A Tail of Two Poems – A Reflection on the Search for Eternal Truths in the Poetry of the Nobel Prize Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

Lithuanian Polish Nobel Prize Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

5. Earth Again

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
Thrown into an abyss.

Czeslaw Milosz from The Garden of Earthly Delights in Unattainable Earth (1986) in New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), Ecco, 2003

To capture moments, dear particulars, out of the flux of time and in that attention does something mysterious, or more specifically something of the lasting, the eternal, enter in?

So that for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
Thrown into an abyss.

I ask this especially after spending many hours reading the poems of the Lithuanian Polish Nobel prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. And here, a huge shout out to the U.S. Community of Writers  and its director, Brett Hall Jones, for hosting a six week series of Milosz facilitated by former U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert (Bob) Hass. Third session, tomorrow! More than two hundred participants and some of them recognizable and noted Milosz translators and scholars.

This longing  of Milosz above does not take away his rigorous attention to everyday life as you see so wonderfully in his poem Earth Again, above. To the sensuous particulars of life. What the Nobel Prize Committee celebrated him for. It seems this is his way of trying to honour and make sense of human life where we all vanish. Who will remember us?  This becomes his job as a poet. The job of artists as he says in these lines from the long poem IV Natura, in his 1957 volume, A Treatise on Poetry: In sculptures and canvases our individuality/ Manages to survive. In Nature it perishes.

He seems to see two polarities in life and his struggle is to find a middle, I think. He defines these polarities in his remarkable long poem III The Spirit of History in his 1957 volume, A Treatise on Poetry.

In a dream the mind visits two sharp edges.
Woe to the unearthly, the radiant ones,
While storming heaven, they neglect the Earth
With its joy and warmth and animal strength.
Woe to the reasonable, the heavy-minded.
Their lies will  extinguish the morning star
A gift more durable than Nature is, or death.

Milosz, a man who says he was torn between wanting to be lost in endless contemplation, a radiant one, perhaps, and the need, to be forced back into the movement of history, its beauty and its violence. A man who seems to seek consolation even among seemingly inconsolable moments of history. He won’t look away. Especially where he had a front seat in such moments during and after the Second World War in Poland. This need not simply to mourn as he writes in his poem In Warsaw written in 1945 where he asks:

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.

Put simply,  I think much of his poetry is a struggle between needing to celebrate an isness of beauty and life and what we can imagine could lie beyond it but also to acknowledge a becoming of history and time with its evil and violence. Milosz  witnessed the horrors and atrocities there in Poland: the Warsaw uprising and the total destruction of the city by the Nazi regime. Those atrocities, that destruction forced him to become a poet of witness. Something he did not want to be. But he was compelled to be.
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Poetry as Devotion, Prayer and Wholeness – The Poetry of Jennifer Grotz – And Quotes on Poetry by Rosemary Griebel and Juleta Seversen-Baker

 

Calgary poet Rosemary Griebel. Photo credit: The Calgary Public Library

Canadian poet and art and speech educator, Juleta Seversen-Baker. Photo credit: The Calgary Public Library

Poetry, in both its creation and the reading of it, insists on careful listening. Careful listening opens a space for the soul, for revelation, for wholeness. Poems are glimpses of wholeness.

—Juleta Severson-Baker, Calgary-based poet and educator who teaches at the Calgary Arts Academy and Mount Royal University.

Poetry matters because it is one of the most potent forms of prayer.

—Rosemary Griebel, a poet and former librarian at the Calary Public Library

 

American poet, university prof and translator, Jennifer Grotz, at the James Merrill House, 2020.Photo Credit: The Connecticut Examiner.

Over and Above

Because I didn’t want it to end
and because I was all alone again,
because in those seasons attention
was my only form of prayer,
I attended the summer rain.
When it pelted the lake like fingers
across a keyless piano, I attended
the fingertips’ perforations on the soft surface.
Inside a theater of quiet the trees made,
permeable, though, at least studded
by bird song, I attended the mosquitos
floating like eyelashes in the thick air.
And before turning back from the lake’s edge,
needing to confirm it still so,
I wrapped my hand around a cattail
and squeezed: spongy and veloured
as an espresso-soaked ladyfinger.
I grew in those seasons, said Thoreau,
like corn in the night. They were
not subtracted from my life, but so much
over and above my usual allowance.
Sometimes I imagined the rain was also
attending me, that I was its interlocutor.
It had been born, it seemed to say,
like any living thing, from certain
right conditions, it had gained force
as it grew and persisted to stay alive.
And the rain could pray harder
than me. It continued even when
I stopped listening, then started again.
That is how seconds, minutes, a whole
afternoon would spill out until there was neither
forward nor back only this other
kind of now, over and above, this thick
haze of humid heat gauzing the distant trees.

Jennifer Grotz (1971 – ) from the Yale Review, February 24th, 2021

I first met  the American poet and translator Jennifer Grotz quite by accident at a symposium on the 17th Century English poet George Herbert in Salisbury, UK in 2007. We chatted once waiting for a bus and she told me she had been a gathering of Polish poets in Poland the year before. I think it was the gathering in honour of  the Polish Nobel prize laureate, Czeslaw Milosz.  I had no idea she was an accomplished poet! And no idea the degree to which her poems feel often like prayer or invocations to God. Perhaps, considering Herbert was a famed devotional poet and Grotz was at the Herbert symposium, I shouldn’t have been surprised!

I have added the epigraphs above by my two friends, Rosemary and Juleta, who are also fine poets, as a way of focussing on how Jennifer’s poem above and indeed, many of her poems, focus on prayer, on wholeness, on paying attention and in that way can be read, by me, for sure, as prayers.
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To Celebrate the Wonder-Filled Life of Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) – A Poem of Jane Hirschfield and One of Mine

The Caligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh, from This Moment is Full of Wonders, Chronicle Books, 2015

A Golden Shovel to Celebrate the Life of Thich Nhat Hanh

The most beautiful place of Heaven is on Earth.

—Thich Nhat Hanh from This Moment is Full of Wonders, Chronicle Books, 2015

Breathing in, I calm my body
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

—Thich Nhat Hanh, ibid

And the most beautiful breath I breathe in is the
one I breathe in now, on the day of your death, and the most
beautiful Sun is the one that reached the most beautiful
lake I walked by today, its burning silvers, water and ice, a place
never commonplace but especially, not this day after weeks of
cold and snow and gray, its ten thousand tones of gray, and heaven
will be open for gray won’t it Lord? I pray it will be if it is
to be true that heaven is also here on earth but on
this day, no gray, only a sun sharing heaven in a lake on earth.

Richard Osler, previously unpublished, January 22nd, 2022

Caligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh, Chronicle Books, 2015

The extraordinary ninety-five-year life of the Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, ended today in the village of Hue in  central Vietnam in the Tu Hieu temple, the temple he entered as a novice monk at age sixteen. His last years after a stroke were spent in Vietnam, a country that exiled him two-fold when it was North and South Vietnam. Both countries banned him. That ban, because of his peace activism against the Vietnam war, lasted for thirty-nine years.

My mindfulness practice this month is writing a poem a day with six other dear friends, the eleventh year I have written a poem-a-day in January, and, today, hearing of the death of Thich Nhat Hanh I though I would write a poem in his memory and honour. So, I picked up the gorgeous volume of his calligraphy and looked through the sayings and koans there and found this: the most beautiful place of Heaven is on Earth. What a great epigraph for my poem I thought and then I thought I could go one better, use that saying to make a Golden Shovel poem (a form introduced by American poet Terrance Hayes). Thich Nhat Hanh’s line can be found vertically by reading the last word of each line in my poem from top to bottom.

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I Turn Towards Words – A Tribute for Robert Jensen, American Artist, Dear Friend

American Multi-Media Artist and Creative Force, Robert (Bobbie) Jensen (1936-2022)

Come, let us spread a picnic on the precipice,
Eat, drink be merry with our back to the abyss,
Till in that dusk when Bats cannot be told from the Swallows,
Gifts from threats, we’ll banish solemn songs like this.
This is our hopeless heaven these flowers our eyes have watered,
Wine drawn from our veins tunes piped through hollowed bones,
And gaiety gushing from every wound.

Peter de Vries (1910-1993) from Reuben, Reuben, A Novel, Little, Brown and Company, 1964

I first heard this poem recited by a stranger in my house, there for a fiftieth birthday of a friend. That stranger, Robert Jensen, became a dearest friend. Robert or Bobbie as he was known to his friends died this past weekend, his beloved partner Susanna with him, in his extraordinary house in Stanwood, WA, full of books and artistic marvels and treasures. Such a multi-dimensional character he was as I attempt  to capture in prose and in a series of three poems included in this post. The first poem shares my first meeting with Bobbie and Peter de Vries’s marvellous poem!
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For Epiphany (January 6th): Martha Royea’s Refreshing Poetic Take on T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”

Canadian Poet Martha Royea (1941 – )

The Return Journey
— After T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

“They’re coming! They’re coming back!” I went shouting,
skirts flying and my hair not combed; I ran to the barns
to tell father, and then to the cookhouse, and then to shoo the gambling men
from the doorway again, and light the lamps, for it was almost dark.
And, there being still time, I pushed my hair up into a pretty cap and
put on a clean apron before going out to the road to greet them,
for they had complained on the way through of cold reception
and mean lodgings everywhere on their travels.

But when they were near I saw that they rode like defeated soldiers instead of kings.
They’d left here wearing fine embroidered robes,
crowns and jeweled bands and – oh, it was splendid
to see the three of them, tall and straight atop the swaying camels,
snow and mud splashing out behind them and all their men
and beasts of burden following in the slush.
“We go as kings to greet a king,” the dark one said to his grumpy camel man,
and I thought King Herod of course, knowing of no other,
but father, who travels often into the towns, spat on the ground, “Pah! Herod is but
Ceasar’s ass. A rumoured true King of Jews is what they’re looking for. Idiocy!”

And so, when they came back this way all draggled and slumped,
I knew my father was right and they had not found their king.
But they had found something; it made their faces grim,
and they were silent over their food and retired early
and the next morning they were away at dawn.
I watched them moving slowly up the long hill eastward
into the sun just rising in a sky as red as blood.

Martha Royea, unpublished, 2009

I first featured this stunning poem by B.C.-based Canadian poet Martha Royea in a blog posted December 30th, 2019. Since today is Epiphany, the day in the Christian calendar that celebrates the coming of the Wise Men I thought it would be appropriate to feature it again. It deserves the attention. I have known Martha for many years, having met her first at a Patrick Lane poetry retreat at Hollyhock, the retreat center on Cortes Island, up the coast from Vancouver. I consider her a wise amd wonderful dear friend! Now, the poem! My comments from two years ago!
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Ugly, Ugly, Ugly – Terrance Hayes’s Gorgeous New Year Poem!!!

A New Year Is Here! And a poem to go with it!

American Sonnet for the New Year

things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly
things got ugly embarrassingly quickly
actually things got ugly unbelievably quickly
honestly things got ugly seemingly infrequently
initially things got ugly ironically usually
awfully carefully things got ugly unsuccessfully
occasionally things got ugly mostly painstakingly
quietly seemingly things got ugly beautifully
infrequently things got ugly sadly especially
frequently unfortunately things got ugly
increasingly obviously things got ugly suddenly
embarrassingly forcefully things got really ugly
regularly truly quickly things got really incredibly
ugly things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully

Terrance Hayes from The New Yorker, January 14th, 2019

It may seem strange to begin new year 2022 by featuring this poem with an insistent and adverbial call out to ugly but I like what this poem is: a salute to the reality of messiness in human living, extremes, contradictions, maybe sos, maybe nots, and then some hope at the poem’s end, maybe! This uncertainty, this messiness I know will be part of 2022 without a doubt. But I also will grab on to the last line like a lifebelt! …things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully. Thank you Terrance Hayes. And thank you for all those gots! And one get. Delightful!

Terrance Hayes (1971- ), gifted poet and artist, has developed an admirable stature in American poetics. He won a National Book award for poetry in his thirties and a McArthur Genius Grant in his early forties. He is fearless in poems that tell of the painful histories of being an African American in the United States. And his fearlessness doesn’t end there. Particularly in his 2018 book, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, his voice feels unwavering in its necessity, in its clarities for justice and truth. For my 2015 blog post on Terrance please click here.

American Sonnet for the New Year, written after his 2018 book, captures a bewildering isness of ugliness. And it’s determined to celebrate its use of abstractions to portray ugly. An unexpected move! I feel as if I am being drowned inside the poem, its fourteen uglys, thirteen gots and one get and countless abstract ly adverbs. But I keep breathing as the poem’s insistent current carries me to the end and throws me on the shore of its surprisingly upbeat conclusion after all the confusions that preceded it.

American Poet Terrance Hayes. Photo from the MacArthur Foundation website.

How quickly it all got ugly the speaker repeats in the first three lines then changes his mind in the next three lines when the ugly is more confusing. Maybe it wasn’t frequent, maybe it was ironic, maybe ugly didn’t get ugly. And then in the next three lines ugly is back as ugly but nuanced. It’s painstaking, it’s beautiful, it’s sad. Then Hayes reverses course again and ugly is just ugly again but suddenly, then really ugly, then really incredibly ugly before the final turn where suddenly we are given the future tense inside this hopeful and unexpected few words: things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully. Read More »

Remembering Robert Bly – Part Two

American poet Robert Bly (1926-2021). Image courtesy of Haydn Reiss.

KEEPING OUR SMALL BOAT AFLOAT

So many blessings have been given to us
During the first distribution of light, that we are
Admired in a thousand galaxies for our grief.

Don’t expect us to appreciate creation or to
Avoid mistakes. Each of us is a latecomer
To the earth, picking up wood for the fire.

Every night another beam of light slips out
From the oyster’s closed eye. So don’t give up hope
that the door of mercy may still be open.

Seth and Shem, tell me, are you still grieving
Over the spark of light that descended with no
Defender near into the Egypt of Mary’s womb?

It’s hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.

Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm.

Robert Bly from Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey, W.W. Norton $ Co., 2011

And the deaths keep coming. Of course. It’s what life brings us. But this poem, this ghazal, by American poet Robert Bly, who died on November 21st , reminds me that my small boat is still afloat even though it feels lower in the water with many deaths this November of valued writers and poets including Robert. I am thinking of Phyllis Webb, Lee Maracle, Etel Adnan and Stephen Sondheim. (For my first response to the news of Robert’s death please click here.)

In light of these deaths is it any wonder I keep coming back to these lines in Robert’s poem above. How challenging and provocative they are!

It’s hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.

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“Where Will We Find Another Like Him? “ – Robert Bly (December 23rd, 1926 – November 21st, 2021)

American poet Robert Bly (1926-2021)

Where will we find another like him?

Tony Hoagland from The Village Troublemaker: Robert Bly and American Poetry in The American Poetry Review, September/October, 2011

The Pistachio Nut

God crouches at night over a single pistachio.
The vastness of the Wind River Range in Wyoming
Has no more grandeur than the waist of a child.

Haydn tells us that we’ve inherited a mansion
On one of the Georgia sea islands. Then the last
Note burns down the courthouse and all the records.

Everyone who presses down the strings with his own fingers
Is on his way to Heaven; the pain in the fingertips
Goes toward healing the crimes the hands have done.

Let’s give up the notion that great music is a way
Of praising human beings. It’s good to agree that one drop
Of ocean water holds all of Kierkegaard’s prayers.

When I hear the sitar give out the story of its life,
I know it is telling me how to behave-while kissing
The dear one’s feet, to weep over my wasted life.

Robert, this poem will soon be over; and you
Are like a twig trembling on the lip of the falls.
Like a note of music, you are about to become nothing.

Robert Bly from My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy, Harper Collins, 2005

Where will we find another like him? I still do not have an answer to this question Tony Hoagland asked in the last line of  his long 2011 article/essay about Robert Bly. Robert Bly, who died at age ninety-four a week ago. And Robert as you predicted in your American ghazal above your twig was pulled under by the falls last week and you, as a body, have become nothing. Where your soul is, well that’s anybody’s guess! But what you have left behind, your recordings, your poems, your essays and non-fiction books, they prove the breadth of your creative genius that made you one of the great poetic voices of your time. That gave rise to Tony’s question.

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Moved By The Shape of Scars – A Poem and a Chapbook by Ghanaian Writer and Poet Tryphena Yeboah

Ghanaian poet Tryphena Yeboah. Photo Credit: Narrative Magazine

MY BODY, HAVING LEARNED RESURRECTION

The day ripens on my face.
The opening of my eyes is the plucking of stars
and I want to keep the glistening thing forever
but my hands, I need them empty to carry other dreams like
pulling myself out of bed,
washing my face and carving today’s date into walls
as another triumphant exit from death, numbness—
the crashing state of absence from the here and now.
Suppose you enter a room to find me sitting across a window
looking into tomorrow,
will you touch me on the shoulder to wake me up
or bring me closer to you to feed your loneliness?
Suppose instead of turning my neck to face you
I crawl out of the window and run toward the light,
will you follow me not knowing where I am going or
will you pull me back by the arm, dragging me back to yourself?
My heart shall keep its promise of staying soft and open.
I’m versed inside a language that demands that before I speak,
I weight the words with my tongue. Must be salt. Must be water.
Everyone speaks of never returning to the places that almost drowned them.
Meanwhile, I am a girl moved by the shape of scars.
If I want to know how a wound made a home out of me,
does it mean I enjoyed the pain?
I want the joy of healing pulsing close to my skin
My body, having learned resurrection, more tender than before.
I want a tangible appreciation of life.
I stretch my hand and the day is a fruit I bite into,
a kind of sweetness I can wear without growing tired;
a cascading joy enough to keep me believing that no door is an accident.
You walk through some only to meet yourself.

Tryphena Yeboah from A Mouthful of Home from New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba), Akashic Books, 2020

I have profiled the extraordinary six-year old venture called the New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbok Box Set edited by American poets Kwame Dawes and Chris Albani in an earlier blog post. But I want to highlight a poet and her chapbook from the 2020 version called Saba – Tryphena Yeboah and her book A Mouthful of Home. And, in addition, to say, Tryphena, in late September won the prestigious Narrative Prize for a non-fiction and fiction piece published in Narrative. (An excerpt from her essay is below.)

Tryphena is a Ghanaian writer currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Nebraska. Her confidence and control in her poems, her careful pacing, is so evident from her chapbook! And the richness of her description. And how she ties her poem together with this idea of opening and openings: an opening of eyes, a opening out from one state into another, figuratively moving out of a confined space through a window or a threshold and then at the poem’s end instead of a window there is a door, another threshold, another way to go from one place to another. And the lovely last line where some doors take you back to meet yourself. And with this, an echo of Derek Walcott’s celebrated poem; Love After Love and the lines : you will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door, in your own mirror/ and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
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“The Dark Came Down” – R.I.P. Sophie Alexandra Musgrave Reid (1989-2021) – And Poems of Response by Her Mother, Canadian Poet, Susan Musgrave

Sophie Alexandra Musgrave Reid: With permission of Susan Musgrave

THE SOUL IS A TINY THING
for Sophie

The day you were born the sun
thawed the tears on your father’s
face. We needed you, a flirt
of grace, your breath on our lips
like one long kiss. We could have spent
a lifetime together in that kiss. Today
you are twenty-six. You send me
a photo of your white wolf hunting
rabbits in the snow. “Who says we can’t live
forever, lol?” Everything we are
comes from the dying light of stars.

Susan Musgrave from her Facebook page, September 18th, 2021. With permission.

from THE GOODNESS OF THE WORLD

……….. My fault was in trying to fix you,
who taught me, all life on earth is the dust of ruined stars.
Words for your headstone, carved by a hard bitten wind.
When the dust settles, we’re left with dust.

Susan Musgrave, 2012, with permission.

XV from Fall

The day we set to dig
my old cat’s grave under the looming
hoary cedars, the dark came down
earlier, blowing rain clouds
over the hills. I thought
the going
doesn’t get any easier
. We are the broken
heart of this world.

Susan Musgrave in Obituary of Light – The Sangan River Meditations, Leaf Press, 2009. With permission.

I dedicate this blog post to Susan Musgrave and Sophie Musgrave Reid. And, through my poetry therapy work in recovery centers, to those men and women I worked with who subsequently relapsed and died and to their beloveds, many of whom I also worked with.

 

Here I am writing a blog post triggered by the overdose death of someone I never knew – Sophie Alexandra Musgrave Reid (1989-2021). This might seem strange. But thanks to Sophie’s mother, Susan Musgrave, truly one of the important Canadian poets of her generation, I feel I knew something of her. How? Through Susan’s gut-wrenching prize-winning 2012 poem, THE GOODNESS OF THIS WORLD. (An excerpt is above and the full poem is below.) To read a previous blog post on Susan Musgrave please click here.

In THE GOODNESS OF THIS WORLD Sophie’s journey with addiction is related with unflinching directness. Something Susan’s poems are often noted and celebrated for. And what makes this poem even more relevant and poignant for me is that it invokes a suggestion of Sophie’s death when it mentions an epitaph for Sophie’s headstone. That death, after Sophie’s courageous battle with her addiction and times of recovery from it, tragically came by an overdose all to soon on September 8th, 2021.

And Susan’s sorrow, as I also imagine the sorrow of so so many parents who have lost beloveds to addiction, seems unthinkable, unsayable. But Susan does begin to capture it in her poem above when she says: I thought the going/ doesn’t get any easier. We are the broken heart of this world. All these losses we experience as human dwellers on this planet. Yes: We are the broken heart of this world. And with Susan’s daughter’s death a mother’s heart breaks even more.

And Susan in a recent Facebook post tries to tell us of sorrow’s depth from the loss of a beloved through the use of an Irish word. ” The Irish have a word for sadness born of grief —”brónach”. But it means so much more than that. A sadness deeper than grief, akin to desolation. What an apt and, for me, horrifying word: desolation. And the desolation captured in Susan’s words above: When the dust settles, we’re left with dust.

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