Sunday, July 09, 2006

Reading. Milosz.

I was at the bookstore yesterday, browsing around for something to read, when I saw a new volume of selected poems by Czeslaw Milosz. Some months ago, I had briefly scanned his poetry, I had read his ABC's, and his writing had sent me off towards other poets, first Levertov, and then Brodsky, both of whom I loved with a sudden fierceness which surprised me. (Or perhaps it didn't). So I came back to Milosz, flipped through the pages, stopped at the very last poem. As I read it I felt my heart break apart, and then the tears began to fall.

It must sometimes be a lonely existence as the wife of an artist, a poet, someone whose work is all-consuming, as necessary to the artist as breathing, not something that can be locked in a briefcase or left behind in the office at 5 o'clock each day. Milosz saw that, wrote that "Lyric poets/Usually have - as he knew - cold hearts./It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art/Is given in exchange for such an affliction." His Orpheus and Eurydice is that ancient myth reimagined as an elegy for his wife, who had died suddenly and too young, leaving Milosz alone in the twilight of his life.

Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope, had a gift with music which enchanted all those who heard it, all living things, all the gods. When his dryad wife Eurydice died, he was inconsolable. He descended to the underworld and pleaded with the goddess Persephone to bring her back. Milosz could not bring back his wife, but he could acknowledge that "Only her love warmed him, humanized him./When he was with her, he thought differently about himself./He could not fail her, when she was dead." (It was at this point I began to cry). In the end, there is art, and love, and when the love has been taken away, the art remains. And memory.

Sun. And sky. And in the sky white clouds.
Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will I live without you, my consoling one!
But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

Milosz, Czeslaw.
Second Space: New Poems. Ecco, 2005. pp 99-102.

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