Czesław Miłosz was a Polish-American poet, prose writer, translator, and diplomat. Regarded as one of the great poets of the twentieth century, he won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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Famous Czeslaw Milosz Poems
The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.
“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”
He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.
And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.
Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.
I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.
You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of
And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.
You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.
Raja, I wish I knew
the cause of that malady.
For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else.
A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
I would live by the hope of moving on.
Somewhere else there was a city of real presence,
of real trees and voices and friendship and love.
Link, if you wish, my peculiar case
(on the border of schizophrenia)
to the messianic hope
of my civilization.
Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,
in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption.
Building in my mind a permanent polis
forever deprived of aimless bustle.
I learned at last to say: this is my home,
here, before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets,
on the shore which faces the shores of your Asia,
in a great republic, moderately corrupt.
Raja, this did not cure me
of my guilt and shame.
A shame of failing to be
what I should have been.
The image of myself
grows gigantic on the wall
and against it
my miserable shadow.
That’s how I came to believe
in Original Sin
which is nothing but the first
victory of the ego.
Tormented by my ego, deluded by it
I give you, as you see, a ready argument.
I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru’s.
No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.
If I am sick, there is no proof whatsoever
that man is a healthy creature.
Greece had to lose, her pure consciousness
had to make our agony only more acute.
We needed God loving us in our weakness
and not in the glory of beatitude.
No help, Raja, my part is agony,
struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate,
prayer for the Kingdom
and reading Pascal.
My Faithful Mother Tongue
Faithful mother tongue,
I have been serving you.
Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors
so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch
as preserved in my memory.
This lasted many years.
You were my native land; I lacked any other.
I believed that you would also be a messenger
between me and some good people
even if they were few, twenty, ten
or not born, as yet.
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 debased,
of the unreasonable, hating themselves
even more than they hate other nations,
a tongue of informers,
a tongue of the confused,
ill with their own innocence.
But without you, who am I?
Only a scholar in a distant country,
a success, without fears and humiliations.
Yes, who am I without you?
Just a philosopher, like everyone else.
I understand, this is meant as my education:
the glory of individuality is taken away,
Fortune spreads a red carpet
before the sinner in a morality play
while on the linen backdropp a magic lantern throws
images of human and divine torture.
Faithful mother tongue,
perhaps after all it’s I who must try to save you.
So I will continue to set before you little bowls of colors
bright and pure if possible,
for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.
It Was Winter
Winter came as it does in this valley.
After eight dry months rain fell
And the mountains, straw-colored, turned green for a while.
In the canyons where gray laurels
Graft their stony roots to granite,
Streams must have filled the dried-up creek beds.
Ocean winds churned the eucalyptus trees,
And under clouds torn by a crystal of towers
Prickly lights were glowing on the docks.
This is not a place where you sit under a café awning
On a marble piazza, watching the crowd,
Or play the flute at a window over a narrow street
While children’s sandals clatter in the vaulted entryway.
They heard of a land, empty and vast,
Bordered by mountains. So they went, leaving behind crosses
Of thorny wood and traces of campfires.
As it happened, they spent winter in the snow of a mountain pass,
And drew lots and boiled the bones of their companions;
And so afterward a hot valley where indigo could be grown
Seemed beautiful to them. And beyond, where fog
Heaved into shoreline coves, the ocean labored.
Sleep: rocks and capes will lie down inside you,
War councils of motionless animals in a barren place,
Basilicas of reptiles, a frothy whiteness.
Sleep on your coat, while your horse nibbles grass
And an eagle gauges a precipice.
When you wake up, you will have the parts of the world.
West, an empty conch of water and air.
East, always behind you, the voided memory of snow-covered fir.
And extending from your outspread arms
Nothing but bronze grasses, north and south.
We are poor people, much afflicted.
We camped under various stars,
Where you dip water with a cup from a muddy river
And slice your bread with a pocketknife.
This is the place; accepted, not chosen.
We remembered that there were streets and houses where we came
So there had to be houses here, a saddler’s signboard,
A small veranda with a chair. But empty, a country where
The thunder beneath the rippled skin of the earth,
The breaking waves, a patrol of pelicans, nullified us.
As if our vases, brought here from another shore,
Were the dug-up spearheads of some lost tribe
Who fed on lizards and acorn flour.
And here I am walking the eternal earth.
Tiny, leaning on a stick.
I pass a volcanic park, lie down at a spring,
Not knowing how to express what is always and everywhere:
The earth I cling to is so solid
Under my breast and belly that I feel grateful
For every pebble, and I don’t know whether
It is my pulse or the earth’s that I hear,
When the hems of invisible silk vestments pass over me,
Hands, wherever they have been, touch my arm,
Or small laughter, once, long ago over wine,
With lanterns in the magnolias, for my house is huge.
What are you doing here, poet, on the ruins
Of St. John’s Cathedral this sunny
Day in spring?
What are you thinking here, where the wind
Blowing from the Vistula scatters
The red dust of the rubble?
You swore never to be
A ritual mourner.
You swore never to touch
The deep wounds of your nation
So you would not make them holy
With the accursed holiness that pursues
Descendants for many centuries.
But the lament of Antigone
Searching for her brother
Is indeed beyond the power
Of endurance. And the heart
Is a stone in which is enclosed,
Like an insect, the dark love
Of a most unhappy land.
I did not want to love so.
That was not my design.
I did not want to pity so.
That was not my design.
My pen is lighter
Than a hummingbird’s feather. This burden
Is too much for it to bear.
How can I live in this country
Where the foot knocks against
The unburied bones of kin?
I hear voices, see smiles. I cannot
Write anything; five hands
Seize my pen and order me to write
The story of their lives and deaths.
Was I born to become
a ritual mourner?
I want to sing of festivities,
The greenwood into which Shakespeare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of happiness,
Otherwise your world will perish.
It’s madness to live without joy
And to repeat to the dead
Whose part was to be gladness
Of action in thought and in the flesh, singing, feasts
Only the two salvaged words:
Truth and justice.
I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continued to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment.
Owl says that immediately beyond our garden Time begins, and that it is an awfully deep well. If you fall in it, you go down and down, very quickly, and no one knows what happens to you next. I was a bit worried about Christopher Robin falling in, but he came back and then I asked him about the well. ‘Old bear,’ he answered. ‘I was in it and I was falling and I was changing as I fell. My legs became long, I was a big person, I grew old, hunched, and I walked with a cane, and then I died. It was probably just a dream, it was quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won’t go anywhere, even if I’m called in for an afternoon snack.’
The Dining Room
A room with low windows, with brown shades,
Where a Danzig clock keeps silent in the corner;
A low leather sofa; and right above it
The sculpted heads of two smiling devils;
And a copper pan shows its gleaming paunch.
On the wall a painting that depicts winter.
A crowd of people skate on ice
Between the trees, smoke comes from a chimney,
And crows fly in an overcast sky.
Nearby a second clock. A bird sits inside.
It pops out squawking and calls three times.
And it has barely finished its third and last call
When mother ladles out soup from a hot tureen.
It happened that sometimes I kissed in mirrors the reflection of my face, since the hands, face and tears of Annalena had caressed it, it seemed to me divinely beautiful as if suffused with heavenly sweetness. I liked her velvet wetness, long voyages in the delta her legs. A striving upstream toward her beating heart through more and more savage currents saturated with the light of hops and bindweed. And our vehemence and triumphant laughter and our hasty dressing in the middle of the night to walk on the stone stairs of the upper city. Our breath held in amazement and silence, porosity of worn-out stones and the great door of the cathedral. Over the gate of the rectory fragments of brick among weeds, in darkness the touch of a rough buttressed wall. And later our looking from the bridge down to the orchard, when under the moon every tree is separate on its kneeler, and from the secret interior of dimmed poplars the echo carries the sound of a water turbine. To whom do we tell what happened on this earth, for whom do we place everywhere huge mirrors in the hope that they will be filled up and will stay so? Always in doubt whether it was we who were there, she and I,, or just anonymous lovers on the enameled tablets of a fairy-land….
Faith is in you whenever you look
At a dewdropp or a floating leaf
And know that they are because they have to be.
Even if you close your eyes and dream up things
The world will remain as it has always been
And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.
You have faith also when you hurt your foot
Against a sharp rock and you know
That rocks are there to hurt our feet.
See the long shadow that is cast by the tree?
We and trees throw shadows on the earth.
What has no shadow has no strength to live.
One More Contradiction
Did I fulfill what I had to, here, on earth?
I was a guest in a house under white clouds
Where rivers flow and grasses renew themselves.
So what if I were called, if I was hardly aware.
The next time early I would search for wisdom.
I would not pretend I could be just like the others:
Only evil and suffering come from that.
Renouncing, I would choose the fate of obedience.
I would suppress my wolf’s eye and greedy throat.
A resident of some cloister floating in the air
With a view on the cities glowing below,
Or onto a stream, a bridge and old cedars,
I would give myself to one task only.
Which then, however, could not be accomplished
Where The Sun Rises And Where It Sets
Once, when returning from far Transylvania
Through mountain forests, rocks, and Carpathian ridges,
Halting by a ford at the close of day
(My companions had sent me ahead to look
For passage), I let my horse graze
And out of the saddlebag took the Holy Scripture;
The light was so gracious, murmur of streams so sweet,
That reading Paul’s epistles, and seeing the first star,
I was soon lulled into a profound sleep.
A young man in ornate Greek raiment
Touched my arm and I heard his voice:
‘Your time, O mortals, hastens by like water,
I have descended and known its absyss.
It was I, whom cruel Paul chastised in Corinth
For having stolen my father’s wife,
And by his order I was to be excluded
From the table at which we shared our meals.
Since then I have not been in gatherings of the saints,
And for many years I was led by the sinful love
Of a poor plaything given to temptation,
And so we doomed ourselves to eternal ruin.
But my Lord and my God, whom I knew not,
Tore me from the ashes with his lightning,
In his eyes your truths count for nothing,
His mercy saves all living flesh.’
Awake under a huge starry sky,
Having received help unhoped for,
Absolved of care about our platry life,
I wiped my eyes wet with tears.
No, I have never been to Transylvania.
I have never brought messages from there to my church.
But I could have.
This is an exercise in style.
The pluperfect tense
Of countries imperfective.
Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.
While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.
While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.
The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.
Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.
And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.
It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.
And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.
Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.
They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.
Leaves glowing in the sun, zealous hum of bumblebees,
From afar, from somewhere beyond the river, echoes of lingering voices
And the unhurried sounds of a hammer gave joy not only to me.
Before the five senses were opened, and earlier than any beginning
They waited, ready, for all those who would call themselves mortals,
So that they might praise, as I do, life, that is, happiness.
You Whose Name
You whose name is aggressor and devourer.
Putrid and sultry, in fermentation.
You mash into pulp sages and prophets,
Criminals and heroes, indifferently.
My vocativus is useless.
You do not hear me, though I address you,
Yet I want to speak, for I am against you.
So what if you gulp me, I am not yours.
You overcome me with exhaustion and fever.
You blur my thought, which protests,
You roll over me, dull unconscious power.
The one who will overcome you is swift, armed:
Mind, spirit, maker, renewer.
He jousts with you in depths and on high,
Equestrian, winged, lofty, silver-scaled.
I have served him in the investiture of forms.
It’s not my concern what he will do with me.
A retinue advances in the sunlight by the lakes.
From white villages Easter bells resound.
I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to woodlands where swirls of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor house in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night – I don’t know where it came from – in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.
To Mrs. Professor In Defense Of My Cat’s Honor And Not Only
My valiant helper, a small-sized tiger
Sleeps sweetly on my desk, by the computer,
Unaware that you insult his tribe.
Cats play with a mouse or with a half-dead mole.
You are wrong, though: it’s not out of cruelty.
They simply like a thing that moves.
For, after all, we know that only consciousness
Can for a moment move into the Other,
Empathize with the pain and panic of a mouse.
And such as cats are, all of Nature is.
Indifferent, alas, to the good and the evil.
Quite a problem for us, I am afraid.
Natural history has its museums,
But why should our children learn about monsters,
An earth of snakes and reptiles for millions of years?
Nature devouring, nature devoured,
Butchery day and night smoking with blood.
and who created it? Was it the good Lord?
Yes, undoubtedly, they are innocent,
Spiders, mantises, sharks, pythons.
We are the only ones who say: cruelty.
Our consciousness and our conscience
Alone in the pale anthill of galaxies
Put their hope in a humane God.
Who cannot but feel and think,
Who is kindred to us by his warmth and movement,
For we are, as he told us, similar to Him.
Yet if it is so, the He takes pity
On every mauled mouse, every wounded bird.
Then the universe ofr him is like a Crucifixion.
Such is the outcome of your attack on the cat:
A theological, Augustinian grimace,
Which makes difficult our walking on this eart.
By The Peonies
The peonies bloom, white and pink.
And inside each, as in a fragrant bowl,
A swarm of tiny beetles have their conversation,
For the flower is given to them as their home.
Mother stands by the peony bed,
Reaches for one bloom, opens its petals,
And looks for a long time into peony lands,
Where one short instant equals a whole year.
Then lets the flower go. And what she thinks
She repeats aloud to the children and herself.
The wind sways the green leaves gently
And speckles of light flick across their faces.
The charms of the ordinariness soothe the threat of anxiety.
here where you see a green valley
And a road half-covered with grass,
Through an oak wood beginning to bloom
Children are returning home from school.
In a pencil case that opens sideways
Crayons rattle among crumbs of a roll
And a copper penny saved by every child
To greet the first spring cuckoo.
Sister’s beret and brother’s cap
Bob in the bushy underbrush,
A screeching jay hops in the branches
And long clouds float over the trees.
A red roof is already visible at the bend.
In front of the house father, leaning on a hoe,
Bows down, touches the unfolded leaves,
And from his flower bed inspects the whole region.
They are incomprehensible, the things of this earth.
The lure of waters. The lure of fruits.
Lure of two breasts and the long hair of a maiden.
In rouge, in vermillion, in that color of ponds
Found only in the Green Lakes near Wilno.
An ungraspable multitudes swarm, come together
In the crinkles of tree bark, in the telescope’s eye,
For an endless wedding,
For the kindling of eyes, for a sweet dance
In the elements of air, sea, earth, and subterranean caves,
So that for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
Desire will not save the morality of God.
If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,
Which would find its explanation only by assuming
The existence of an archetypal Paradise
And a pre-human downfall so grave
That the world of matter received its shape from diabolic power.
Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards,
or when snow covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a human being: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well,
that the statue in church lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore, call one person, anywhere on earth,
not me-after all I have some decency-
and allow me, when I look at that person,
to marvel at you.
First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
Hearing it, you should be able to see
Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road,
As if in a flash of summer lightning.
And it should contain more than images.
It has been lured by singsong,
A daydream, melody. Defenseless,
It was bypassed by the sharp, dry world.
You often ask yourself why you feel shame
Whenever you look through a book of poetry.
As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
Addressed the worse side of your nature,
Pushing aside thought, cheating thought.
Seasoned with jokes, clowning, satire,
Poetry still knows how to please.
Then its excellence is much admired.
But the grave combats where life is at stake
Are fought in prose. It was not always so.
And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.