Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To See

A couple of Poles today: one a splendid and haunting painter of Parisian life, the other one of the finest writers of poetry AND prose alive today.

To See

Oh my mute city, honey-gold,
buried in ravines, where wolves
loped softly down the cold meridian;
if I had to tell you, city
asleep beneath a heap of lifeless leaves,
if I needed to describe the ocean’s skin, on which
ships etch the lines of shining poems,
and yachts like peacocks flaunt their lofty sails
and the Mediterranean, rapt in salty concentration,
and cities with sharp turrets gleaming
in the keen morning sun,
and the savage strength of jets piercing the clouds,
the bureaucrats’ undying scorn for us, people,
Umbria’s narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,
and a certain hill, where the stillest tree is growing,
gray Paris, threaded by the river of salvation,
Krakow, on Sunday, when even the chestnut leaves
seem pressed by an unseen iron,
vineyards raided by the greedy fall
and by highways full of fear;
if I had to describe the sobriety of the night
when it happened,
and the clatter of the train running into nothingness
and the blade flaring on a makeshift skating rink;
I’m writing from the road, I had to see,
and not just know, to see clearly
the sights and fires of a single world,
but you unmoving city turned to stone,
my brethren in the shallow sand;
the earth still turns above you
and the Roman legions march
and a polar fox attends the wind
in a white wasteland where sounds perish.

Painting: Józef Czapski
Poem: Adam Zagajewski

I've been reading the great Polish poets lately: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Zagajewski. I think Zagajewski might be my favorite living writer--his prose books are as good as his poetry--and I love Herbert's poetry, though I need to become more acquainted with his essays on art. 

Milosz is a titanic figure, more akin to Goethe or Victor Hugo than to any 20th-century-writer, except perhaps Octavio Paz. His many-faceted corpus of essays--on politics, religion, philosophy, literature, his own life and those of people he knew--are unspeakably rich, and his poetic talent never wavered or "fell off" at any point during his career. In fact, I think some of the poems included in his final volume, "Second Space," are among his greatest. Perhaps I'll post one of his late poems tomorrow.

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