March 2005

Joey Rubin

poetry

Second Space by Czeslaw Milosz

When the prolific Polish and Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz died last summer at age 93, he left behind over 30 books in authoritative English language editions thanks mostly to the many collaborative book-length translation projects he completed with his close friends Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky. What he also left behind was one final collection, Second Space, translated by the author and Hass during the last year of Milosz's life.

Before his death, Milosz, a prodigious figure in contemporary poetry, was hailed as both "one of the towering poets of the 20th century" by Robert Hass and as "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest" by Joseph Brodsky. Yet today, when the overall effect of Milosz's literary achievement is still being assessed, it is difficult to process, let alone properly assess, his final installment. In his large body of work, Milosz struggled to come to terms with the human catastrophes of the 20th century, many of which he had the misfortune of witnessing first hand. But in his final book -- an old man with the voice of an accomplished poet -- many of the poems are spent settling scores (with God, that is) and trying to make sense of a precarious personal faith.

Born in then-Soviet Lithuania in 1911 to Polish parents, Milosz experienced the Russian revolution first-hand; then, he spent WWII in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and later served as a diplomat in the United States for communist Poland. During each stage in his life, including ten years of self-exile in Paris and 20 years professing at UC Berkeley, he produced a voluminous oeuvre of darkly metaphysical, boldly political and candidly religious poems. In 1980, while involved with the Solidarity labor movement that helped end Communist rule in Poland, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Milosz was an audacious choice for the Swedish committee at the height of the Cold War. His poetry was probing and contentious, in both its cultural and political implications. It ranged from subversive to anti-Nazi; from communist-banned to anti-totalitarian; from Church-critical to dogma-doubting. At times, Milosz's work made devout Roman Catholics and Parisian intellectuals equally uncomfortable.  But in Second Space -- by no means a resigned final work -- there are few hints of such an impact.

The muscle of this final work resides slyly in the moments when he forgets himself in the midst of his spiritual quest and creates other personas from which to launch his search.  In "A Beautiful Stranger," Milosz uses unadorned language to vividly portray a character who questions "the exactness of fate."  And again, in "Orpheus and
Eurydice," the closing poem of the collection -- and the strongest -- he recasts his quandaries about faith and love in the cloth of one of poetry's oldest myths, convincingly re-igniting the Greek myth and his own search for religious meaning with his heartfelt rendition.  Here, he also delivers the finest phrases of his final collection:

Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades
Orpheus hunched in a gust of wind
That tore at his coat, rolled past in waves of fog,
Tossed the leaves of the trees. The headlights of cars
Flared and dimmed in each succeeding wave.

Unfortunately, for a reader unfamiliar with a life of studying, questioning and challenging the Catholic cannon, much of Second Space, including the entire middle section of the book, his "Treatise on Theology," is difficult to digest. References to Mickiewicz, Swedenborg, the Kabbalah, Jakob Boehme, and others, make the poems hard to penetrate without much outside reading.  In addition, these dense and repeated allusions are embedded in obscure theological discussions, often told in prosaic, even technical, language.  A thorough knowledge of Milosz's oeuvre, or of Catholic theology, would clearly enrich a reading of these dense selections; however, for the casual reader, they are a frustrating roadblock. The plain-spoken wisdom that Milosz is able to capture, the searing honesty that he is able to convey -- as in "To Spite Nature," when he laments: "Man, not withstanding his animal nature,/ should have had a spiritual life of great richness" -- is at these points lost. At its worst, Second Space is tiresome, and reads, not like poetry, but like a methodological document.

Which is not to say Second Space should not be read, or that Milosz's final book should be relegated to the pile of inferior posthumous works. Rather, Second Space, as a powerful and demanding text in its own right, should be entered into the Milosz cannon as a triumphant and uncompromising last chapter. But it also should not be blindly praised simply because it comes at the end of a long and prolific life's work. Second Space is not a capstone, but it is a sturdy brick in the structure of a very impressive career.

Second Space by Czeslaw Milosz
HarperCollins
ISBN 0060745665
102 Pages