Czeslaw Milosz: Three poems
You were my beginning and again I am with you, here, where
learned the four quarters of the globe.
Below, behind the trees, the River’s quarter; to the back, behind the buildings, the quarter of the Forest; to the right, the quarter of the Holy Ford; to the left, the quarter of the Smithy and the Ferry.
Whenever I wandered, through whatever continents, my face was always turned to the River.
Feeling in my mouth the taste and the scent of the rosewhite flesh of calamus.
Hearing old pagan songs of harvesters returning from the fields, while the sun on quiet evenings was dying out behind the hills.
In the greenery gone wild I could still locate the place of an arbor where you forced me to draw my first awkward letters.
And I would try to escape to my hideouts, for I was certain that I would never learn how to write.
I did not expect, either, to learn that though bones fall into dust, and dozens of years pass, there is still the same presence.
That we could, as we do, live in the realm of eternal mirrors, working our way at the same time through unmowed grasses.
You held the reins and we were riding, you and me, in a one-horse britzka, for a visit to the big village by the forest.
The branches of its apple trees and pear trees were bowed down under the weight of fruits, ornate carved porches stood out above little gardens of mallow and rue.
Your former pupils, now farmers, entertained us with talks of crops, women showed their looms and deliberated with you about the colors of the warp and the woof.
On the table slices of ham and sausage, a honeycomb in a clay bowl, and I was drinking kvas from a tin cup.
I asked the director of the collective farm to show me that village; he took me to fields empty up to the edge of the forest, stopping the car before a huge boulder.
“Here was the village Peiksva” he said, not without triumph in his voice, as is usual with those on the winning side.
I noticed that one part of the boulder was hacked away, somebody had tried to smash the stone with a hammer, so that not even that trace might remain.
I ran out in a summer dawn into the voices of the birds, and I returned, but between the two moments I created my work.
Even though it was so difficult to pull up the stick of n, so it joined the stick of u or to dare building a bridge between r and z.
I kept a reedlike penholder and dipped its nib in the ink, a wandering scribe, with an ink pot at his belt.
Now I think one’s work stands in the stead of happiness and becomes twisted by horror and pity.
Yet the spirit of this place must be contained in my work, just as it is contained in you who were led by it since childhood.
Garlands of oak leaves, the ave-bell calling for the May service, I wanted to be good and not to walk among the sinners.
But now when I try to remember how it was, there is only a pit, and it’s so dark, I cannot understand a thing.
All we know is that sin exists and punishment exists, whatever philosophers would like us to believe.
If only my work were of use to people and of more weight than is my evil.
You alone, wise and just, would know how to calm me, explaining that I did as much as I could.
That the gate of the Black Garden closes, peace, peace, what is finished is finished.
from Lithuania, After Fifty-Two Years:
Gaia, first-born daughter of Chaos, Adorned with grasses and trees, gladdens our eyes So that we can agree when naming what is beautiful And share with all earthly wanderers our joy.
Let us give thanks in our own and our ancestors’ name For oaks and their rough-barked dignity, For pines, their trunks flaming in the sun, For clear green clouds of vernal birch groves And for the candlesticks of the autumnal wilderness, aspens.
How many kinds of pear and apple trees in our gardens! (Arranged as described in The Northern Gardens of Strumillo), ‘Currants, gooseberries, dogberries, barberries For a great boiling of preserves When the faces of our housewives are reddened by their long stay by the stove.
There was a separate corner for medicinal herbs, Those which were grown at the advice of Gizycki’s Economical-Technological Herbarium. From them elixirs and ointments for the manor’s pharmacy.
And mushroom gathering! Sturdy boletus in the oakwoods. Strings of them, one by another, drying under the eaves. A hunter’s trumpet is heard when we search for milk cups And our knives are stained yellow-red by their juices.
Gaia! Whatever happens, preserve at least your seasons. Emerge from under the snows with the trickling of rivulets in springs, Dress yourself for those who will live after us If only in the green of mid-city parks And the blossoming of dwarf apple trees in garden plots at the edge of cities. I depose my petition, your lowly son.
Beyond the red traffic light, young chestnut leaves. Who is the one seeing it, Where does he come from, where will he disappear to, Who is the one, instead of him, Who will be seeing the same but not the same thing, Because of a different pulsation of the blood?
And limbs of huge trees over a steep road, Leaning into each other, and in that lane, Beyond the colonnade of trunks, an open brightness. For whom is this? And how does it vary? Is it present every time or just imaginary?
Be yourselves, things of this earth, be yourselves! Don’t rely on us, on our breath, On the fancies of our treacherous and avid eye. We long for you, for your essence, For you to last as you are in yourselves: Pure, not looked at by anybody.
House In Krasnogruda
The woods reached water and there was immense silence. A crested grebe popped up on the surface of the lake, In deep water, very still, a flock of teals. That’s what was seen by a man on the shore Who decided to build his house here And to cut down the primeval oak forest. He was thinking of timber he would float down the Niemen And of thalers he would count by candlelight.
The ash trees in the park calmed down after the storm. The young lady runs down a path to the lake. She pulls her dress over her head (She does not ear panties though Mademoiselle gets angry), And there is a delight in the water’s soft touch When she swims, dog-style, self-taught, Toward brightness, beyond the shade of the trees.
The company settles into a boat, ladies and gentlemen In swimming suits. Just as they will be remembered By a frail boy whose lifeline is short. In the evening he learns to dance the tango. Mrs. Irena Leads him, with that smirk of a mature woman Who initiates a young male. Out the door to the veranda owls are hooting.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Mar 1995
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