Thursday, May 5, 2011



Don't kneel to the enemy!
my mother called after me, loud,
slipping away to join the generations
of that motto in our family,
going back to the days of the Tzar.

My mother looked like Anne Frank,
except that she survived –
named me for the heroine
of a Polish author who wrote,
“Not that soon he’ll be free,

but that he goes with an angel.”
But who was my enemy, my angel?
Those who had tried to destroy
all that was different in me, wild –
they seemed pathetic now,

stunted souls who wanted to keep
everyone the color of shadow.
Was there an enemy inside,
one whom I knew and loved,
“the spirit that denies”?

Or was that an angel who goes
with me because I am blind
and need a guide who says No
to the glitter and dross of the world –
an angel of silence in Mary’s blue,

veiled with dark hair and a tranquil smile.
Rilke wrote: Life always says
both Yes and No. My beloved
Adversary or the angel that goes with me
says Yes only to my mother’s words:

Do not kneel to anyone –
that harsh blessing, or is it a warning,
is it duty, or is it love – in the name of
the Mother, the Daughter,
and the Holy Ghost of not giving up.

~ Oriana


In Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” there is this interesting passage:

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?"

~ Critics explain that this is the mirage of a “benign companion” witnessed by Arctic explorers when they are near death. My angel is in “Mary’s blue,” and though she has something to do with the deadline of death, the immediate concern is how to make the best use of what time remains.

The point of a useful fiction is to help us live to the fullest. Most of us know better than to insist that this fiction is a literal fact. If I invoke the figure of an angel who goes with me, it’s not an angel from so many paintings, with huge magnificent wings and a beautiful boy-girl face – though I am sure that having seen scores of such painted angels did have its effect. No, the angel is a metaphor, but imagining an actual figure or maybe voice or a distant light helps to constellate the idea that my work has some impact, some meaning. If we always insist on rational proof, we may end up like Don Quixote, who died because he regained his reason, and, alas, lost his reason for living.

One of my favorite Polish poets is the magician and metaphysician and weeping clown, Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski, who liked to call himself an “angelologist.” For him the life of the imagination was sacred. On his tombstone, he said, he wants these words:

Liryka, liryka, tkliwa dynamika,
angelologia i dal.

With the warning that all music is lost in the literal translation, here is my attempt:

Lyricism, lyricism,
the tender dynamics,
angelology and distance.

(Or, rather than "lyricisim" -- lyrical poetry. Let me try a less literal translation:

Lyrical poetry, ah, the tenderness,
angelology and the distant fields.

A little better, but the rhyme is still lost, the music is still lost. As Milosz remarked, "One must be translatable.")

His wishes were disregarded. But “angelology and distance” stayed with me. “Distance” is a pathetic choice, I admit, for rending the short but soulful syllable of dal, the emotionally rich Polish word for the mystery and allure of all that is faraway. That little word with the dissolving final “l” contains in it riding off into the sunset, and also the horizon, and fog too, with roadside willows marching off into the grayish whiteness and disappearing.

It’s been said that we live in an age when we know too little to insist on strict atheism, and too much to believe in any particular religion. In practice, we are eclectic, choosing bits and pieces from all sources. Greek mythology has long been one of my sources of sustaining metaphors, or useful “fictions that are my truth.” There are no angels in Greek mythology, but each soul comes into the world with its daimon, or “destiny” – a semi-divine being, or sometimes simply a voice, that guides the soul toward its larger mission or fulfillment. “Eudaimonia,” which came to mean “happiness,” was having a “good daimon.” Thus, I asked myself if my notion of the angel who goes with me is close to that of a daimon Hmm . . .  it would be marvelous to think of my angel as a daimon, a guide toward destiny. But I didn’t grow up knowing that word. I grew up with the beauty of the traditional angels.

Yet I see that angel as walking on my left side. It’s impossible for me to see it otherwise. Why the left side, usually considered less noble, sinister even? I think it’s because I know that the left side of the body is controlled by the right hemisphere. That’s my mystical self, the seat of metaphorical thinking, intuition. My left hemisphere sneers at all this, of course, but has to admit that my life has been shaped largely by what appears to come from the right hemisphere. Or, to go with my fictive truth, by my angel in blue.

The angel’s voice is somewhat higher-pitched than my own, a pleasant mezzo, while I tend to the dusky alto. But typically my angel does not speak. She is more likely to lead me to a passage in a book. One morning I found “Take care not to waste yourself.” On the following morning: “It is important to give up on irrelevant questioning.” So my angel is an arranger of synchronicities.

I have also wondered if this angel is perhaps the figure of Sophia, sometimes identified as intuitive wisdom, the Holy Spirit, the divine feminine or Shekhina. I felt extremely moved when I read somewhere (alas, I forgot the source) words to the effect that when humanity was exiled from Eden, “the Mother went with them” – that loving mother being identified as Shekhina.

Yet when it comes to the image of Sophia, an older woman comes to mind. And I do not see an older woman in blue; I see a figure that is eternally youthful and beautiful, androgynous rather than womanly. In short, an angel, always with a beautiful smile, though not necessarily with wings.

Another unfortunate image of Sophia is Michelangelo’s – at best a slip of a girl shocking paired with an aging Creator.  

Looking at that almost teenage, unconvincing image, I say no to Sophia, and return to “angel.” This angel who goes on my left side is no softie, in spite of her silkiness. She (if I must choose a pronoun) has prevented me from taking several lucrative job offers, repeating and repeating that time is the greatest wealth – the time to think and write. I suspect it was this angel who didn’t stir to pull me out of depression as long as depression served writing. When depression ceased to be functional and I saw it as an obstacle and not a friend, it was shocking easy to let go of it.

A possible autobiographical origin of my angel could be the long walks in Warsaw with my first boyfriend. It was then I noticed how the city, which could be overwhelming, a roaring metropolis, became wonderfully “easy,” enchanting even. He diffused the stress. In his company I could take in a lot more stimulation without getting overwhelmed.

His eyes? They are deep marine blue, like my father’s. 

What is her name? She claims all names, equally at ease with Sophia as with its Polish endearment form that was current in my family, the name of a dedicated woman physician, the great-hearted Zula or Zuleńka.  But could my angel’s name not be – Raphael? He (since I must choose a pronoun) nods his beautiful head. Not that he’ll tell me where we are going. But at least I go with an angel.

“On Angels” is one of the most popular of Milosz’s poems – simple and affirmative. Milosz seems a poet who contained both extremes: he gave us poems presenting the tragic vision of the human condition (“This”), and poems of great serenity (e.g. “Late Ripeness”)

These days even devout believers find it hard to imagine God as a man with a white beard floating in the sky, or seated on a throne amid clouds. New definitions have been attempted. There has also been a tremendous resurgence in the popularity of angels, but again people are beginning to see them differently – not necessarily with wings. “Angel” means “messenger” – and a messenger can take many forms. A bird beginning to sing while you are in despair might be understood as a messenger (and not only because a bird is a symbol of the Spirit).

Our brain is wired to seek meaning, so anything perceived as meaningful, as conveying a relevant message, can serve as an angel/messenger. In Milosz’s poem, note “in the smell of apples.” It could be argued that anything that makes life seem worth living falls into the angelic category. Milosz ultimately settles on a voice – without arguing that it’s simply an “inner voice.” On the contrary, he invokes a voice speaking  “in an unearthly tongue” that can, nevertheless, be intuitively understood. 


All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe in you,

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and animals,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magical.

They say someone has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (and why not?),
girdled with lightning.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draws near
another day
do what you can.

Note that ultimately the voice/the angel says “do what you can” – do your work, do your duty, be a bearer of light. We must remember that Milosz struggled against depression, and no wonder, considering all he lost, the enormous evil he’d witnessed. He won against depression by “escaping forward” (i.e. away from the past) into his work.
I think the underlying argument here is that there is grace in life, and that some people and things are “angels” – the bearers of light, of hope. A lover’s tender words, birdsong, a dog’s affection – we need those angels to keep on going. The language spoken by the “angels” may be human or non-human (birdsong). The man pulling radishes points the way with a radish. The point is that somehow we “get the message.” And that message only seems modest. “Do what you can” is the challenge to use all your capacities.

(I am indebted to James Hollis for the title of this post.)


I loved "the world turned inside out." His comments about the "smell of apples at close of day and "when light makes the orchard magical" brought back a year on a farm in Greene, RI that had an apple orchard, abandoned and nearly dead, apples not worth picking if there were any. But a few blossoms is all it takes to be make spring happen. . . And I liked to climb the apple trees. At the time I was reading The Devil and Daniel Webster and pictured him up in one of these trees.

I like the simplicity and complexity of this poem, the best I've read of Milosz’s so far. He called angels "messengers" and I see them more as witnesses.


This is one of his most endearing poems, simple on the surface, and complex underneath. It’s affirmatory, though in terms of our longing for guidance and protection, some readers may be disappointed that the message comes down to “do what you can.”

I especially like the way he sees angels not as the traditional figures, but as messages in the smell of apples or birdsong. There are so many things around us that say Live. And yes, the simplicity. We are not to worry about how enormous the task is, or any external reward. We are to do what we can.

Both the voices within us and the messages we perceive as coming to us from the outside may be contradictory. Recently I’ve been fascinated by Rilke’s statement that life always says both Yes and No. We are to “listen to our better angels," as Dickens supposedly said. I love the plural. All my life I’ve been dealing with many messages, so I understand this need to choose even between angels.


One of the traditional themes in literature is selling one’s soul to the devil. I wonder, though, if we could as well speak of “selling your soul to an angel.” One way or another, there is an imagined contract, and the price you pay. A writer is always told, “Believe in yourself.” But if you do, your angel will dictate how you spend your time, and it won’t be playing with your children. And even away from your desk, you may still be in your mental writing space, so that you resent the intrusion of the so-called loved ones. Is it any wonder that artists in all fields were more often thought to have sold their soul to the devil?

And what about the saints? If you spend a lot of time in prayer and meditation, you also distance yourself from those near you. I want to know how the saints got away with it, while artists can’t.

Before Joseph Campbell formulated his famous motto “Follow your bliss,” he used to say, “Follow your passion.” One meaning of “passion” is suffering. No matter what path in life a person chooses, there will be sacrifice and suffering – even if you are listening to an angel! Who says angels don’t demand sacrifice . . .  But the worst sacrifice is to disregard our messages, our inner voices, and blindly obey someone else’s will – the way a traditional wife often sacrificed her own development for the sake of her husband’s career. I agree with Campbell that the point is to have your own adventure, your own unique path, rather than be merely a “service person,” a woman with no life of her own. Once we “have a life,” the messages – call them angels – start coming in profusion. 

A post-script on “selling your soul to the angel.” Believers might say, “Why not make a covenant with God?” Once I rejected the deity of my childhood as a monster unworthy of worship, there was no going back on that perception. Christ seemed more like Prometheus, leading men to a different god than the one who told Moses that the man caught gathering firewood on the Sabbath had to be stoned to death (while Christ said that Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath). I understand how women saints fall in love with Christ. But Christ is an exalted savior-hero figure. An angel is more homey, an imaginary friend who can impishly pop up among trivia, saying, “See that?” It’s possible to laugh together.  

I read that Islamic mysticism calls God a Friend, a Guest, the Beloved; Christian mysticism has that aspect too, but the blood stain of the Old Testament can’t be laundered out. 


wow again. your poem, and milosz's. and the "liryka, liryka" poem- beautiful. i am not at all concerned with heresy. heresy versus orthodoxy just constrains the Infinite. who's to say your angel is not real? i too have had many experiences of mysterious presences accompanying me, bearing me along. how much stuff must be going on in/around us that we have little to no clue about?


I love your “heresy versus orthodoxy just constrains the Infinite.” This is so magnificent, I will for once restrain myself from further comment!


On further thought, I would like to quote a bit more from Milosz’s heresy. This is from Bells in Winter:

For me, therefore, everything has a double existence.
Both in time and when time shall be no more.

And so, one morning. In biting frost,
All is cold and gray. And in that sleepy haze
A span of air suffused with carmine light.
Banks of snow, roadways made slippery by sleighs
Grow rosy. As do wisps of smoke, puffs of vapor.
Bells jingle nearby, then farther away, shaggy horses
Covered with hoarfrost, every hair distinct.
And then the pealing of bells. At Saint John’s
And the Bernardines’, at Saint Casimir’s
And the Cathedral, at the Missionaries’
and Saint George’s, at the Dominicans’
And Saint Nicholas’s, at Saint Jacob’s.
Many many bells. As if the hands pulling the ropes
were building a huge edifice over the city.
. . .

And if the city, there below, was consumed by fire
Together with the cities of all the continents,
I would not say with my mouth of ashes that it was unjust.
For we lived under the Judgment, unaware.

Which Judgment began in the year one thousand seven hundred
     fifty seven.

Though not for certain, perhaps in some other year.
It shall come to completion in the sixth millennium, or next Tuesday.
The demiurge’s workshop will suddenly be stilled. Unimaginable silence.
And the form of every single grain will be restored in glory.
I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this.

~ Berkeley, 1973-1974
translated by the author and Lillian Vallee

True, my ellipsis took away the transition from Vilnius to San Francisco (“and the towers of San Francisco seen through rusty fog”), but the bigger point is that in this poem, Milosz appears to be a gnostic: the true God is not the jealous  “demiurge” described in Genesis. Not that I am a fan of Gnosticism; the Gnostic rejection of the body and the world is not to my sensual taste. On the other hand, I too could say that everything has a double existence – the second one being in our psyche. Memory, that inner reality, is always shaped by the present according to what meaning we currently see in what happened. In that sense, the inner existence of things is profoundly ours.

           Vilnius: Interior of St. Peter's and Paul's --note what I call the "soul-fishing boat."

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