• Tag Archives Milosz, Czeslaw
  • The Mad Pomegranate Tree: Odysseus Elytis, Aegean Surrealist

    Who, at the age of seventeen, was your favorite exponent of French surrealism? For the young Odysseus Elytis it was Paul Eluard. There is enough striking juxtaposition in this spiritual meeting to furnish André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto with one more example of his tenants: Elytis was the scion of the well-known Alepoudelis family from Lesbos, whose fortune had been made in soap manufacturing, while Eluard was a tubercular young communist, even, benightedly, a Stalinist, risen from the working class, whose experiences during the First World War left him with a proper, and very French, revulsion for bourgeois values. Mooning bourgeois values was, of course, the surrealists’ raison d’etre. What was a privileged seventeen-year-old Greek boy doing with such incendiary stuff? The same thing,  no doubt, that privileged seventeen-year-olds, at least those of a sensitive nature, have always done with incendiary stuff – recast it as surrogate parent to his own budding sensibility. I picture him, a tall skinny boy, stopping by an Athenian bookshop on his way home from school to pick up a copy of Capitale de la douleur, bringing it home, shutting himself in his room and quietly emoting over those poems of love, with there irrational color schemes, body parts transposed to other functions, adjectives intended for one order of nouns transferred to nouns of another order. Perhaps it would have been among the books that would travel with him to one of the Aegean islands, Hydra, Spetsai, Tinos, Mykonos, or Mytilene, where his family summered. Sitting in the shade of a rock, or sprawled leggily on a white washed terrace, he would read,

    She is standing on my lids
    And her hair is in my hair
    She has the colour of my eye
    She has the body of my hand
    In my shade she is engulfed
    As a stone against the sky

    Odysseus Elytis 1911-1996

    Elytis wrote of his sun-shot awakening as a poet and his discovery of the surrealist movement:  “When my interest in poetry was first awakened, round the age of seventeen, I found myself in possession of a fund of experience acquired from my life in the islands; my imagination had developed among the rocks and the caiques – the small island boats – among the rectangular, whitewashed houses, and the windmills. The Aegean had indelibly stamped my consciousness. Thus provided, I could easily have started on a poetic career the sole aspiration of which would have been to reveal the Greece of sun and sea, and would have contented myself with that. But it so happened that, at this crucial moment, I became aware of the theories and the works of the revolutionary French movement of Surrealism. I read with passion all the books and magazines which came from Paris.”

    What is surreal about this passage is the complete absence of any reference to what was transpiring in Greece at the time. In 1928, when Odysseus Alepoudelis was seventeen, Greece was still reeling from a calamitous war with Turkey over lands belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Not only had Greece lost the war, but the ensuing Treaty of Lausanne enforced a poplulation exchange which broke the back of Greece’s already beleaguered economy and drove ever deeper the divisions in its society. These divisions extended even to violent differences over the  usage of the Greek language. In the following years, massive unrest led to an overthrow of the monarchy, a brief effort to build a republic (led by the revolutionary statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos, a friend of the Alepoudelis family) and the republic’s final dissolution.

    The typical seventeen-year-old, if such exists, is bad at irony, especially when applied to his own life. Impossible to tell with what sense of irony young Odysseus stood at the crossing marked by his own privileged circumstances, the idealistic surrealists he so admired and who stood against everything his privilege embodied, and the wrenching struggle for existance in which his country was engaged. He must have had some sense of the dissonance because when, in 1939, he published his first volume of poems, he dropped his family name for a composite name, “Elytis”, reflecting attributes and values he evidently wished to arrogate to himself and his poems: Ellas, or “Greece”;  elpidha, “hope”; eleftheria, “freedom”, and Eleni, a mythic personification of beauty and sensuality.

    His first book of poems, Orientations, is flooded with images and gestures of hope, freedom, beauty, sensuality, and above all a fierce identification with Greece, a country which, to him, incarnates these attributes. The poems are frequently erotic, often celebrating the kore (the Greek word for maiden, but which layers that denotation with a broader sense of the feminine). And there are indeed vibrantly surrealistic images. Here, for example are the opening lines of “The Concert of Hyacinths”

    Stand a little closer to the silence, and gather the hair of this night who dreams her body is naked. She has many horizons, many compasses, and a fate that tirelessly invalidates all her fifty-two cards every time. Afterward she begins again with something else — with your hand, to which she gives pearls so it may find desire, an islet of sleep.

    What cannot be found in this poetry is any trace of the national moment. In the poems he wrote before the Second World War and his shattering experience as a second lieutenant in the Albanian campaign against Mussolini’s forces, Greece is less a place than a holy idea. After the war, and his great long poem “Heroic and Elegaic Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign”, his poetry darkened.  While retaining all the Aegean vibrancy his admirers have often taken for optimism, his poems opened to admit of melancholy and loss. But the first poems, published against an epoch of massive upheaval, are resolutely, some might say defiantly, lyrical outpourings of those qualities with which he lined his name.  In this way, as in so many others, he is entirely unlike his exact contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz, who, from the outset was obsessed with the articulation of his national tragedy. The two poets won the Nobel Prize in successive years, Elytis in 1979, Milosz in 1980, making for a fascinating diptych of contrasting poetic sensibilities on the Swedish Academy’s roster.

    It would be wrong, however, to dis Elytis on grounds of non-engagement. Struggle and suffering brook divers responses.  Elytis once said of his life’s work, “I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality.” Echoing Elytis, Dortor Karl Ragnar Gierow, of the Swedish Academy, had this to say in his Nobel presentation speech:

    “The poet, he [Elytis] says, does not necessarily have to express his time. He can also heroically defy it. His calling is not to jot down items about our daily life with its social and political situations and private griefs. On the contrary, his only way leads ‘from what is to what may be’. In its essence, therefore, Elytis’s poetry is not logically clear as we see it but derives its light from the limpidity of the present moment against a perspective behind it.”

    Many have read Elytis’s famous early poem, “The Mad Pomagranet Tree” as a kind of priapic whoop. But placed in its historical context it becomes something far more complex, an almost creedal assertion of life’s worth against all forces working to life’s cost. Here it is, in Edmund Keeley’s and Philip Sherrard’s translation:



    Inquisitive matinal high spirits
    à perdre haleine

    In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows
    Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter
    With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn
    Raising high its colors in a shiver of triumph?

    On plains where the naked girls awake,
    When they harvest clover with their light brown arms
    Roaming round the borders of their dreams — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree,
    Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets
    That floods their names with the singing of birds — tell me
    Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the world?

    On the day that it adorns itself in jealousy with seven kinds of feathers,
    Girding the eternal sun with a thousand blinding prisms
    Tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That seizes on the run a horse’s mane of a hundred lashes,
    Never sad and never grumbling — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That cries out the new hope now dawning?

    Tell me, is that the mad pomegranate tree waving in the distance,
    Fluttering a handkerchief of leaves of cool flame,
    A sea near birth with a thousand ships and more,
    With waves that a thousand times and more set out and go
    To unscented shores — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That creaks the rigging aloft in the lucid air?

    High as can be, with the blue bunch of grapes that flares and celebrates
    Arrogant, full of danger — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That shatters with light the demon’s tempests in the middle of the world
    That spreads far as can be the saffron ruffle of day
    Richly embroidered with scattered songs — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
    That hastily unfastens the silk apparel of day?

    In petticoats of April the first and cicadas of the feast of mid-August
    Tell me, that which plays, that which rages, that which can entice
    Shaking out of threats their evil black darkness
    Spilling in the sun’s embrace intoxicating birds
    Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things
    On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?

  • Orpheus and Eurydice, by Czeslaw Milosz —or: Milosz Journeys to the Underworld and Back

    There is a tendency to romanticize the idea of a great artist’s valediction. But there is no law stating that a master’s final work must be a masterpiece.  The last poem in W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems (2007) is “On Architecture”, a wonderful poem by any standard, but not “The Shield of Achilles” or “In Memory of William Butler Yeats”. The last word from Saul Bellow, the greatest American novelist after Faulkner, was Ravelstein, enjoyable but decidedly minor.  Pablo Picasso’s last paintings are haunting, beautiful in their way, evoking a florid eroticism and a horror at death, but they lack the ferocity of vision and layers of formal coherence which gave him the authority to stand beside the greatest artists in history.

    But once in a while, proximity to death seems to lift an artist to a place beyond where he or she has ever been. The artist, at life’s end, stands blinking in a new, preternatural light, and – call it grace – accesses the capacity to make us blink as well. These are the latitudes inhabited by Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Requiem, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and —Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”.

    The story of Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world, braving Hades to sing for the release of his beloved Eurydice, fatally snake-bitten on their wedding day, and of their ascent together, allowed on the famous condition that he neither speak to nor look at her before once again attaining the upper world, has held the Western imagination like no other Greek myth, save, possibly, Oedipus. In fact, the whole adventure of Western art, at least since the Renaissance, could be conceived as an “Orphic” romance.  Consider Rembrandt at his easel, year after year sitting before his mirror, descending deep into his life, the success, the ridicule, the patrons and creditors, the women, the death of his beloved Saskia and of his children, pleading his case with whatever gods he found there, then reemerging with a tint of shadow, a thickness of paint, a hue of gold with which to fleck the image of his eyes.  This is how we have learned to think about the creative act.

    So many poets, composers, dramatists and film makers have been drawn to Orpheus that it has become almost the “Moonlight” Sonata of artistic subjects. It takes a poet like Czeslaw Milosz to prompt the question, “what vein of this much-blasted mine has not yet been tapped.”  Before we finish the first line of Milosz’s poem, “Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades”, we know he’s found one. By giving the front door of Hades a sidewalk, he puts us out on the curb, so to speak, from where we glance sheepishly back at our expectations. We know sidewalks. We’ve used them as recently as this morning, in front of the post office or the grocery store. Our right to distance from the ensuing drama has been revoked. We soon learn that Hades, far from being a romantic Dantesque waste, is a corporate edifice with glass doors, corridors, elevators, like an inverted skyscraper, all the more sinister for its banality.

    Milosz has written that what made his era basically different from any other was the motion picture, and his poem all but flickers with the silver screen’s influence: It opens on a noir-like night – fog, wind tearing at a coat and tossing leaves, headlights flaring and dimming. He puts Persephone on an amethyst throne in a garden of withered pear and apple trees, and one can almost sense a slow Tarkovskyian track through the grove of blackened trunks. Like a silent-era master, he directs Eurydice, upon her entrance, to lower her heavy-lashed eyelids and step rigidly at the beck of Hermes. As beguiling as these cinematic effects are – and who would not want to linger over the Kubrickesque electronic dogs, the path “phosphorized” out of the gloomy chiaroscuro, or the suggestive soundscape of echoing footsteps – Milosz’s strong allergy to empty gesture means that every detail draws us ineluctably towards the heart of the tragedy. The gathering tension finally breaks in a shattering crisis of faith just at the moment when faith is most indicated: Orpheus has begun his ascent out of Hades with Eurydice following in tandem with Hermes ready to whisk her back to the Underworld, this time forever, should her deliverer default on his agreement.  Then:

    Under his faith a doubt sprang up
    And entwined him like cold bindweed.
    He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.

    This is rhetorically very close to Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” But never did two writers diverge more on the question of meaning. In pleading his case to Persephone, Orpheus proudly sings what amounts to the poetic ethos of Czeslaw Milosz:

    Of his having composed his words always against death
    And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

    Fine.  But Queen Persephone, who knows a thing or two about how people participate in their own captivity, knows something about Orpheus, something which he does not yet know about himself, which goes against all his talking points, and precipitates his crisis.

    I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
    Yet you have come here to rescue her.

    Love her?  Of course he loves her.  And yet, a careful scan of the poem turns up not one mention of it.  Lest you fear Milosz is subverting what was to have been the whole point of the story, the poem never says he doesn’t love her either.  Its just that, in spite of what Orpheus himself might believe, it doesn’t figure in his motivation to bring her back with him to the land of the living.  What figures is profound need:

    Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
    When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
    He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

    Need, and obligation. A biographical note is in order here: Milosz survived the death of two deeply loved wives.  The first, Janina, died in 1986.  In memorial to her, he wrote “On Parting with My Wife, Janina”. The second, Carol Thigpen, died in 2002. “Orpheus and Eurydice” is for her.  But, while the poem is profound as an elegy for this late-life companion, the imperative to “not fail” all those who have not escaped death, especially in the charnel house of Eastern Europe during his epoch, was the engine driving his entire intellectual and creative life.  Like all great poems, it is more, by far, than what it claims to be.

    Two attributes of this poem have made it addictive for me.  The first is the tension between the traditional myth and the contemporary accoutrements with which Milosz delivers it.  The second is the ending. “Sun.  And sky.  And in the sky white clouds.” Had we noticed that, until now, there was no sky? No horizon?  And yet, this is not the resolution we had hoped for, or that Orpheus presumably had wanted.  Eurydice did not make it out.  He turned his head too soon.  Or, had she ever been there, following him, at all? It seems his doubts were born out, and his crisis of faith resolved, –negatively. He’s made it out with his skin—

    Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
    How will I live without you, my consoling one!

    It sounds as if Orpheus has reached the nadir of despair. But listen. It is not him doing the crying. It is the world which cries to him, wailing out its grief, which is the only authentic response to the scope of its loss.  Of Eurydice, yes.  Of Carol Thigpen, without doubt. But also of Warsaw, Auschwitz, and the gulags; of a now nearly forgotten generation of great Polish poets; of national identity and of human dignity; of the “human hope for the resurrection of the dead.” The twentieth century cannot be brought back for a second chance.  Persephone knew all along this poem was never about Eurydice.  Now Orpheus knows this as well. He’s made the the essential journey, to the Underworld and back.  What better, for him and for us, than to know that such a journey is possible.  For the first time he has genuine freedom, the freedom to ally himself, not with The Lost, but with all that endures.

    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.

    It is hard to imagine a poet shy of ninety, even a great poet like Czeslaw Milosz, arriving at this order of sublimity.

    Here is the poem in its entirety.  It is long.  It will take you six or seven minutes to read it.  I hope you do.



    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.

    He stopped at the glass-paneled door, uncertain
    Whether he was strong enough for that ultimate trial.

    He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
    He did not quite believe it.  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.

    Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
    When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
    He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

    He pushed open the door and found himself walking in a labyrinth,
    Corridors, elevators.  The livid light was not light but the dark
    of the earth.
    Electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.
    He descended many floors, a hundred, three hundred, down.

    He was cold, aware that he was Nowhere.
    Under thousands of frozen centuries,
    On an ashy trace where generations had moldered,
    In a kingdom that seemed to have no bottom and no end.

    Thronging shadows surrounded him.
    He recognized some of the faces.
    He felt the rhythm of his blood.

    He felt strongly his life with its guilt
    And he was afraid to meet those to whom he had done harm.
    But they had lost the ability to remember
    And gave him only a glance, indifferent to all that.

    For his defense he had a nine-stringed lyre.
    He carried in it the music of the earth, against the abyss
    That buries all of sound in silence.
    He submitted to the music, yielded
    To the dictation of a song, listening with rapt attention,
    Became, like his lyre, its instrument.

    Thus he arrived at the palace of the rulers of that land.
    Persephone, in her garden of withered pear and apple trees,
    Black, with naked branches and verrucose twigs,
    Listened from the funereal amethyst of her throne.

    He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
    He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
    Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
    Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
    Of feasting on a terrace above the tumult of a fishing port,
    Of tastes of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
    Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
    Of a dignified flock of pelicans above the bay,
    Of the scent of an armful of lilacs in summer rain,
    Of his having composed his words always against death
    And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

    I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
    Yet you have come here to rescue her.
    She will be returned to you.  But there are conditions:
    You are not permitted to speak to her, or on the journey back
    To turn your head, even once, to assure yourself that she is
    behind you.

    And so Hermes brought forth Eurydice.
    Her face no longer hers, utterly gray,
    Her eyelids lowered beneath the shade of her lashes.
    She stepped rigidly, directed by the hand
    Of her guide.  Orpheus wanted so much
    To call her name, to wake her from that sleep.
    But he refrained, for he had accepted the conditions.

    And so they set out.  He first, and then, not right away,
    The slap of the god’s sandals and the light patter
    Of her feet fettered by her robe, as if by a shroud.
    A steep climbing path phosphorized
    Out of darkness like the walls of a tunnel.
    He would stop and listen.  But then
    They stopped, too, and the echo faded.
    And when he began to walk the double tapping commenced again.
    Sometimes it seemed closer, sometimes more distant.
    Under his faith a doubt sprang up
    And entwined him like cold bindweed.
    Unable to weep, he wept at the loss
    Of the human hope for the resurrection of the dead,
    Because he was, now, like every other mortal.
    His lyre was silent, yet he dreamed, defenseless.
    He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.
    And so he would persist for a very long time,
    Counting his steps in half-wakeful torpor.

    Day was breaking.  Shapes of rock loomed up
    Under the luminous eye of the exit from underground.
    It happened as he expected.  He turned his head
    And behind him on the path was no one.

    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.

  • The Polish Orpheus, Czeslaw Milosz, born 100 years ago today

    Vilnius, Lithuania. In a year of commemorations, panegyrics, readings, and discourse around the world, occasioned by the centenary of Czeslaw Milosz, one small memorial will slip by, largely unnoticed: A plaque honoring the poet has been installed on the building where, ninety years ago, he attended secondary school.  The plaque reads:

    Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Prize laureate and honorary citizen of Vilnius, studied in this building – the former Zygmunt August School – during the years 1921-1929.

    Imagine this building.  Has anyone been to Vilnius?  Anyone seen the place? Imagine young Czeslaw making his way there every day, jostling with friends, his beautiful brow knitting at their antics.  Perhaps he participates.  There he is in a hot classroom, holding his head in his hand, elbow propped on his desk, fingers in his hair, listening to the lesson, or distracted.  His mind was awakening in a world still electric from World War I. The air he and his classmates breathed was coming on swift currents from Red Square, swelling the lungs of revolutionaries as well as peasants isolated in the taiga who may have only just heard that the Tsar was no more.  What jokes did he laugh at? What made him blush? Just the year before he entered the Zygmunt August School, this city, Vilnius (then called Wilno) had been captured by Poland and made the capital of the Republic of Central Lithuania. In his second year, this new geopolitical entity was incorporated into the Polish Second Republic. Economic hardship exacerbated by crop failures across Eastern Europe was drying the tinder of anti-semitism. Unrest was the constant during those days at  Zygmunt August.  His mind learned restlessness.

    And to think, it was all yet to come, all that would lead him to spend the rest of his days diving for the Underworld in search of those he believed must not be left there.  Being descended from a noble family still meant something in those days.  Not yet, his continent’s mass deportations and relocations, the starvation. Still ahead, his study of law, that increasingly ironic enterprise.  Still ahead, Paris, and the intellectual and spiritual influence of his famous older cousin, Oscar Milosz, francophone poet and Swedenborgian Catholic. Not yet, the German occupation, the decimation by the Nazis, not only of Jewish Europe, of Gypsie, gay, disabled, non-aryan Europe, but of thought, of conscience, of the non-animal in Europe. Not yet, the Warsaw Uprising, the Warsaw defeat. Not yet, the hope in communism gutted in the abattoir of Stalinism, the gulags, the rapes, soviet soldiers urinating in the foyers of Polish and Baltic apartments. Still ahead, his first volume of poetry. Still ahead, the destruction of his fellow poets, that generation of Polish “Columbuses” (Edward Hirsch), a holocaust whose burden he would feel upon his shoulders to the end of his life.  And then, incredibly, Berkeley.  Not yet.

    We bring our school years forward with us through time, all the way.  Something of the Zygmunt August School will have been with Milosz on August 14th, 2004.  What that would have been is unknowable to us, but a core feature of his identity, whether learned there or (more likely) at some point nearer his birth, is dramatized by the school’s very name: Zygmunt II August was both the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the last un-elected king of Poland. Lithuania. Poland. Every day, after breakfast, he carried his growing body and mind through those doors swinging open under that name, an ever-present reminder of his country’s centuries long struggle to know itself, a project which became his own. Somewhere along the line he learned to say of himself, “I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian.”

    In this building, presumably no longer a school, Czeslaw Milosz grew from short-trousered childhood into adolescence. Someone will have been the focus of his first look of poignant longing. What did he say to her? Of her? What didn’t he say? Helen Vendler writes of the mature poet, “Like most lyric poets, Milosz was probably not by nature very much a social being, but, given the situation of his life, he cannot help being a historical one.” When did this order of things dawn on him? How did it impact his awakening heart?

    At the beginning of the second decade of this century, a plaque has been placed on a building, memorial to a boy who went to school there in the third decade of the last. The plaque will be seen every day for as long as the building stands.  But the boy is no more. The man is no more. So very much is no more.  And we all know how the life of plaques on buildings goes.  Count up the number of people who will read it even this year and you’ll arrive at  piece of statistical irrelevence. Hard to imagine what those few who take the time to read this plaque will make of it even one generation out.  But, there is the poetry.  The poetry remains. And, for now, at least, it seems it will remain for a long time.



    –When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
    The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
    The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
    What never added up will add up,
    What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

    –And if there is no lining to the world?
    If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
    But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
    Make no sense following each other?
    And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

    –Even if that is so, there will remain
    A word wakened by lips that perish,
    A tireless messenger who runs and runs
    Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
    And calls out, protests, screams.


    Happy birthday, Czeslaw Milosz.  Give our regards to Eurydice.