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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 to terms with the failure of his sense of connection to his homeland through memory. He is cut off not because of...

(This entire section contains 1435 words.)

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physical distance, which he demonstrates can be bridged imaginatively in memory, but sadly because of his growing indifference to the world and to life around him.

At times, the poem uses a private vocabulary that contains certain personal “secrets.” Clearly, the elegy is addressed to a close friend with whom alone Miosz shares some of his memories. Experiences and feelings are described to which an impersonal reader could not possibly have access, even if Miosz were to supply notes or commentaries. The reader is given no exact idea, for that matter, of the identity of “N. N.” The features of the Lithuanian landscape and of Vilnius are given only in flashes—the bath cabin, the scent of leather, horses at the forge—without any overall picture emerging. This technique suggests fragmentation and discontinuity in the poet’s mind as well as discrepancies in the reader’s ability to read that mind. Some of those flashes use Germanic names, such as “Mama Fliegeltaub” and “Sachenhausen,” names foreign to the Lithuanian landscape and language that make no sense either to the reader or to natives of Vilnius without an explanation, although Miosz offers none. Consequently, the reader must piece together his or her own (necessarily flawed) sense of person and place. Some important figures in the poem, such as “the German owner,” are unnamed, increasing their strangeness. Miosz writes privately and exclusively in order to make the reader sense the opacity of distance and understand both Miosz’s sense of separation from the past and the growing impenetrability and sterility of his memories.

In Polish, from which Miosz himself translated this poem along with Lawrence Davis, the tone of the poem is more aggressive and personal than in English, and the opening imperative is much more direct and informal: “Powiedz czy to dla siebie za daleko.” Generally, Miosz’s Polish has a more concise, direct, and condensed effect than can be captured in English. “Skrci na ocean,” for example, must be rendered as “could have turned toward the ocean,” a much more unwieldy phrase. Generally, however, the translation captures the imagistic fervor and sensuality of the original.

Miosz verges at times on surrealism, juxtaposing unexpected images in a kind of cinematic jump-cutting or montage. He sees a bath cabin, for example, transformed into “abstract crystal,” a metamorphosis that is difficult to imagine if one is limited by common sense. His peculiar vision and sensual counterpoint only increase the reader’s sense of being a stranger in his world, helplessly dislocated and unable to make clear sense of what is seen and heard. Like Miosz, the reader seems to be cut off from the comforts of stable knowledge and fulfilled expectations.

The poet laments not the death of “N. N.”—which, if judged only from the content of the poem, may not even have occurred—but the loss of vitality in his imagination and memory. He mourns the failure of his spiritual connections both to an idyllic image of the past and to “things as they are in themselves,” the self-sufficient world of creation around him. Miosz’s elegy, like many of his poems, deals with the loss of spiritual energy in the modern world and with his growing inability, as a poet and a human being, to remake the link between the spiritual and the physical in order to restore some sense of belonging and meaning to life. In the poem, Miosz sees himself as indifferent and increasingly unwilling to make the effort to bridge the distances between the actual and the ideal through the medium of poetry.

Miosz tries to come to terms with the insufficiency of poetic “greatness” and with the failure of his imagination to transcend the often trivial aspects of ordinary life. He finds, upon self-examination, that he has no “great secrets” to reveal. Indeed, this failure—which finds a correlative in the scorched, arid postwar landscape of his faraway homeland—becomes for Miosz inevitable, fated, like a cancer growing within him from year to year “until it takes hold.”

Miosz is clearly pessimistic about the fate of humanity, and he condemns himself to gradual decline in the face of an inability to make sense of what he once thought were immutable values that “could not be taken away.” Miosz’s thought, however, has been characterized—by various readers and critics as well as by himself—as an “ecstatic pessimism”; that is, in the midst of tribulation and decline, the poet is able to discover some ecstatic core, some essentially vital, energetic center on which he can draw for poetic inspiration. In this elegy, despite his apparent failure to connect to his homeland through memories, Miosz can still imagine a sensuously dense landscape, rife with surprising juxtapositions and aesthetic promise. Though reluctant to face the possibility of failure again, Miosz nevertheless undertakes his poetic work and, out of the scorched ashes of his memory, is able to make, if nothing else, a poignant tribute to his loss.