems to be overhearing one side of a conversation between Miosz and his friend on the subject of loss.
The poem begins with a considerate request regarding a journey: “Tell me if it is too far for you.” Immediately, the themes of distance and human limitation are presented. The poem will attempt to bridge a widening gap between the poet and his addressee, an effort that, as Miosz’s hesitant, polite tone indicates, may prove insufficient. Miosz proceeds to escort the reader on a flight of poetic imagination halfway around the globe, beginning at the Baltic Sea and swooping over Denmark, the Atlantic Ocean, Labrador, and the Sierra Mountains to arrive in California, where he waits in a eucalyptus grove. In his mind, Miosz helps his listeners to make the same great journey that, in the course of his life, he had made himself. He had traversed whole continents on his path from Vilnius (also known as Vilna), Lithuania, his birthplace, to Berkeley, California, where he lived at the time of the composition of this poem.
In the second section, finding the distance enormous, Miosz reverses direction, traveling “reluctantly” back through memory to the Lithuanian countryside where he knew “N. N.” Yet the reality of that landscape, including its particular smells, contours, and features, has “changed forever into abstract crystal,” oddly purified and idealized in the poet’s mind.
He longs in the third section for such lost things “as they are in themselves” rather than for idealized images, but he finds that he “really can’t say” how daily life there went on. He has lost touch with significant details, his “knowledge of fiery years”—perhaps the years of the Prussian and German occupations and the subsequent Soviet takeover—having scorched the elements of his pastoral and left him exiled and homeless.
The fourth and fifth sections recall images and events of World War II, with suggestions of Holocaust atrocities and of anti-German violence. Miosz reflects on the impermanence of what he once believed to be immutable, on how “what could not be taken away/ is taken.” He echoes the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose famous maxim that “one cannot step twice into the same river” is a depiction of restless change and eternal mutability.
In the last two sections, Miosz comes...
(The entire section is 1435 words.)