Born in Lithuania in 1911, Czeslaw Milosz spent his formative years in Vilnius. His first poetry was published in 1930.Most of World War II, Milosz spent in Warsaw working with underground presses. In 1945 he became involved in thediplomatic service of the People’s Poland but broke with the government in 1951. Shortly after he moved to France,he wrote several more books, and in 1953 received the Prix Littéraire Européen. In 1961 he became professor ofSlavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California—Berkeley. Milosoz has received countless honorsincluding a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the P.E.N. Award for poetry translations andnumerous honorary Doctor of Letters degrees. He died in 2004.
A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto
Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.
Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.
Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
YOU! THE LAST Polish poet! -drunk, he embraced me,
My friend from the Avant-Garde, in a long military coat,
Who had lived through the war in Russia and, there, understood.
He could not have learned those things from Apollinaire,
Or Cubist manifestos, or the festivals of Paris streets.
The best cure for illusions is hunger, patience, and obedience.
In their fine capitals they still liked to talk.
Yet the twentieth century went on. It was not they
Who would decide what words were going to mean.
On the steppe, as he was binding his bleeding feet with a rag
He grasped the futile pride of those lofty generations.
As far as he could see, a flat, unredeemed earth.
Gray silence settled over every tribe and people.
After the bells of baroque churches, after a hand on a saber,
After disputes over free will, and arguments of diets.
I blinked, ridiculous and rebellious,
Alone with my Jesus Mary against irrefutable power,
A descendant of ardent prayers, of gilded sculptures and miracles.
And I knew I would speak in the language of the vanquished
No more durable than old customs, family rituals,
Christmas tinsel, and once a year the hilarity of carols.