Unattainable Earth Summary
by Czesław Miłosz

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Unattainable Earth Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In Unattainable Earth, Czesaw Miosz’s first collection of poetry published after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1980, he sets himself a task that he acknowledges is unachievable: to create a literature that embraces a world too immense for our limited vision and insufficient language. In his preface, Miosz notes that the Polish title for the collection means “earth too huge to be grasped,” which provides both a central thematic figure and a sense of scale for the poet’s ambition “to transcend my place and time, searching for the Real.”

In his poems, the writer not only shrugs against the limitations of consciousness and humanity’s fallen state but also struggles against the constraints of form. Rather than simply a collection of poems, Unattainable Earth is much more. It is filled with aphorisms and philosophical pronouncements as well as lyric poetry, and the book expands its formal boundaries by mortaring what Miosz calls “Inscripts”—prose fragments and full poems by other authors, even letters he received—into the architecture of the collection.

These interpolations are wide-ranging but consistent. They include passages from the third century Corpus Hermeticum (a collection of Greek texts from a more extensive group of works containing secret wisdom known as Hermetica), as well as writings by Miosz’s more immediate spiritual forebears, such as the philosopher Simone Weil and his cousin, the French poet and mystic Oscar V. de L. Miosz. The inscripts, including poems by D. H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman, were initially translated by Miosz into Polish, but remain in their original form in the English version as “an homage to tutelary spirits.”

Taken together, this anthology—or “mosaic,” as Miosz puts it—makes up a kind of individual spiritual autobiography. Its variety of voices, both in terms of the authors incorporated into the body of the book and the numerous personas addressed and adopted by the poet, only underscores the focus of its mediation. What does it mean, the writer questions, to be an individual in the world?

On one hand, his tactic is a mode of protection and self-preservation; as Miosz acknowledges, his efforts offer a means of countering mortality. This is achieved not through literary glory, or even certainty in an eternal reward, but through an imaginative association with others: “I invent stories, similar to my own, a lifted elbow, the combing of hair before a mirror. I multiplied myself and came to inhabit every one of them separately, thus my impermanence has no power over me.”

Even more, however, the act of connecting with others is an act of compassion, an attempt to remember and to recognize the worth of a single existence, “to embrace the poor lives of beings.” In numerous poems, Miosz asserts the value of individuals by sketching them: a former teacher, Father Chomski; a fellow poet from his youth whose obituary he had received; numerous anonymous or scarcely recollected figures. The particularity of these lives leads to a universal recognition of the plight and the splendor of what it is to be human.

Similarly, Miosz describes his fascination with art objects, though his response is not that of an aesthete; instead, he finds in them the pulse of past existences. “The witnesses are old things, undimmed, dense/ With the life of human hands: the intense reds/ in stained glass, stone lacework, marble heads. . . .” It is the sturdy wooden table at which he senses the touch of other fingers that captures his sympathy and leads him to recognize that he, like those before him, will pass through mortality without leaving more than a trace of the essential quality of his selfhood.

The poet acknowledges that, despite his struggles to resurrect figures both known and imagined, he fails to represent the true richness of human lives. This failure is largely due to his own insufficiencies and the inability of language to capture actuality. Miosz continually laments that he is unable to express the always elusive quality of lives, admitting in one of his prose fragments that “every one of my efforts to say something real ended the same way, by my being driven back to the enclosure of form, as if I were a sheep straying from the flock.” Language, he says, is weak, and he regrets his inability to write with the kind of purity and detachment demanded by the pressures of suffering and history.

Yet the poet’s lament at the instability of language is voiced with a contradictory, balancing impulse: the poet’s astonishment at his own being. “What use are you? In your writings there is nothing except immense amazement.” Despite the relentlessness of mortality, the poet is able to assert his ego in the face of human tragedy and decline. He is given a space in which time loosens its power, in which language may be enough. Such an eternal instant appears in the poem, “At Dawn,” a grace note in which he is able to write, “Only this moment at dawn is real to me./ The bygone lives are like my own past life, uncertain./ I cast a spell on the city asking it to last.”