The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was born in Lithuania in 1911 and has lived in California since 1960, is now writing, he tells us, from “a new province,” that of old age:
The course of my dying seems to me amusing.
Weakness of legs, the heart pounding, hard to go uphill.
Myself beside my refractory body.
In the clarity of my mind, as in a mountain nest.
And yet humiliated by difficulty in breathing,
Vanquished by the loss of my hair and teeth.
Still, by calling his commanding new book Provinces, he adjures us to remember that the new province of old age is only one of his subjects among others that are both real and metaphysical. We revisit in this collection many of Milosz’s central themes—including the strangeness of human life (where in the blink of an eye absurdity can turn to bravery, or tranquillity to war), exile, sensuality, memory, Platonic idealism, and iron disbelief. The poems have great immediacy, in part because of the idiomatic fluency of the translation, done jointly by the author and the poet Robert Hass. Although no translation can duplicate its original, Milosz’s ability to elucidate his poetic purposes and Hass’s familiarity with English poetic conventions combine to powerful effect.
In the boldest formal experiment of Provinces, Milosz appends to certain poems a second poem, a “Commentary,” which takes apart and contradicts, in dialectical fashion, its twin, reflecting it in a mirror that reveals the unconscious but fundamental distortion of truth in the first (indeed in any) aesthetic formulation. What the left hand gives, the right takes away. In “Gathering Apricots,” for instance, the poet represents himself happily reaching for a fruit; suddenly he remembers a woman, now dead:
I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence
And put aside the basket and say: “It’s a pity
That you died and cannot see these apricots,
While I celebrate this undeserved life.”
On the same page, the “Commentary” repudiates the way the poet had originally formulated the experience. He had not forgotten the woman; he did not “suddenly” remember her and feel her presence. No: the experience was different:
Alas, I did not say what I should have.
I submitted fog and chaos to distillation.
That other kingdom of being or non-being
Is always with me and makes itself heard
With thousands of calls, screams, complaints,
And she, the one to whom I turned,
Is perhaps but a leader of a chorus
What happened only once does not stay in words.
Countries disappeared and towns and circumstances.
Nobody will be able to see her face.
And form itself as always is a betrayal.
If we wished, we could imagine yet another “Commentary” appended dialectically to the first “Commentary,” and perhaps beginning,
And is it not a kind of self-regard, this self-torment,
And is not tolerance of chaos a greater betrayal than form?
That is, the mere presence of a “Commentary” denies the historical self-sufficiency of lyric; the poet turns on the form he has made, and then on form itself. Form is thus revealed as a Möbius strip rather than a stable enclosing circle or equilateral triangle. As we watch, form generates its own asymmetrical contradiction in language.