A new biography of Czesław Miłosz

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Banished from his beloved Florence in 1302, Dante Alighieri lived the rest of his life in exile. He would indelibly grasp this bitter burden, its isolation and alienation, in Paradiso, the third book of his Comedy (1320): “You will leave behind you all that you love the most, and it will be the first arrow released from the bow of the exile. You will learn how salt tastes like another man’s bread and how difficult the path is, going down and then up another man’s stairs. Although it is impossible to know exactly how the exile shaped the journey of the epic poem of selva oscura To rosa sempiterna, it would undoubtedly have been radically different if Dante had written “in the big city, by the beautiful river Arno”.

After nearly 15 years of wandering, during which he risked being burned alive or beheaded if he returned home, Dante was fortunate enough to live out his days in Florence. An amnesty was granted in 1316, but it came with conditions, including fines and penances, which he was unwilling to abide by. He rejected the offer, writing to a Florentine friend: “What! Can’t I see the sun and the stars everywhere? Can I not under any sky meditate on the most precious truths?

Polish poet Czesław Miłosz nicknamed Dante “a patron saint of all poets in exile” and, as an exile himself for much of his life, could probably relate to both the proud defiance of Florentin and to his desire to seek some comfort in the constancy of the natural world. When, in 1960, Miłosz moved to the United States, accepting a teaching position at UC Berkeley, nature was very much in his mind. He was already living in exile, having defected to France nearly a decade earlier, but he had not escaped the haze of history that weighed heavily on post-war Europe. The past has been an integral part of Miłosz’s writing throughout his career, especially the horror he witnessed so viscerally in wartime Warsaw, but in order to continue to describe it “in such a way that ‘it be preserved in all its ancient tangle of good and evil, of despair and hope,’ he had to soar over, as he put it in 1980, after winning the Nobel Prize in literature.

Miłosz felt that the United States, especially the American West, could provide this advantageous position, this distance, this relative stability in relation to the “demonic facts of history”. He would live in the Golden State for 40 years, from 1960 to 2000, but according to Czeslaw Miłosz: a Californian life, the deeply thought-out new biography of the poet by Cynthia Haven, Miłosz’s move to America was based on a fundamental error. “Upon immigrating to the United States, and more specifically to California in 1960,” writes Haven, “he thought he was entering the timeless world of nature. However, Berkeley was on the verge of becoming a lightning rod for […] the world of change […] and he would be in the thick of it.

Haven draws on a deep knowledge of his subject matter, having thought and written about Miłosz for over 20 years. She met the man himself twice in the early 2000s, visits that turned out to be her last interviews in the United States, and since then she has chatted with his translators, including Robert Hass, Lillian Vallée and Peter Dale Scott; his family, including his son Anthony and his brother-in-law Bill Thigpen; and his friends, including Mark Danner, who bought Miłosz’s longtime home on Grizzly Peak. She has also edited two previous volumes on Miłosz, a collection of interviews and one of essays; wrote dozens of blog posts about him on his fertile site, Book paradise; and has written numerous articles about him, including a 2013 essay for Quarterly conversation titled “Miłosz as California Poet”, which can be read as an urtext for Californian life.

This essay opens in the winter of 1948-1949, with Miłosz sitting in a canoe on a river in Pennsylvania, waiting for beavers and considering defection to the United States, as is done. He recounts the riverside reverie in the “Natura” section of his 1957 poem “A Treatise on Poetry”, and Haven refers to this moment in his new book as marking “perhaps the most important decision of his life”.

At that time, Miłosz had been in the United States for three years, since taking up a post in New York in January 1946 with the diplomatic corps of Communist Poland. Within a year, he was promoted to cultural attaché and moved to Washington, DC, from where, in April 1948, he headed west for a three-month trip that first took him in California and the Bay Area. He remembers the visit in The ABCs of Miłosz, his near-autobiography from 1997: “I was delighted with the trip to San Francisco, but it was like going to another planet, not somewhere you could live. (This same text is also the source of Miłosz’s unforgettable vision of LA, which begins with: “Los Angeles horrifies me.”)

Back on the East Coast, the “splash of a beaver in the American night” interrupts his contemplation. At that time, Miłosz harbored “an idealized notion” of the United States, writes Haven. Unable to agree to leave Poland despite his problems to “settle in the neon heat / Of nature” (as the poet says in “Natura”), Miłosz decides not to defect. Haven writes that years later he would call the decision “logically stupid but […] necessary.”

He returned to Poland and, in heartbreaking circumstances which are only briefly recounted here, defected to France in 1951. His wife Janina, pregnant with their second child, never left the United States, so despite a resumption of her life. Professional life, Miłosz became increasingly depressed by separation and isolation. After years of pleading and threats, his new financial security prompted the family to join him in France, but the arrangement was transitional. Miłosz refused the first offer of a teaching position at Berkeley, in 1959, but when it was renewed the following year, he accepted and the whole family returned to the United States.

Once in California, “Grizzly Peak anchored him,” though, as always, he stayed tuned to his roots. He has taught contemporary Polish poetry and fiction, overseeing the publication of seminal volumes on both. And his own poems have started to reflect his new surroundings – works like “A Magic Mountain” and “Throughout Our Lands,” which Haven discusses in depth. Its most vivid chapter plunges Miłosz into the turmoil of the 1960s, showing him interacting with hippies at his home, rioters on campus, and even Henry Kissinger. Miłosz’s feelings towards the protesters were complicated. “He took these events very seriously,” Haven writes, “understanding them as a fight for what was right while criticizing them as an attempt to disrupt the societal order that had created a haven for civilized values ​​- poetry. and literature among them – as well as a sanctuary for himself and other refugees and exiles.

The following chapters cover Janina’s death in 1986 and Miłosz’s second marriage, to Carol Thigpen, and her reception of the Nobel Prize in 1980, but her more insightful passages examine repeated themes in her work. Some attempts at correlation – such as the rhetorical juxtaposition of the California wildfires and the Nazi demolition of Warsaw – ring a bell, but Haven’s questions generally give rise to thoughtful discussion. A motif, introduced in the first chapter, is the counterweight between to be and to become (French verbs for “to be” and “to become”), between the fundamental essence of things, especially in the natural world, and the universal movement of change, of history. She asks Miłosz about the dichotomy in their interview. “My God,” he replies. “A big problem.” He sketches some broad outlines of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, post-Nietzsche philosophy and postmodernism, but quickly shies away: “In truth, I’m afraid to discuss this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, this is not possible.

It is no longer possible, perhaps, in a book, and Haven pulls it off valiantly, deploying the apparent antipodes of to be and to become like the scales of a scale with which to weigh one’s work. She repeats the interview with Miłosz towards the end of the book and reassesses her previous thoughts, deciding that the terms are more relative than positive, “a double helix”. Miłosz’s “pairing of vision and historical awareness” could benefit Californians, she concludes, but admits that she is still struggling with what it all means. “The subject escapes the rational mind, the more we think about it the more we try to pin down it, like trying to take a handful of water.”

While Californian life isn’t meant to be a full biography, a biographer always carries the burden of his relative omniscience, and for those less familiar with Miłosz’s life and work, some elisions can be disorienting or confusing. One example that comes up over and over is Oscar Milosz, variously referred to as Miłosz’s “parent”, “mentor” and “guide”. Nowhere, however, does Haven specify exactly who this integral figure was or what their relationship entailed beyond a vague reference to a “training stay” in France.

Since Haven has spent so many years living with the Polish poet, figuratively speaking, much of the work for this biography has been written in the past, in these ancient articles, conversations, essays, and blog posts. Therefore, Californian life can sometimes look like a quilted quilt, with the seams appearing as jarring or artificial transitions and the introduction of concepts or characters as if they had not appeared a few pages earlier. Quilt making also requires dedication and passion, and both are abundant here. Haven lets us enter into her thought processes, even when questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations – in the relative present, in a cafe with Robert Hass as they flip through Miłosz’s 2001 volume. New and collected poems; and in the recent past, at the Grizzly Peak house in Miłosz, where the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends until the early hours of the morning.

Miłosz, writing in his ABC, did not place much trust in biographies: “Obviously, all biographies are false, without excluding mine. […] They are wrong because their individual chapters are linked in a predetermined pattern, when in fact they were linked differently, only no one knows how. Haven has no magical glimpses of these connections in Miłosz’s timeline, but in giving relatively free rein to her decades of contemplation, she often realizes what Miłosz believed to be the only redemptive value of biographies, namely that “they allow a person to more or less recreate the epoch in which a given life was lived. Californian life which has risen above an era of inevitable change.

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Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.


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