Saturday, May 21, 2011



I sleep a lot and read Thomas Aquinas
or The Death of God (a Protestant work).
To my right the bay as if poured in tin;
beyond the bay, the city; beyond the city, ocean,
beyond the ocean, ocean, until Japan.
To my left dry hills with bleached grass,
beyond the hills, an irrigated valley where they grow rice;
beyond the valley, mountains and ponderosa pines;
beyond the mountains, the desert and sheep.
When I couldn't live without alcohol, I lived on alcohol.
When I couldn't live without coffee and cigarettes,
I lived on coffee and cigarettes
I was brave. Industrious. Almost a paragon of virtue.
But what use is that.

Doctor, I am in pain.
Not here. No, not here. I no longer know where.
Maybe it’s too many islands and continents,
unsaid words, bazaars and wooden flutes,
or toasting the mirror, without beauty,
though one was supposed to be a sort of archangel
or Saint George on St. George’s Prospect.

Witch doctor, I am in pain.
I have always believed in superstitions.
Women have only one, Catholic soul,
but we have two. When we dance,
visit in dreams faraway pueblos
and even regions never seen.
Put on, I beg you, these feather amulets,
one should help his neighbor.
I have read many books but I don’t believe them.
When we hurt we return to the shores of other rivers,
remember those other crosses with the signs of sun and moon,
and medicine men busy during an epidemic of typhoid.
Send your other soul beyond the mountains, beyond time.
I’ll wait for you to tell me what you’ve seen.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Berkeley, 1962,
translated from Polish by Oriana Ivy


I am particularly drawn to this passage in the final stanza.

Witch doctor, I am in pain.
I have always believed in superstitions.
Women have only one, Catholic soul,
but we have two. When we dance,
visit in dreams faraway pueblos
and even regions never seen.


I was just reading one of Milosz’s essays where he talks about having two souls, and suddenly I see that already in the poem it’s obvious what he meant: the Catholic (or religious, ascetic) soul, and the pagan soul, sensual and loving the earthly life. One need not be a Catholic to understand Milosz’s point. It is enough to have developed the intellect, and thus experienced the pull of the life of the mind versus the “pagan” demands of the body.

In the essay “If Only This Could Be Said,” Milosz writes:

. . . struggling with my two souls, I cannot break free of them. One: passionate, fanatical, unyielding in its attachment to discipline and duty, to the enemy of the world; Manichaean, identifying sex with the work of the Devil. The other: reckless, pagan, sensual, ignoble, perfidious. And how could the ascetic in me, with the clenched jaws, think well of that other me? He could only aim for false sublimations, for deceptive Platonisms, convincing himself that amore sacro is his calling, and smothering the thought that I am entirely on the side of amore profano, even if I clasp my hands and primly purse my lips like a well-behaved young miss.

Contempt for the world or the love of life in all its sensory splendor? The split has been with us for millennia. Plato was, unknowingly, on the side of the Catholic soul. Some writers (D.H. Lawrence comes to mind) spent endless hours of ascetic, solitary toil praising the pleasures and power of the senses as the only truth. Others, like Tolstoy, may have thundered against sensuality, while every page of their major works is suffused with sensory richness -- and the fact of having fathered thirteen children (counting only the legitimate offspring) speaks for itself. 

Of course the idea that women have only one soul, and that soul is of the church-going kind rather than pagan, is completely ludicrous, so let’s chuckle and forget it. Nevertheless, the reason I write this post is not in order to ponder how many souls men and women may have, but to point out that it’s actually useful, when reading Milosz’s poems, to keep in mind Milosz’s Catholic soul and his pagan soul. He has poems that seem to have been written by his Catholic soul and those written by his pagan, Lithuanian soul.

I sense a split in Milosz, his reluctance to be Polish and Catholic rather than Lithuanian and pagan. In “Ars Poetica?” he states:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person

This is my favorite Milosz aphorism. Poetry deals with the coexistence of opposites. It reminds us how complex we are, doomed to the fact that life always says both Yes and No, as Rilke put it. We are walking oxymorons, living with our contradictions, having not one soul, but two. Some would argue for a multitude of souls or subpersonalities, but let’s keep it simple. Two brain hemispheres, two souls. 


In A Year of the Hunter, Milosz reminisces: “I had even published in Verbum [a liberal Catholic periodical, in contrast to “the hideous Catholicism of The Knight of the Immaculate Virgin”], and Jerzy Andrzejewski [the author of Ashes and Diamonds] and I used to go retreats there, without any good results, but at least we honestly confessed to each other that the ascetic, prayerful atmosphere produced in us a wild craving for vodka and steak.” (p. 197) This craving for sensory satisfaction, rejected by Catholicism as sinful, is part of the pagan love of life, of carpe diem rather than the hope for heaven, which another liberal Catholic described as “only another hell, a hell of boredom” (Karol Koniński, quoted on p. 193).

For the sake of clarity, let me state the obvious: Milosz was raised in old-style Catholicism with its heavy emphasis on sin and punishment. As he says in “If Only This Could Be Said”:

The Catholic upbringing I received imposed a severely repressive morality. This is one reason why I tend to distrust my own judgments. I can say nothing good about repression, which crippled me in some ways and poisoned me with pangs of conscience.

How well I know what he means . . . The anguish over trivial or downright imaginary sins, the scrupulous “examination of conscience,” the incessant self-judgment and self-condemnation. It was insufferable for anyone who took it seriously; Milosz left the church in his teens, just as I did. He returned, at least in part for political reasons, to distance himself from Communism. He fully recognized himself as a doubter and heretic. The problem of evil was eating away at him.

It has been often observed that Lithuania stayed pagan longer than any other region in Europe. It managed to preserve the pagan Baltic tradition much better than Slavic countries did when it comes to old Slavic mythologies (I know of only one Slavic god, the four-faced Światowid, “He-Who Sees-the-World”; I don’t know a single name of a Slavic goddess, utterly erased by the conquering Catholic church).

For all his public Catholicism, Milosz felt a life-long allegiance to Lithuanian folklore. He had a Lithuanian nanny; as a child and an adolescent, he observed the life of the villagers. The meadows and forests were full of spirits; Milosz felt those spirits never left him. He was not a Warsaw intellectual. Warsaw was not his spiritual home; it was already exile from his homeland, where roadside crosses bore carved signs of the sun and moon. 

But one need not invoke the Baltic mythology to present universal inner contradictions. Below is one of the poems that acknowledges the sensual soul:


My Lord, I loved strawberry jam 
And the dark sweetness of a woman's body. 
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil, 
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves. 
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit 
Have visited such a man? Many others 
Were justly called, and trustworthy. 
Who would have trusted me? For they saw 
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food, 
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck. 
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness, 
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is, 
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant, 
I knew what was left for smaller men like me: 
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud, 
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

Berkeley, 1985

(I have looked at the Polish original, and “clairvoyant” does not strike me as the right word. Milosz says, “with only partial clarity of vision.” The Polish word for “proud” that Milosz uses is stronger than “proud,” and closer to “arrogant.” It makes me think of the foremost of the seven deadly sins, superbia. In addition, the Polish version is faster paced, and the phrase translated [correctly] as "a tournament of hunchback" has more bite in Polish; perhaps "hunchback Olympics" would render that.)

How simple life would be without the distracting “spirit.” Note, however, that even this confession of sensuality acknowledges the poet’s desire for greatness. Not that I’d assign this desire to either the Catholic or the pagan soul, but it’s probably closer to the Greek notion of virtue, arête, excellence.  

Both the ancient Greeks with their “moderation is best,” and the Buddhist sages with their “middle way” warn that neither asceticism nor hedonism are the answer. But an intense person is interested precisely in the extremes, and the middle way seems unexciting. I understand Milosz’s refusal to pretend to be a sage who can reconcile the two souls (or you could say: the two temptations), and his admission of living with the contradiction: torn, wanting to believe yet doubting, rarely at peace.

Some of Milosz’s poems of religious yearning (rather than of sensual desire, or yearning for the Lithuanian paradise) are quite beautiful. This might be called a homesickness for an ideal future homeland, unstained with horrors of history. My favorite is “Dante.”


To be so poor. No heaven, no abyss,
A revolving wheel of the seasons.
Humans under the stars
Walk and disintegrate
Into ash or stellar dust.
Molecular machines work faultlessly, self-propelled.
Lilium columbianum opens its tiger-striped flowers
And in an instant they shrink into a sticky pulp.

O alchemist Alighieri, how distant
From your harmony is that crazy sequence,
That cosmos at which I wonder and in which I vanish,
Not knowing anything about the immortal soul,
My eyes riveted to unpopulated screens.

Colorful slippers, ribbons, rings
Are sold as always on the bridge at Arno.
I choose a gift for Theodora,
Elvira or Julia, whatever the name
Of her with whom I sleep and play chess.
In a bathroom, sitting at the edge of a tub
I look at her, flesh-colored in greenish water.
Not at her, at nakedness, abstraction,
Which makes our bodies not our own.

Ideas, words, emotions abandon us
As if our ancestors were a different species.
It’s more and more difficult to compose love songs,
Wedding canzones, a solemn music.

And only, as once for you, this remains real:
La concreata e perpetua sete,
The inborn and the perpetual desire
Del deiformo regno – for a God-like domain.
There is my home.
I cannot help it. I pray for light,
For the inside of the eternal pearl, L’etterna margarita.

from Provinces

Milosz felt close to Dante because, among other things, Dante knew what the meaning of exile. But can we really imagine Milosz (or ourselves, for that matter) inside the eternal pearl, not matter how beautiful the luminescence? How utterly monotonous that sheen is, compared to the wildflowers and herbs and grasses of a Lithuanian meadow (or, in the case of Dante, the city of Florence). On the other hand, those lines could be read as longing for light, for knowledge and clarity, not necessarily for being enclosed inside a pearl as opposed to standing in a meadow. For me, the quintessential Milosz is the man who arrives in Lithuania after fifty years, and stands there hugging an oak tree.

For all its beauty, “Dante” suffers from the problem of credibility, at least for the secular reader. Can the wheel of the seasons ever come to signify poverty rather than incredible riches? And when a man sits at the edge of a bathtub, looking at a woman’s naked body caressed by the soft water, is he contemplating nakedness as an abstraction? A lustful look at the waitress’s neck is much more credible, as is, in “Undressing Justine,” the utterly pagan delight in a woman’s body, in the heft of her breast, the luxurious fall of long hair – even if that woman is a literary character.

Milosz’s Catholic-Swedenborgian, intellectual soul is dominant in his essays. Most of his poems, however, seem to have been written by the pagan soul, the soul that loves the earth and does not yearn for any other paradise. Milosz felt very close to nature, as is obvious in this poem, written when he had no hope of ever seeing Lithuania again:

In my homeland, where I will not return,
I remember a large lake in the woods,
And slow clouds, bursting, miraculous.
And from low waters whispers in the darkness,

And bottom covered with prickly weeds.
The cry of black seagulls, blush of icy sunsets,
The startling whistle of wild ducks in flight.
This thorny lake sleeps in my heaven-sky.

I bend over it and see down below
The twilight of my life.
And that which frightens me is there,
Before death consummates my shape.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, tr. Oriana Ivy


The lyricism of this poem stands in great contrast to those poems of Milosz that read more like prose essays with line breaks. Here, in the image of the lake that has become an inner landscape, the mystery, so necessary for the poetic effect, is fully present. Hushed awe interrupted by sharp cries of birds expresses the sense of the sacred that has nothing to do with going to church. This miraculous lake is indeed a place of worship. Its whisper is the whisper of the soul, and the soul is a woman, indelibly pagan in spite of catechism lessons.

Milosz felt cramped in lyrical poetry. He regarded it as the “poetry of hormones” (A Year of the Hunter. p. 166), followed by the “age of the mind.” If I regarded this idea as ridiculous, I wouldn’t bring it up. I have personally experienced this phenomenon in my own creative work – not in an absolute fashion, but still . . . I can tell which poems were written when men were still important. The lyricism of nature has not entirely left me, but poetry in general seems to have ebbed, while my love of the essay, that is, of the mind, is greater than ever.

Yet life is full of surprises. We know that Milosz did return to his homeland, and that the twilight of his life was glorious not just in terms of the recognition and adulation brought by the Nobel Prize, but in terms of the late blossoming of his creative work, including lyrical and sensual poems, though these do not predominate. But the grief of the loss announced in the first line is more universal than may seem. We all lose our magical childhood; we are all exiles – though it’s a matter of degree. Exile, you may remember, was considered by Joyce to be essential for a writer. Milosz made it more universal, saying that the secret of poetry is distance. Had he never lost the physical lake, had it not existed only in his homesick pagan soul, he might not have written about it.

Did the pagan soul win in the end? I could claim so by pointing out that his last great poem, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” is a triumph of the earth, not heaven, being able to offer solace. Such claim is made at one’s peril, of course, given the number of late poems that belong to the Catholic soul, including the wonderful “Late Ripeness.” And yet in a typical old-age poem Milosz cannot forgive God either for allowing all the wars or for having given him alcoholic genes, as though the power of biology needed further proof.

In vain would we argue that it’s human-caused evil and random genetic luck. Milosz’s only idea of God concedes nothing of omnipotence and omniscience, which leads us back to predestination and thus the hypothesis of divine cruelty, or at least indifference, or perhaps a vast experiment based on a wager with the Prince of This World, first briefly outlined in the book of Job. As for the suffering of Christ, it obviously cannot prevent suffering in the world, and to the end, Milosz cares about the world.

Only the beauty of nature never seems to fail. Below is one of my favorite poems by Milosz – maybe because I can imagine so well standing in a Carpathian meadow and feeling the same bliss. And this could be called a pagan rapture, belonging to Milosz’s second, pagan soul, which yearns for the union with nature.


It was a riverside meadow, lush, from before the hay harvest,
On an immaculate day in the sun of June.
I searched for it, found it, recognized it.
Grasses and flowers grew there familiar in my childhood.
With half-closed eyelids I absorbed luminescence.
And the scent gathered me, all knowing ceased.
Suddenly I felt I was disappearing and weeping with joy.

from Facing the River

Here the earthly paradise is fully accepted. All contradictions are gone; he experiences bliss with his whole being. For fifty years, he had yearned to return to this meadow, without believing his wish would come true. In spite of the saying that you can’t go home again – the truth he learned only too well when he looked at what had become of his family estate – he was home again when he stood in a Lithuanian meadow, weeping with joy.


Brilliant. I thought the other was the artist soul but you made it so clear.
Also the interpretation was amazing. Milosz would be proud of your translation. What's there not to love.

By the way, another great image too.


True, the right/left hemisphere difference is often seen as Artist (presumably more pagan, though Dante would resent that) versus Scientist (not really Catholic, but let’s just call it intellectual).

The middle image is the interior of the Gothic cathedral in Sandomierz, a lovely ancient town in Southern Poland, near the Mountains of the Holy Cross (but the highest peak is the Bald Mountain, a site of the witches’ Sabbath). Just before WWII, my mother was a young biology teacher in Sandomierz. 


I gave a reading at a festival in Sandomierz a couple of years ago! The people I randomly met, on my own, in the town, and the town itself, were beautiful . . . The town – wow, so lovely. And the people I met in the cafes and just walking from the old part of town to the new – through a kind of forest, as I remember – well, there was something strange and quite magical about those "connections" and the spirit there . . .


Whenever my mother mentioned Sandomierz, the word “beautiful” was not far behind, and her face would light up (how beauty nourishes us – it’s a kind of happiness). She remembered walking through ravines, like Queen Yadviga’s Ravine (Queen Yadviga is arguably the most beloved monarch in Polish history -- though this honor should go to King Jan Sobieski, a military genius who saved Vienna from the Turks).  

I think the two souls become one when it comes to beauty, though I suppose the Catholic soul would prefer to take Eros out of beauty. This can’t be entirely done. I don’t mean just Mary Magdalen being presented as a sensual redhead. I found the painters’ Jesus to be strikingly handsome, and had some impure thoughts on that account. I confessed them, of course, but only in general terms; I was afraid the old priest would have a heart attack if he knew.


Great work, very good translation, and "A Confession" is my perfect manifesto, starting with strawberry jam and ending with literature as a bunch of tricks to get awards from the crowd – and so full of passion or rather longing for passion.


It’s startling to ponder how much greatness can be found in literature – I mean the kind of literature that lasts – given that it was created by very flawed human beings. The only answer I ever found was collective wisdom, including the wisdom inherent in the language itself. During the creative process, I at least am very strongly led by language itself, by the music it imposes, so that meanings emerge on their own, often surprising me. In a nutshell, “the poem is smarter than the poet.” 

Milosz has passion where Szymborska seems to be all intellect (a wonderful intellect, to be sure). In Milosz we can see the inner struggle. Herbert’s passion is different – he passionately believed in certain ideals. 


Thanks, Oriana...but I can't help but think of how late Poland too converted to Christianity, only a thousand years ago. Paganism and Christianity converge in the culture still. Maybe the two souls are not so much Christian and Pagan, but cerebrum and heart.


Oh, definitely, in each European country you find that pagan-Christian fusion.. Just the infusion of Greek philosophy into Christianity meant fusion. "In the beginning was the Logos" – Aramaic was a very concrete language, and we don't have Aramaic gospels (to my knowledge). In Milosz's case, he was familiar with the nature-oriented Lithuanian folklore, which also crops up in Mickiewicz. Lillian Vallee astonished me by stating that Poland's central image is the Sacred Child. For me it's more Mary as the loving mother – Serdeczna Matka, opiekunka ludzi: Loving Mother, protector of people. And that is the heart, no question.

On further thought, however, I stand by my Catholic soul versus pagan soul as a useful if imperfect distinction. Milosz was raised in old-time Catholicism with its toxic emphasis on sin and damnation, its rejection of the world, the body and especially of sexuality as evil. And this, alas, was the “Catholic soul,” full of self-condemnation, as opposed to the acceptance of the world, body, and sex as basically good – the “pagan soul.” It may not be relevant today, but it was relevant when Milosz was growing up, and even when I was growing up. I have personally experienced the psychological torments that stem from this identifying yourself as a sinner fit only for being tossed into the Lake of Fire – except for the Doctrine of Redemption, with its own archaic cruelty. The church made me believe in a cruel God. Ultimately only Mary could be trusted not to be cruel.

Even though I left the church at 14, it was only at 17, and in America, that I found more relief from what was eating at me at the emotional level, i.e. the chance, at least, that a cruel god, one I refused to worship because I would rather go to hell than worship cruelty, would indeed take revenge. One of the wonderful moments in the first weeks of my arrival in the U.S. was the first time I ventured into town (Washington, DC) on my own, and found myself standing in front of a bookstore. In the window were pasted “Desiderata,” including this statement: “You are a child of the Universe. You have the right to be here.” Immediately I felt a wave of peace. It still took years – decades – before I truly accepted myself as someone good, with a right to be alive, and to see life as beautiful and infinitely precious even if it must end. I nourish my mystical side with the mystery and beauty of nature.

The concept of being the child of the universe, whose infinite beauty I could see, versus the concept of being a child of the King, was much more consoling. The universe wasn’t out to get me. It wasn’t spying on me to see what sins I was committing, writing them down in a great book of sins that was to be brought out on Judgment Day. Though it’s not in the Gospels, that was the unfortunate picture the church put in our minds (I know I wasn’t the only one), along with devils with pitchforks. Very primitive and un-Christian, yes, but that’s what the paintings showed, and we children knew exactly was hell was like; worse, if expected to end up there, since only a minority escaped that fate – and I speak here of the minority of Catholics, never mind the billions of non-Catholics who would end up in hell regardless of having been kind, morally beautiful people.

On the intellectual level, it’s obvious nonsense, but none of it can be erased from the emotional brain, and the priests knew it and rejoiced in “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” There is some recovery from the cruel old-time Catholicism, but one can question if it can ever be complete because deep down it’s very difficult, after old-time Catholic upbringing, to say to yourself, “I’m OK.” Judging from his late poems, Milosz mostly remained a torn, tormented man until the end – with only moments of respite when he managed to see that the afterlife, if any, would not be about punishment or reward. In “Werki,” published posthumously in Second Space, he says:

The priests taught us about salvation and damnation.
Now I have not the slightest notion of these things.
I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide,
Yet He didn’t mention punishment, didn’t promise a reward.


So at least he was moving toward his own version of an accepting, non-punitive deity, but the ravages of guilt and all kinds of useless suffering left their mark. What relief he found was through creative work, and not through the church.


I am a little younger than you but unfortunately did not miss out on this kind of fear-driven, punitive, flesh-hating theology. I can remember being a very small child and contemplating how it did not fit at all with what I could know and perceive and intuit myself about the universe. The farther I have gone along in my life, the more I have left the residues of that theology behind - but it is indeed difficult to shed. What's been healing for me: understanding better the historical traumas in which such a theology originates. Some of my ancestors were refugees from the Great Hunger in Ireland, a human made genocide. After the Famine Irish Catholicism adopted this kind of theology there before it affirmed the goodness of this world.


Mary, I am so grateful to you for reminding me of the trauma origin of fear-driven, world-and-flesh-hating theology. This is exactly Robert Wright’s main point in The Evolution of God: hard times = monstrous, cruel deity; good times = merciful, kind deity – with overall progress since antiquity from cruelty toward more compassion. Seeing the world and the body as wicked had its peak during the Middle Ages – no surprise. Some modern social thinkers (not Robert Wright) have put forth the hypothesis that people in the prosperous Western countries simply “have it too good” to have any need to believe in God. Milosz agrees that belief is not based on rational evidence, but on emotional need, and acknowledges having this need (“my heart desires you”). If we ponder Milosz’s traumatic losses, it is all the more fascinating that Milosz did not become a one-dimensional religious writer, but, like Dostoyevski, kept presenting both the voice of doubt and the voice of belief, often in the same poem. I admire Milosz’s honesty, his fidelity to complexity.

Even when a great emotional need exists, an intellectual is likely to suffer from doubt. It’s the so-called Athens versus Jerusalem contradiction. For Milosz, maybe “Athens” is not the best metaphor for the intellect – and making it “Vilnius” would not correct the inaccuracy. Athens in general is only of historical importance now; maybe we should speak of MIT and/or the Scripps Institute of Biosciences, or UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. But is science versus faith Milosz’s central conflict? Not really. He did not grow up with much grounding in the theory of evolution, and the whole evolutionary outlook applied to practically everything, including the concept of God. His grounding in Catholic theology was much more thorough; in addition, his later adult interests were in Swedenborg, Blake, Shestov, Dostoyevski, Simone Weil – the metaphysical writers and thinkers. He desperately tried to find an “intellectually respectable” theology he could live with.

We know that Milosz was disturbed by the scientific viewpoint, which he identified with Blake's Land of Ulro and Eliot's Wasteland. He had a faint hope that eventually there will be no conflict between scientific and religious truth (for now, though, between truth and God, it seems better to choose God, he seems to be saying). But what interests me is that at least in some poems what emerges is more the Szetejnie-Jerusalem conflict: the Lithuanian forest culture, remembered as idyllic paradise lost, and Jerusalem’s hard-times desert culture with its greater trauma and more pleas to God to wipe out the enemies.

At the same time, and this is perhaps the core of the matter (though not in “I Sleep a Lot”), there is what I would call the “Auschwitz-Jerusalem” question, or “trauma-trauma.” Milosz religious doubts stemmed from the witnessed and experienced enormity of suffering– a compassionate God, Milosz explicitly stated, would not have allowed such atrocities. The simple solution is to posit that God is not omnipotent, or at least has chosen to limit his power – something that Milosz cannot accept. He was born too early for process theology and Robert Wright, with humanity progressing toward a more gentle theology (though we know that trauma – or even simply “hard times” – could cause a relapse into the fear-and-hate-based, “kill them wherever you find them” – or else “repent, the end is near” – theology).

The unpleasant irony is that hate-driven theologies create a great emotional intensity, while love-based theologies feel tepid – except for the minority of people capable of mystical experiences. For the average person, it’s easier to be secular, seeking emotional support from other people. But that is not a tragedy; in my opinion, secularism that believes in kindness and social contract is much better than the theologies of fear and hate. An atheist can be a morally beautiful person; not so a devout cleric who recruits suicide bombers.


The new post is quite beautiful....wonderful selection of images, as usual. To tell the truth, I'm not all that impressed with Milosz, but perhaps it's just because the usual translations aren't as good as yours. (In fact, I think you are a better poet than many of the poets you are promoting in the blog!)

I'm frankly confused about pronouns and whom he's addressing in the poem. And his claim about one soul/two soul is stupid. Nobel prize winner or not, his claim is stupid.

(1) Must we assume "we" means men? As you say, it's a ludricrous statement. I give him the benefit of the doubt by wondering if that's really what he's saying. Women have always been shamans and practitioners of the old ways. It's men who are usually too rational for such things.

(2) Are we to assume that he is addressing the reader when he says "Put on, I beg you, these feather amulets." ? Or the witch doctor whom he addresses at the beginning of the passage? He doesn't need to tell women to put on the feather amulets....we're already wearing them!

Witch doctor, I am in pain.
I have always believed in superstitions.
Women have only one, Catholic soul,
but we have two. When we dance,
visit in dreams faraway pueblos
and even regions never seen.
Put on, I beg you, these feather amulets,
one should help his neighbor


I love it that you say women are already wearing feather amulets!

I think Milosz us addressing the witch doctor/shaman, hoping that this pagan mystic will bring him news of another, better reality where no one needs to rely on alcohol, for instance, to endure daily stress. Maybe it’s a retro yearning for the idealized archaic world with its dances and other nature rituals rather than the modern world with its oppressive jobs and economic necessity. Milosz is smart enough to leave the longing unresolved.

Milosz was a tormented soul – note the repetition of the word “pain” in this poem. I'm not sure if Hass and Pinsky, both quite cerebral, were the best when it came to translating Milosz's driving passions. Actually Milosz wasn't happy with being Polish either . . . this man had enough conflicts and guilt for a dozen poets.

I agree that it’s embarrassing, to say the least, for Milosz to have made the statements about men having two souls while women have only one. The interesting thing is that the soul Milosz grants women is a Catholic one. The doctors of the church would be more likely to argue that women are more bound to the flesh and less spiritual. But Milosz knows better. The assertion that women are less inclined to piety flies in the face of evidence: in religions that didn’t exclude them from religious participation, women have always been more devout, perhaps due to greater emotional need. 

These days, if not for elderly women, there’d hardly be any faithful in the more and more empty Christian churches of the Western world. "My congregation is mainly elderly women, and no, I cannot tell them that God is the power of ideals," a Protestant minister admitted in a lecture I attended. He knew, as I think most clergymen do, that Christianity has always been the religion of the oppressed, or at least the non-dominant, the long-suffering; of mothers rather than fathers; of those who do not go to university library and search for answers in books, but of those who kneel to ask for help and guidance. 

At the same time, something else is afoot: the rise of interest in pagan traditions among women of the boomer generation and younger. They see that this is an ancient tradition where women have always been priestesses, healers, and wise elders. And let's face it, those feather amulets make attractive jewelry. 

Michael (waiting for the snow pack to melt on Pacific Crest Trail):

We dissect to understand. Though I question our need to dissect (I mean, must we?), I question more our cavalier picking up the specimen tray and sliding the study into the trash and walking away with notes. Is this because we have do not have enough skill to reassemble the parts?  Did we dissect too long and the life ebbed away? Worse, maybe we're not interested in the whole. Milosz's two souls isn't the end, it isn't an ontological summary, merely an observer's notes – I wonder if he knew that. I think not. The whole is always more interesting, it is the reason.


Your response puzzles me somewhat. I’m sure you know that poetry is a miniature form and a poet generally presents this or that bit of his or her thoughts and feelings without aiming at an ontological summary. Some great poems are indeed profound enough to serve as a commentary on the whole, but many poems can give delight simply as a “narrow slice” – or, as you put it, an observer’s notes. An intelligent observer can give us notes that are a pleasure to read (I agree with Wallace Stevens that poetry must give pleasure; but what gives pleasure to one reader does not necessarily delight another – that’s a given).

But I am sure that you didn’t mean to say that Milosz presents the two-soul metaphor as his rational attempt to understand the human condition. This is an exceptionally emotional poem, as Milosz’s poems go. It’s a lamentation on his literal exile and the hardship of his life, but also on how little help has come to him from books, from the intellect.

Doctor, I am in pain.
Not here. No, not here. I no longer know where.
. . .
I have read many books but I don’t believe them.

Maybe the answer can be provided by the pagan soul, but the poem is far from any triumphant certainty about that. I think the reason people tend to like this poem is that it seems honest and charming at the same time. We can easily imagine the speaker reading now Thomas Aquinas, now The Death of God, toasting the mirror, consulting now an MD, then a “psychic healer” (to use a New Age parlance). Given the enormous popularity of psychics in California, yes, we do understand that desperate search for answers.

We might wish for a wiser, more “mature” poem. But if this poem even briefly increases our empathy, if it makes us remember that everyone’s life is full of losses and difficulties and failed ambitions (“one was supposed to be a sort of archangel” or St. George, the dragon-slayer), then it’s not a failure. If it makes it easier for the reader to accept his or her own frustrations and other difficulties, it’s not a failure. I can appreciate poems that say as seemingly as little as “here I am, stumbling all over the place, looking for answers. They remind me of my own stumbling, so who am I to judge someone else’s? This increase in non-judgment and compassion is enough for me.

Not that I necessarily knew all that when I chose to translate this poem. Translation is an awful labor, and a poem has to appeal to me so much that it begins to translate itself, i.e. I literally start hearing a possible English version in my head, as if trying on another soul. I know I am not the only translator to whom that happens, though probably only someone with translating experience will nod his or her head while reading this paragraph. This gives me an idea for another post . . .  thank you, Michael! One more post on Milosz, and then a post related to learning languages. 


  1. Oriana, I always fear that my reactions to your blog posts are not what you want or expect. :-)

    But that photo at the top of the page reminds me much of the Bohemian Gothic Tarot:

  2. The sentence "I have read many books but I don’t believe them" moves me every time I read this poem. There's that in the poem and the yearning to discover the book that he may believe in, at least for a little while. Perhaps, finally, all there is is the journey to something one can believe in.

  3. Thank you, Danusha. There is a Gothic quality to the first photo -- I was trying to get at "soul" and I think a forest is one of my images of soul.

    Thank you, John. I remember a phase in my life when I was very frustrated by the partial truths found in books. I was hoping for THE book that would explain it all, not those scattered crumbs. But that's the best there is: we pick up wisdom from a thousand books. The ancient Romans were very wise: "Beware of the man of one book." A single perspective is bound to be partial and distorted, and eventually becomes out of date (e.g. some of Dostoyevski's views, even though I revere him as a very great writer). Our huge task is to forge something of our own, a philosophy of life that will make us want to live on. Early on in life we may not really want to live on, in the face of all the suffering, and after the first excitement of discovery, e.g. in college, books may seem shallow, with no answers to the great losses we experience. Now I know even a crumb of wisdom that happens to fit my life is a great gift.

  4. "The purpose of poetry is to remind us
    how difficult it is to remain just one person"

    We are a multitude of persons if we ever want to fully live and to perceive the world in all its facets. It is much like Neitzsche who said we are a different person, for every language we speak. So it is with poetry as it becomes our multi-lingual selves.

    Thanks for this wonderful post Oriana.


  5. Thank you, Lois. I'm having the weirdest technical problems editing the blog -- your post seemed to me like a glass of fresh water. Yes, definitely we have multiple selves, constantly changing. I do sense a different self when I speak/write Polish, and a different self in prose than in poetry (I have trouble believing the self in poetry, it's such a stranger).

  6. At times when we wrestle technology we need all the distractions we can get :) Interesting your comment about the self. I feel the opposite is true for me. That's as close to me as I can get without disappearing.


  7. I used to have a different and more joyful, less tormented relationship with poetry when I was a beginner. Once the striving for perfection became a part of my poetry writing, I knew I sometimes had to go with the best language rather than with the more complex thinking that I could render only in prose. So in my poetry it's often "what works as poetry" and not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (if such truthfulness were attainable even in part). I guess in poetry I know that "truth" is a shadow stumbling over reality, and the self that knows this is not my everyday self. It is this "collective wisdom" stranger, where my personality quirks, my mere preferences, disappear – while my intensities may become exaggerated. So in poems I am aware both of falsification and enormous simplification in the name of art, and also of disappearing into the collective wisdom. The inner poet is not the self I most identify with, in part because that poet is like Odysseus and will lie to create a lovely tale. I do worship beauty of course, a supreme value along with kindness. Oh well, do I contradict myself? Of course I could be wrong – poets may be the last to understand their own work.

  8. I hear you on the more joyful relationship. After so much time workshopping and studying, one can feel less like a wild mustang and more akin to Seabiscuit. Although truth can also have something to do with form. A condensed lyrical style demands that we implode our thoughts into images or tightrope lines that conform to a certain minaturized whole. A narrative style allows for more prosey inspirations. Since I'm a slave to the former and unfamiliar with the latter, my poems contain wavelengths of truth alongside beauty, or at least that's what I aim for :) I do understand your Odysseus and the need to compromise for the sake of beauty. I like your truth as shadow stumbling over reality. Perhaps truth is a skipping stone leaving a few ripples as it passes.


  9. Oh, that's a lovely image, truth as a skipping stone. If Rilke is right, we are here just to name things, which is akin to truth-seeking, but for the poet like you and me, beauty must be there too. Mathematicians, likewise, say that mathematics is about beauty. Our brains are wired for pattern, and we love a beautiful pattern, though reality, that stumbling klutz, or maybe a graceful skipping stone, just fails to conform . . . As Milosz's angel says, "Do the best you can."

  10. I have an 88 year old living angel who tells me that all the time. And that's all one can do "the best they can."

  11. I think arriving at this kind of compassion for oneself is one mark of wisdom. Milosz realized that in the end, that's all he could do: just the best he could, which on some days may be very little. No need to beat oneself up for not having achieved more; we just carry on.

  12. I am 84, sober in recovery for more than 50 years. To me the difference between an alcoholc and a heavy drinker is that in time an alcoholc loses all control and cannot drink safely because of a compulsion(which is an uncontrolable desire),while a heavy drinker may have a strong desire, but unlike a compulsion, can be controlled. I surmise that as Milosz grew in age and his physicial resources lessened, alcohol had a greater
    deliterious effect on him. However, it's hard to imagine that one could write "An Alcoholc Enters The Gates of Heaven" without having experinced the pain of not being in control. Incidentally, theology aside, isn't there a certain physiological determinism genetically which is analagous to Augustian pre-ordination?

  13. Thank you. Sorry that I found this comment two months late. I agree with what you say about the difference between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic. I think that for decades Milosz kidded himself about being in control, merely a "heavy drinker." The anecdotes about his drinking, as well as this poem, reveal a physiological compulsion.

    I imagine that someone with "alcoholic genes" is pretty much doomed to becoming an alcoholic, though I've seen at least one alcoholics morph into an overeater, perhaps choosing an evil that is less destructive to others (since obesity does not impair driving, for one thing). But you, dear Anonymous, are a wonderful example of how a "genetic alcoholic" can overcome that genetic doom, rendering it non-deterministic after all. The human spirit can say no to the genes, no to the stress that seems unbearable. It astonishes me, frankly, that this can be so. Genes are not destiny? Not every time. Oh, dear Augustine, because said, "Beauty so ancient and so new, I exist because I have love you," all is forgiven.

  14. Actually I want to revise what I said earlier about having a tormented relationship with poetry. As prose has become my chief medium, my "work," poetry has slipped back to the category of love. I guess now that I'm not as invested in it, I can take more pleasure in that tranced loveliness and half-nonsense and intoxication. I think what I want from poetry is intoxication, to be drunk with poetry now and then, the way one can be drunk with the sound of Italian.

  15. Oh the waste of careless typing. The last sentence of the post dated August 13 should read:

    Oh dear Saint Augustine, because you said,"Beauty so ancient and so new, I exist because I have loved you," all is forgiven.

    Well, the idea of predestination is not forgiven, though if we think how the most important things in our life we had no control over: our genes, our gender, parents -- rich or poor, educated or not; the country where we grow up, the time in history when we live, genetically based traits such as intelligence and persistence, and on and on -- we didn't choose any of that. The only thing is not to give in to despair and make the best of whatever time is left.