Thursday, September 22, 2011


Return to Koluszki

If there is an afterlife, there will be no
angels. Winged desire will return
to Koluszki, Skierniewice,

towns I never knew
except as train stations —
yet it seems I stood forever

in the Market Square at noon
on brick pavement smooth as bones
turned into an alphabet.

Meanwhile scattered in space-time,
memory’s mass grave,
it’s my sweet abusive lover

speaking his last words:
To succeed, you must be willing
to wear uncomfortable clothes

but before he pulls the trigger,
turns to me and says:
Remember only the beauty. 

We few, we happy few
who’ve danced on the floor of hell
in the arms of crematorium smoke.

Let us build Socialism,
he dead sing from cathedral clouds,
and Kafka has beautiful hands

when he gestures like rain.
Let us ring all the bells,
let us hold a grand ball

at the railway station.
But for now or eternity I stand
a few steps beyond the known,

feeding crumbs of my soul
to the insatiable angels.

~ Oriana © 2011


Recently I heard this on the radio: “It’s OK if there is no heaven. I can live with that. What I can’t endure is the thought that there is no hell – because then what about Hitler and the other bad guys? Where is the payback?”

I was completely amazed that anyone was so concerned with “payback.” Apparently the god of vengeance is not dead. To me the notion of never-ending "payback" has no appeal. Even if Hitler deserves eternal torture, punishing him in this manner would not restore a single life. It would not make a grieving mother glow with happiness again.

But let me address the opening statement: “It’s OK if there is no heaven. I can live with that.” Personally, I’ve lived with that since the age of fourteen. In any case, heaven has always been too high an aspiration. It astonishes me that so many people assume that they deserve eternal bliss (and in old-style Catholicism you really had to deserve it – Christ’s merit was not enough. If you didn’t deserve it, and the nun strongly implied that you didn’t, you would have to be purified by centuries -- centuries! -- of punishment in Purgatory).

There is also the problem of location. As Milosz observed in one of his late poems, “Second Space,” Western culture has essentially lost the idea of heaven in the clouds and hell blazing inside the earth. It is hot deep within, but the furnace is not stoked with sinners. What we have come to know, and it's no joke, is "hell on earth." And only half-joking, we’ve begun to speak of heaven as returning to a place we loved. When one of our San Diego poets suddenly died, eulogies and memorial poems mentioned that “Linda is now in Paris.” I imagined her in a different paradise, the Meditation Gardens at the edge of the world, on the cliffs over the Pacific.

But it’s OK if there is no heaven. I too can live with that. What I’d settle for is simply continued conscious existence, not in paradise, but in a much more modest place. That’s why I chose Koluszki, a small town in Poland that, because of its central location, had a huge train station – and still does, but now it’s been modernized. To return to something similar to the legendary railroad palace of my childhood, I’d need to get off at the station in nearby Skierniewice.

All the quotations I use in the poem are literal. You may well wonder about what kind of people I attract as friends and lovers. Certainly not what is glibly described as “normal” or “average,” even if no one has ever been able to define those terms as they apply to our complicated species. Still, I admit that a lover who says, “To succeed, you must be willing to wear uncomfortable clothes” (I think he did hit on something there, especially if we metaphorically extend “clothes”), or a friend who shouts at landing jets – I admit that I’ve been particularly blessed or cursed to be a magnet for the unusual.

I used to say, with Bukowski, “The insane have always loved me,” but that’s too strong, no matter how many of my friends and acquaintances have been on a psychiatric ward. Rather, I have been blessed to have known some colorful people. How did a couple of them (not counting Kafka) get into my Koluszki poem? “It’s all grace.”

It’s only after writing this poem that I realized that the task of my life as a writer and teacher and friend has been to feed the crumbs of my soul to hungry minds/souls out there. I haven’t fed meals to orphans or the homeless, but I have seen satisfied smiles on the faces of my students and audiences. That is reward enough. And it would be lovely to be able to continue this work in the afterlife . . . but I don’t insist. To have experienced it even once makes me happy.

But if I let my imagination roam free, then heaven would be a return to Warsaw, and especially to my favorite part of it: Aleje Ujazdowskie and Lazienki Park, with its statue of Chopin and the classical-style royal palace of the last Polish king – exquisite compared to the restored royal palace in Old Town. And of course the statue of Daphne changing into laurel, and the weeping willows and the swans. But I’d be happy just to walk under the huge shade trees, even in spring drizzle, when lilacs are in bloom, and later, the chestnut trees. Or in autumn, with maple leaves performing their ballet of falling.

Here is an excerpt from Cecilia Woloch’s marvelous piece set in Lazienki:

(For the Man Who Speaks with Trees)

Thin moon over Warsaw tonight. A haggardly golden half moon in a milky haze, slipping behind a cloud. “This tree saw the last Polish king,” he said of the giant oak in Lazienki Park. It was still early evening then, the deepening blue of summer dusk. The old palace shimmered over the lake and he walked right up to that tree, as if to kiss it, his nose to the bark. I stood next to him, face to the bark. “It doesn't speak Polish or English,” he said, “but the language of trees.” I heard it, too. His breath or my breath through the wood, or both; the breath of something else . . . When we kissed goodnight in the street, my lips were sticky, as if with sap.

~ Cecilia Woloch, © 2011


And let me quote the opening of a short story I once wrote, in the form of a letter from my double – that ghost woman, my Penelope, my divergent twin who’d stayed behind in Warsaw


Leaving creates an undertow resplendent with abyss.
                                       ~ C. Eshleman

Dear Sister, My Dearest Twin,

Yesterday I walked down your favorite street, on the side opposite the American embassy, with the huge trees and the long wrought iron fence. I sat on a bench – perhaps the same bench where a man once sat down next to you, tall, silver-haired, neatly dressed and crazy, and sweetly asked you to help him write a letter to the Prime Minister to complain about a mistake he found in a newspaper: the name of a certain town in the Soviet Union was incorrect. “I know because I was born there,” he wanted to assure the Prime Minister. I didn’t yet exist, not in that simpler geography of time. You think only you attract the bizarre; I sit on the bench and watch the leaves fall. You and I like it best when a leaf falls slowly, rocked by the wind back and forth, back and forth. It's a long way to fall, across twenty-five years.

See, you forgot it’s autumn. I know your mouth has just twitched slightly, your teeth clicked with irritation – you are forbidding me to use that worn-out phrase, “the golden Polish autumn.” You loved the passion of red: old walls scarlet with ivy, the red burning along the veins of maple leaves. Yet I remember what you thought during the trip to West Virginia that astonishing October when you were seventeen: a fabulous blaze, but those were not real trees.

~ Oriana, © 2011


I don’t believe in any traditional afterlife, but I do believe in leaving behind us something of value to others. It’s not necessarily anything we leave intentionally. It can be something we said that lent itself to a soul-nourishing interpretation someone else needed at the time.


past the blind mirrors of downtown,
I see you again: you and I
by the side of your car, our last goodbye
the bellies of incoming jets

swooping over us,
your head in a halo of drizzle,
tilted as you shout,
Keep your nose up!

You show me how a plane
descends, its nose pointing
up – it mustn’t nosedive.
Your arm goes down and

down, precise, horizontal,
landing in the most dangerous
airport in the country.
No one foresaw, everyone was blind

about the coming wreckage, 
your body found
alone in your condo.
But I always see you

as you stood back then,
mantled in fine rain,
shouting, Keep your nose up!
The jets' shark shadows cross

the mirror drizzle of time.
It’s to me you gesture,
it's to me you shout –
showing me how to land,

how softly to arrive.

~ Oriana © 2011

in memory of Linda Brown, a San Diego poet, December 14,1941- February 14, 2006

Linda Brown, her high school graduation photo, 1959

Ewa Parma (in Poland):

Fantastic. So, you miss even Koluszki, Oriana. And Lazienki Park is your personal heaven. Immigration must be Inferno then. I couldn't stop smiling when I read: "The insane have always loved me." True. And about feeding the angels with crumbs of your soul. That's what poets are for. Thank you.


I miss the old Koluszki train station. It was part of every summer. Lazienki and Aleje Ujazdowskie are indeed my heaven, starting at the Square of Three Crosses. I could walk there for eternity, especially when lilacs are in bloom . . .

Immigration was definitely Inferno at first. The Untermensch feeling is unavoidable, I think.  And if the milieu you grew up in was radically different from where you end up – and I went from an intensely intellectual milieu to an anti-intellectual one, or at least one where it was difficult to find intellectual peers – alienation is unavoidable. Even without that, I’ve met so many bitter, unhappy immigrants, it seems an endemic condition. As Danusha Goska said, Don’t ever be an immigrant. I second that. Not unless your life is in danger.

Having said all this, I’ve been inclining to the view that, past the Inferno stage, immigration is a Purgatory. It would take another blog post to explain.

I’m thrilled that you understand the part about the poet feeding the world with crumbs of her soul.


Thank you for "Return to Koluszki." I was very moved by it – on a number of levels. And, as in all really excellent poems, I was moved more deeply each time I re-read it. The opening lines involve me at once: 

If there is an afterlife,
there will be no angels.
Winged desire will return

to Koluszki, Skierniewice,
towns I never knew
except as train stations –

I love the image of a "winged desire" rather than angels in the afterlife--although I'm intrigued that at the end of the poem you are feeding crumbs of your soul to "insatiable angels"--an ending image, by the way, that is stunning in its accuracy. Don't we all do that as we create art? The angels are insatiable, just as our own inner vaults are endless. There are beauty and terror in those lines, as is true of all spiritual encounters, I believe.

And the music of standing in the market place in the "sway of the Angelus" is gorgeous, especially followed, as it is, with the haunting reminder of what humans can do to humans in "pavement smooth as bones" and the evocative "memory's mass grave." Given the location of the poem, these lines carry some precious and powerful freight.

And then the appearance of your "abusive lover" and Linda add a drama and presence in the poem that work very well. "Remember only the beauty" is truly a haunting line, especially from someone about to pull the trigger (in a suicide, it seems?). Such amazing combinations of beauty and terror!

I really can't tell you how moved I was by this poem. It is so beautiful. What a wonderful statement of the artist's condition:

But for now or eternity I stand

a few steps beyond the known,
feeding crumbs of my soul
to the insatiable angels. 



All I can say is thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It’s wonderful to see that a reader understands a poem of mine so well, finding a layer of meaning that actually escaped me. Coming from Poland, I can easily think of mass graves (I even have a poem about seeing them as a child in a Pomeranian forest) – but as so often happens during the creative process, the line with “mass grave” came on automatic. Thanks for pointing out that the location of the poem adds a historical dimension to that. 


[Oriana wrote: One obvious Q is where you'd like to go/return for your "heaven." Would it be Berkeley? Oregon? Egypt? Or maybe more than one place.]

Definitely not Egypt, but the others are appealing.  But everything one imagines about heaven is something one knows from this life.

"Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."


I agree: Everything one imagines about heaven is something one knows from this life. Even science fiction can’t seem to get that far away from earthly reality. When it comes to heaven in particular, the Christian variety has been dreadfully colorless and unappealing because what we really want is a wonderful cup of coffee, great food, and, why not, finally finding that soulmate or missing half. And pets, absolutely. And friends – some of whom may have wound up in the other place, which wouldn't make us happy. 

Actually I startled myself with both my Warsaw as heaven and Koluszki as “modest afterlife” fantasies, since in both places I remain solitary. In Warsaw, just the city was fascinating enough and I can imagine myself blissed out on my favorite avenue. In Koluszki I’d miss friends, I suspect.

And yes, we already live in paradise. Without denying suffering, this is still paradise, nor have we been exiled from it. It also strikes me that the synonym of heaven is “life everlasting,” while hell is occasionally called “death eternal.” As I say in one of my poems, “We don’t want heaven, we want life.”


I can't recall a single blog posting when I have not found something of interest; from religion, Greek myth or philosophy your musings and reflections are great to ponder over a good cup of coffee. What a great question. I could easily spend my afterlife in a small house by the beach in Hawaii, specifically the North Shore of Oahu. It would be nice to have an eternity to explore the other islands or all of Polynesia for that matter, much like Robert Louis Stevenson, Melville and Jack London did. Of all the places I have travelled to, Hawaii meets all my expectations and then some: mountains, beaches, warm weather with plenty of interesting plant and animal life.

As for Melville, pondering the next world was a lifelong obsession as Hawthorne noted in a famous journal entry. I would bet he too would have chosen somewhere in Polynesia to spend eternity, or if not there his home in the Berkshire Mountains where he penned his classic Moby Dick; I hope to visit it one day.

I was going through some of your older blog entries and as I mentioned earlier it's just amazing how your postings are full of some of the deepest thoughts yet I never feel it's over my head or too lofty; it hits just the right mix of scholarly and 'neighborly'. I was looking over your post on the Odyssey and it brought to mind Kazantzakis' epic; he and Melville were kindred spirits indeed. If ever you get a chance, Melville's novel 'Mardi' is time well spent, a grand sweeping journey through the mind; a dress rehearsal for 'Moby Dick.' Thanks again for posing such a thoughtful question and rest assured, your thoughts and poems have indeed brought many a smile and appreciation to me and all who follow your blog; if a poet’s mission is to bring enjoyment and thoughtful reflection you have met that and more.


Your comments certainly bring me a smile every time. I was just reading, on another blog, of a restaurant menu listing “harpoon-caught swordfish,” and immediately thought of Melville, Moby Dick, and you. And when I opened my email, there you were, with Melville not far behind.

Do you by any chance have a link to that journal entry you mentioned, Hawthorne’s commenting on Melville’s obsession with the afterlife?

Thanks for recommending Mardi. I now remember that an English professor highly recommended it. Needless to say, I love the sermon on Jonah in Moby Dick and Melville’s courage to philosophize rather than be a shallow entertainer.


This can be found at, from a journal entry Hawthorne made after a visit from Melville;

"Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.... [W]e soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence. Melville has not been well, of late; ... and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.... Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us."


Oh, thank you, this is wonderful! This is so much like Milosz's struggle to believe. Milosz was an atheist in his youth: I guess he too “pretty much made up [his] mind to be annihilated.” And later he was too intellectually honest to accept the Catholic doctrine without questioning, which he knew would lead to heresy. But then each person’s belief or unbelief is personal. I agree with what Michael said once, that one’s religion is autobiographical.

Hawthorne's prose here sounds somewhat like Melville's – I guess it's the period, the interesting roll of those long sentences, before the era of sound bytes.

“Better worth immortality than most of us” – and this he achieved, in the sense of a literary afterlife.  


Hawthorne was right on the mark as Melville truly never got free of the struggle he had regarding these matters. He read widely on Buddhism late in life and while he found much to admire in its lack of an uncompromising creed, he did not adhere to its total resignation of self and quest for Nirvana.


Milosz too could not really embrace Buddhism. He knew he wasn’t really able or willing to renounce desire, especially the desire that things wouldn't perish totally. He kept hoping that everything, absolutely everything is preserved somewhere in another realm.

Re: finding some peace in the face of all this vanishing. It took me a long while to “rest in that anticipation [of annihilation],” i.e. to feel how the world becomes enlivened once we look around and say, “This is it. Let’s make the best of it while it lasts.” Heaven, according to the new Catholic definition, is not a place but a state of mind, and hell likewise, and both can be experienced on earth. Am I ever completely separated from beauty, from great books, great music, human affection, and all the other things I love? If not, then I am in heaven. Thank you, John-Paul II, for pointing out that I am already in heaven! Sometimes to a greater degree, of course, but I find variety desirable, even in heaven. Even an occasional dose of hell is refreshing in its own way, to make us love the heavenly state all the more.

John Guzlowski:

“Koluszki” is a great poem, Oriana.


Thank you. I was worried if the reader needed to have grown up with the meaning of Koluszki, simultaneously “nowhere” and a legendary train station. In Poland, all trains go to Koluszki.

John G:

I didn't know that but sensed something of it in the poem--the impossibleness of the place mixed with its reality – a sort of magical realistic moment in the poem.


This is probably the most "magical realistic" poem of mine -- thanks for pointing it out. Koluszki figures in popular songs and in the legend (it's probably a legend) of a grand New Year's Eve ball at the station when a blizzard stopped a train headed for Warsaw. Thus everyone knows the name of the town because it's such an important railway station, but nobody I knew had ever been to the town itself. The station could as well have been a portal to nowhere. Ewa Parma inspired my post with her poem "The Last Station," which warns against getting stuck in Koluszki.


This latest blog is particularly good. I like the poetry — yours and Cecilia’s both. Re: the attraction of bizarre people, paranoiacs are attracted to me, and I to them. That was a worry until I found out that on a Rorschach Test they will see in the blots not only the many disparate objects intelligent people see but will put all of these together in a coherent story. It’s obviously that quality of imagination in paranoiacs that make them appealing. Poets and paranoiacs both find resemblances in basically unlike things. The difference is that poets (provided they’re not mad) know that they’re making metaphors, while paranoiacs mistake their metaphors for reality.


Joseph Campbell said that “essential schizophrenics” (but not paranoiacs) were on a hero’s journey – note, he said, the elements of withdrawal from society, initiation, and return as a more aware, self-confident person with a gift for the community (the question of return is not entirely clear, though perhaps near-death experiences are a new model). As the saying goes, the typical distinction between “artists and madmen” is that both dive into the waters of the unconscious, but the artists “know how to swim.”

Sink or swim, humans with their immensely complex, pattern and meaning-seeking brain, risk reading too much into everything that happens. Schizophrenics, creative people, and Jungians can easily find meaning in practically everything. Also, people in these three categories are drawn to more cosmic meanings rather than the mundane. I suppose we need to add religious mystics and New Age “psychics” to the category of people who can read a larger meaning in what others would see as quite ordinary. 


What a surprise to see Linda Brown on your blog!  But that does fit with your talk of immortality, she who put her book together just in time before her death.


Yes, if not literary immortality, then some measure of a literary afterlife – even just a decade or so – even that is an amazing thing to contemplate. And just the endurance of books as books, not necessarily one’s own, brings us certain emotional comfort. This is also in line with Milosz’s poem about books having their own life, “And Yet the Books.” Let me quote the ending:

I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.


I think this is also a chance to give the reader a tiny taste of Linda’s own poetry. Beset with many problems, a spiritual seeker drawn to Eastern traditions, Linda saw meaning and comfort in what others might find ordinary. Here is the first stanza of “One Leaf”

A leaf from a liquidambar tree fell
out of a blue November sky
toward the ground below. It caught
in a series of oak leaves, did not
make it to the canyon floor. The sound
of one leaf falling, like a circus acrobat
into a safety net, is what I came here for.

~ Linda Brown, Journey with Beast


Finally, Gloria Hajduk, a visual artist who resides in New Mexico, sends us this gem:

Monday, September 12, 2011


Dali: Ascension


The road led straight to the temple.
Notre Dame, though not gothic at all.
The huge doors of the portal were closed.
I chose the entrance on the side,
Not to the main building – to its left wing,
The one in green copper, worn into the gaps below.

I pushed. Then it was revealed:
An astonishingly large hall, in warm light.
Grand statues of sitting women – goddesses,
In draped robes, marked it with a rhythm.
Color embraced me like the interior
of a purple-brown flower of unheard-of size.

I walked, liberated
From worries, fears, pangs of conscience.
I knew I was there as one day I would be.
I woke up serene, thinking that this dream
Answered the question I so often asked:
What it’s like when one crosses the last threshold.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Facing the River


Here is a rather surprising vision of the afterlife. Some might even call it feminist. I thought of the Goddesses as Goethe’s “Mothers,” the deities of elemental fertility and creativity, perhaps related to the “Eternal Feminine.” But the simplest and most encompassing label is the “Divine Feminine.”

The goddesses seem the archetype of woman as a mother and nurturer, a source of solace and compassion rather than judgment and punishment. The plural here is very interesting, since the dream image is Notre Dame (though not the gothic church). So there is a connection both with the Virgin Mary as a goddess of mercy, and with the older pagan goddesses. 

Note that “worries, pangs of conscience and fears” are all gone in the presence of these goddesses. Parenthetically, I am reminded that in his late long poem, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” Orpheus deals only with Persephone. 

It's startling that Milosz, certainly no feminist (Rilke could be called a feminist; he championed creative women, telling them to love not him, but themselves), has a dream about the afterlife that indicates a blissful afterlife among goddesses. The essence of that bliss is serenity: freedom from "worries, fears, pangs of conscience." This is not the way a young man would dream about goddesses! But the longer I live, the more I too appreciate peacefulness rather than excitement. I've accumulated such a hoard of writing, it would be enough just to harvest.

And the goddesses are in the left wing of Notre Dame. I'm pretty sure that Milosz means the cathedral in Paris, even though he insists that it's "not Gothic." He knew Paris well. In any case, what matters is that in the dream he enters the Goddess part of the grand building, just as the chapel of Mary is typically on the left hand side in most Catholic churches (this becomes the right-hand side if you are viewing the interior with your back to the altar, which was probably the medieval idea of giving Mary the place of honor).

In summary, this is the afterlife that the dream suggested: freedom from negative emotions, feminine presence, warmth, color, a suggestion of being inside a gigantic flower.

I chose Dali’s “Ascension” as the opening image because of its bold use of the Divine Feminine. It’s based on the traditional Trinity Cross, but in place of God the Father we get God the Mother (here the Divine Feminine has the face of Gala, Dali's wife). Note her tears as she welcomes her Son, knowing the torture he’s suffered. This is not the aloof Father receiving his “ransom,” but the compassionate Mother.


But for Milosz the main image of heaven remains the Lithuanian countryside of his childhood. The lush earth in late spring and summer consoles Orpheus, who lies down on the warm ground and falls asleep like a child. He who has touched the earth has already touched paradise, Milosz seems to be saying. This is a variation on the famous lines by Adam Mickiewicz (the great Polish Romantic poet who also grew up in Lithuania): He who never touched the earth cannot enter heaven. We need to “touch” the earth fully, both poets are saying; we need to know earthly life (Rilke: “let everything happen to you”) rather than escape into otherworldly spirituality.

Seamus Heaney observed that Milosz sought “Edenic moments.” One of those moments was granted to him when after fifty-two years of exile he returned to Lithuania to visit the countryside of his childhood. Below is one of my favorite poems by Milosz – maybe because I can imagine so well standing in a Carpathian meadow and feeling exactly the same. 


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.

~ Facing the River

This is Milosz’s simplest image of heaven: this liebestod, this dissolution into a familiar meadow. 

It’s not surprising that Lithuania should be Milosz’s lost paradise and his image of heaven. But “How It Should Be in Heaven” is interesting for another reason: it’s one of the many poems that show the divide between Milosz as a skeptical intellectual, and that part of him that wants to be an ecstatic believer:


How it should be in Heaven I know, for I was there.
By its river. Listening to its birds.
In its season: summer, shortly after sunrise.
I would get up and run to my thousand works
And the garden was superterrestrial, owned by imagination.
I spent my life composing rhythmic spells
Not quite aware of what was happening to me.
But striving, chasing without cease
A name and a form. I think the movement of blood
Should continue there to be a triumphant one,
Of a higher, I would say, degree. That the smell of gillyflower,
That of nasturtium and a bee and a ladybug
Or their very essence, stronger than here,
Must summon us just the same to a core, to a center
Beyond the labyrinth of things. For how could the mind
Stop its hunt, if from the Infinite
It takes enchantment, avidity, promise?
But where is our, dear to us, mortality?
Where is time that both destroys and saves us?
This is too difficult for me. Peace eternal
Could have no mornings and no evenings,
Such a deficiency speaks against it.
And that’s too hard a nut for a theologian to crack.

~ New and Collected, 465


It’s obvious here that Milosz is not willing to reject the earth as earthly paradise in favor of some vague celestial eternity, without morning and evenings. In fact Milosz states that he already was in heaven – it was on the bank of the river where he grew up. The difference between heaven and earth is not of kind, but only of degree: the scent of heavenly flowers is even sweeter. 

The most interesting part of this vision of heaven is not only that there should be mornings and evenings, contrary to “peace eternal” without time and change, but the continued quest for a “center beyond the labyrinth of things.” Thus, Milosz does not see heaven as passive bliss, basking in the eternal light: For how could the mind / Stop its hunt, if from the Infinite / It takes enchantment, avidity, promise?

“How It Should Be in Heaven” is an example of an essay-poem. It’s complex beyond the deceptively simple surface. It’s not just the praise of earthly beauty. We must note that this garden of earthly delights is “superterrestrial, owned by imagination.” The poet’s work does not cease in heaven (or at least in what “heaven should be”): Milosz wants to continue being a poet, always in pursuit of the perfect word and form.

I love the opening:

How it should be in Heaven I know, for I was there.
By its river. Listening to its birds.
In its season: summer, shortly after sunrise.

But I love even more the ending of Milosz’s beautiful late poem, “Werki” (a village upriver from Vilnius). Whatever the afterlife may be, if there is an afterlife, it’s not about punishment and reward, but about being totally accepted – and allowed to enter one’s dream of heaven.

Maybe I only dream those rusty-gold forests,
The glitter of the river in which I swam in my youth,
The October from my poems with its air like wine.

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.

~ Second Space


But there is yet another immortality, or near-immortality, one desired by every writer: his or her afterlife in books.


And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate being,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

~ New and Collected, 468


We may smile at Milosz’s lack of awareness that the age of e-book was drawing near. But that is not of the essence: digitized or on paper, books lead their own existence, independent of their author’s.  The speaker here derives great pleasure from the thought that books will be us always. The delight I get from this poem is that it speaks of books in general – the country of the mind.

Again the opening is especially delightful:

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate being,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn

What follows is a great statement of faith in the power of the intellect:

And, touched, coddled, [books] began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.



As Milosz grew very old and knew he would soon be departing, he seems to have achieved an inner peace, his Catholic and his pagan soul no longer in conflict. In the prose poem “Awakened,” he says

In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. And there was no reason for it. It didn’t obliterate consciousness; the past which I carried was there, together with my grief. And it was suddenly included, was a necessary part of the whole. As if a voice were repeating: ‘You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.’ 

“Late Ripeness” confirms this peaceful clarity and expands on it. It is perhaps as close as Milosz ever came to having and describing a mystical experience, aside from an ecstatic communion with nature. He was not a mystic whose personal visions of the divine give him or her an unshakable faith in what lies beyond reason. Like one of his favorite philosophers, Leo Shestov, Milosz believed, or wanted to believe, there something (rather than nothing) lay beyond reason. There is no evidence that he ever got beyond wishing and found that something, and in “Late Ripeness” he seems to have reached the kind of peace and acceptance of his life that at least borders on the mystical.

Part of the transcendent experience is complete trust that the universe is giving you what you need, that your life is unfolding just as it should. Note that in the poem below, Milosz is almost ninety when he has this experience of release, connection to others, and also of clarity of purpose:

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas 
assigned to my brush came closer, 
ready now to be described better than they were before. 

Note again, he is almost ninety when this beautiful sense of confidence emerges, without the alienation of feeling like someone who only watches the feast of life, but is always excluded from it, as in the last stanza of “A New Province”:

I would prefer to be able to say, “I am sated,
What is given to taste in this life, I have tasted.”
But I am like someone in a window who draws aside a curtain
To look at a feast he does not comprehend.
~ Provinces

That sense of not belonging is no longer present in Milosz’s last poems, of which “Late Ripeness” is probably the greatest.

Milosz desperately wanted to believe in the afterlife. Having witnessed so much perishing, he longed for a reassurance that what was lost will be restored somehow. “How to resist nothingness? What power / Preserves what once was, if memory does not last?” he lamented. He wanted not so much a “pie-in-the-sky,” as the idea of heaven is most commonly derided, but the restoration of losses and everlastingness. To Milosz, whatever existed was precious – not just the people and places he loved, but every ant, every blade of grass. In a universe ordered according to the principle of love, all must be preserved – if not right here on earth, then somewhere else in the cosmos. 

At the same time he knew that it’s no longer possible to believe that “real life” starts only after death (something that medieval Christians believed in earnest), and consequently this life is not important except as a way to earn the desired eternity. But in his great old age, Milosz seems to have achieved at least some serenity, as well as a sense of belonging to the human family (“grief and pity joined us”). For moments, at least, his sorrows departed, and the Kingdom was within him. 


Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, 
I felt a door opening in me and I entered 
the clarity of early morning. 

One after another my former lives were departing, 
like ships, together with their sorrow. 

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas 
assigned to my brush came closer, 
ready now to be described better than they were before. 

I was not separated from people, 
grief and pity joined us. 
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King. 

For where we come from there is no division 
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be. 

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part 
of the gift we received for our long journey. 

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror 
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel 
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us, 
waiting for a fulfillment. 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, 
as are all men and women living at the same time, 
whether they are aware of it or not.


Van Gogh: The Red Vineyard


I am truly in tears over "Late Ripeness" as I have, of a sudden, become 90 and there is no is-was-will be, and we are all living at the same moment, working in the vineyard. I suppose I've really become my mother and my father in this moment of reading, as they truly have a vineyard in their late years (in the Appalachians of Georgia), and work in it daily, my father working the land on which he was born, truly delighted each morning by each bud break, taking my mother around each morning through the vineyards just to show her – this.

As for "The Hall" and the last threshold, and the Goddesses of some sort beyond, I am brought back to the line from "Lat Ripeness": "We used no more than a hundredth part of the gift we received for the long journey," and I am somewhat relieved that there is a vineyard to work in regardless, and if no goddesses are sitting in wait for us beyond the last threshold, at least there are dreams of them. I had a waking dream (during la Dansa de La Luna 4 night ceremony with very poor Mexican women outside Teotihuacan, just beyond Mexico City) that the whole horizon, lit up, was demanding of me – in a huge voice – "WHAT DO YOU WANT! WHAT DO YOU WANT!" And as I went down the list of things I might want to manifest in this world, none of them stuck as I followed their effects to problematic or anticlimactic results . . . when, on the horizon, an enormous totem pole rose from the Earth, entirely uncarved, waiting for me to make my marks, carve my totem, make my signature . . . but because I couldn't decide or say what I wanted, the totem began to rumble and tremble and fell dramatically to the ground. This has been a haunting dream, of course, so it is of great comfort to remember that each spring there is budbreak, and that we are working in the vineyard . . . “whether we know it or not.”


Thank you, Lisa, for this generous sharing. “Late Ripeness” is a poem as amazing as the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20. The parable does not fit the capitalist or any other model of how to pay the workers. It states that it does not matter how late in life you begin to be truly of service, doing the right work – you will be granted the full reward.

In youth, how many of us consciously know anything about what might be called our vocation? Only the lucky few. On the other hand, in another poem, “Capri,” Milosz says

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only later we discover how obedient we were.

So we needn’t worry, Milosz consoles us: we are workers in the vineyard whether we know it or not. It helps to know it since that way we experience life as more meaningful, and as less likely to be self-destructive. The thesis of the poem is valid also from a secular, humanist point of view: we can each contribute in some unique way. Whether we know it or not, we touch the lives of others: we can live from greatness and generosity, or we can live from our wounds and not utilize our abilities.

“Late Ripeness” is a marvelous “comfort poem.” We all have value, it says, we all contribute in some way: we are the workers in the vineyard.

As for “What do you want?” – that does not seem relevant any more. Few of us have full clarity, at any age. We don’t know what is best for us. It’s comforting to think that it’s actually not all that important if we do A rather than B (assuming both A and B are good things, or at least partly good). One way or another, we serve; we work in the vineyard of the collective human enterprise.


Photo: Charles Sherman


Lisa said it all, a beautiful response. Charles’s photo is exquisite. He has the artist’s eye. Best blog yet, but I say that every time.

I was caught up in “How it is when one passes the last threshold” because I recently wrote in a poem

I believe death is just another arm of life.
It’s possible when we step over the line
the world will become a color we've never seen before.

I was taken by “the garden was owned by imagination” – and yet the books will be there. Borghes said, “I believe that Paradise will be a kind of library.” E-books will never replace the beauty of holding a volume in the hand – the tactile feeling, giving off the odor of learning. 

Milosz is encouraging when he writes “we can stop worrying. Everything happened just as it had to.” We have accomplished what we were supposed to accomplish.

And yet we used up no more that a hundredth part of what we were given for the journey. It has long disturbed me to realize how none of us use a hundredth of the minds we were given. Mind-boggling.


I’m not sure if that saying about using only one percent of what we were given is neurologically accurate. On the other hand, very few of us have the kind of nurturing conditions that would allow a greater flowering. Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born a genius; one becomes a genius, and very few women have had the circumstances that would allow them to become a genius.” I agree that it’s especially difficult for women, but it’s not easy for men either. The whole universe has to be just right: the right parents, teachers, experiences . . .  

Still, as Milosz tells us, we shouldn't worry, and certainly we shouldn't live in regret.

Yes, heaven as the garden of paradise, but with books in it. But we must also remember that the kingdom of heaven of within us, and our mind has certainly room in it for whole panoramas, gardens (it’s the Huntington Gardens for me!), as well as favorite books. Lately I’ve discovered how much I love re-reading, what a caress it is to have the words re-enter my mind like old friends, bringing even more beauty and wisdom than before.


Beautiful, as always, Oriana. I have the same feelings about heaven as present in this world and the next/parallel one. Ever since I was a little child.


Thank you, Mary. Coming to see the Kingdom as really "within" was a big moment for me. So in this world, certainly, both heaven and hell. I wish I could believe in the afterlife – not necessarily even as paradise, but simply as continuing to exist. There is a pleasure simply in existing, experiencing. 


The woman who receives the ascending Dali is his beautiful wife with tears of joy to see him in his ascended and perfected form, not a weakened Christ figure nailed to the cross, his side pierced and bleeding, but a powerful, flawless male in his prime. The wife, an amazingly beautiful human woman is also in her prime. I don't think she's a stand-in for god/goddess receiving him into heaven.  I think she's just his wife greeting him in her perfected human body as he crosses over in his perfected human body. 

It always amazes me, the Catholic doctrine that after last judgement our human bodies (restored in the perfected form of our prime) will populate heaven. Jesus, and later Mary, are already up there as human bodies, due to the miracle of the ascension, for that is the doctrine.

The Greeks, as we know, imagined their gods and goddesses as perfect human bodies in their primes. No wonder we, so influenced by the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian traditions, are always dissatisfied with our imperfect human forms.

My 95-year old mother, a serious Catholic who longs for the next world, is convinced the first person she'll see on the other side will be my father waiting for her, in his perfected form as he was in his youth.  She has seen this moment in dreams and longs for it.

We intellectuals, who know there is no god and no heaven and nobody waiting to greet us on the other side, frighten the believers. They ask, if not god and the afterlife, then what do we live for? The answer is simple – we live for each other. Mainly there is our spouse, the person most likely to be at our deathbed, if not we at theirs. Our ordinary, flawed spouse.

Dali understood this much of it . . . passing over to the other side we are not greeted by god or goddess or St. Peter. We are greeted by our own dear spouse. What if Dali's wife was just an ordinary woman greeting his ordinary ascending body?  That might be an amazing painting also.


Wow, Lilith, you point out the obvious – that of course wasn’t obvious until you said it: there has been a tremendous cultural shift even among the Christian believers! Probably mainly due to the accounts of near-death experiences, millions of people now expect that the person to greet them “on the other side” will be someone they loved here on earth: their spouse, sister, another relative – perhaps more than one person. A pet is not out of the question.

People who’ve had NDE’s report a disembodied voice telling them to go back, but otherwise there is no indication of a traditional “god image” (to use an evasive Jungian term). Somehow god and the angels have receded from the picture. What matters is meeting again people we once knew and treasured. It’s their company we crave, not that of the angels. In the collective psyche, earthly love has clearly taken precedence.

Dali’s painting, certainly not orthodox, could be interpreted both ways: it’s the ascending Christ being greeted by the Divine Mother (the dove of the Holy Spirit clearly draws on the tradition of the Trinity Cross), and/or it’s Dali being greeted by Gala, both of them in perfected beautiful bodies.

I am sure my mother, though officially a non-believer, also longed to be united with my father. There is a part of the human brain (the right hemisphere, perhaps?) that cannot accept non-being. I have a short poem about this:

In the Heaven of Indra

hangs a curtain of pearls
threaded with intricate skill:
suspended in moon gleam,
in each pearl can be seen
all the other infinite pearls.

We too are interlaced
more than we dare believe.
We dream of heaven
because we have known hell.
My mother, already unconscious,

lifted her arm and reached out
as if to lace her hand with the hand
of someone waiting for her
on the other side.
Then she went into that love.

~ Oriana


I am also with you on the question of the meaning of life. It shocked me to read that Sartre asserted that if god doesn’t exist, then life has no meaning. Later he said something to the effect that there is no inherent meaning, but we can create our own meaning. We can indeed create an extra layer of meaning, but the essential meaning of our life lies in how we touch the lives of others. “No man is an island” – we constantly interact with others. As you put it, and there is no better way to state it, we live for each other. 

Even Milosz, for all his desperate longing to believe the Catholic doctrine, knew that it’s impossible to return to return to the medieval idea that our real life begins only after death. In one of his late poems he confessed that he prayed many times for a sign, a nod from a statue in a church – but eventually resigned himself to the fact that the statue would never stir, and the only “sign” of the divine (if we must use the term) is the kindness of others – a smile, a hug, a helping gesture.

Now if only humanity could fully accept this here-and-now philosophy! The absurdity and barbarism of war would become too glaring to be tolerated any more. We’d all try to maximize the joy of life. Kindness would be imperative, simply from the point of view of enlightened self-interest. Jobs could be restructured so as to be more rewarding. Child-rearing does not have to be as stressful as it is now – more help should be available to the parents. I could go on and on, but there is no need to belabor the point: if all there is the life we have now, then our priority should be to make it as satisfying as possible.

As for mysticism, I expect that it will always be with us because our meaning-seeking brain is wired that way – to a lesser or greater degree, depending on the individual. Mystics, however, follow their contemplative bliss rather than wage religious wars. Even when focused on an otherworldly lover, they tend to be gentle and kind to others. We’ve been witnessing a shift from organized religion to private spirituality: a quiet revolution that may yet prove to be the most profound modern phenomenon. A truly secular view of life would be the greatest revolution in the history of humanity, I think. And much good would follow, once we understand that the best response to the “god is dead” news is not despair, but trying to make the most of life here and now.


As always, your recent post brings much reflection. I must thank you for bringing Milosz into my reading circle, a poet who I had never heard of until your blog . . . as well as Tony Hoagland whom you featured  some months back. A lifetime reader, only in recent years have I turned to poetry and what I once regarded as an art on the fringe of literature I now see as the capstone. As you know, I am Ahab-like  obsessed with Moby Dick and Melville and it's ironic that Melville too turned to poetry the last 30 years of his life after his novels just did not sell, the world was not ready for them yet. Your reflections on Milosz and heaven bring to mind C S Lewis and his visions of Narnia and England. In the concluding book of the series, 'The Last Battle', the Pevensies all reach Aslan's country and find it much like England with its rolling hills. I pray it's like that . . . and like Borges' view: “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”

I stumbled upon a dissertation on Zen Buddhism and Moby Dick from a philosophy student in New Zealand last week. In his acknowledgements, he dedicated his thesis to the benefit of all who read it with the wish they would find a life of happiness and free of misery. At first read that might come across as so much fluff but when you reflect on that sentiment . . . isn't that what life truly SHOULD be?! Thanks again for a great post. Milosz's imagery is amazing, the line “a caravel staving its hull against a reef” hits home with this old sailor. I say old; am not yet 50 but feel old in that I have seen a lot in this near half century but hope to see much more and in my old age be surrounded by friends, family and, as a line from a  favorite poem states, “a warm river of books and black coffee.”


I love “a warm river of books and black coffee.” Or latte or cappuccino. And books – how could there be a paradise without books? The most exquisite fact of existence is that we who love books can experience this paradise right here. Then there is the beauty of nature, and the affection of friendship – all here and now. Maybe something wonderful awaits us after we “cross the threshold,” but just in case, let’s enjoy what paradise is available to us while we are alive.

Hafiz, and he’s not the only one, says that if we haven’t tasted paradise in this life, we won’t taste it afterwards either. Now, with the belief in heaven and hell on the wane, the challenge for humanity is to try to create “earthly paradise” – or at least something approaching it.  A life of happiness rather than misery – as you say, “isn’t that what life truly SHOULD be?!” Absolutely. We can’t eliminate all human suffering, but we can eliminate a lot of it – if only it became a priority.

When I think of the past, I’m simply horrified by how hard life was for the great majority of people. The “vale of tears” wasn’t just a poetic phrase – it was a realistic description. I think it’s a sign of great progress that now we don’t hear that phrase very often.  And yet even life is still miserable for so many. It’s mainly misery that creates the longing for heaven, and that’s why there is practically no atheism in sub-Saharan Africa.

Milosz, however, longed not so much for happiness as for the restoration of all that gets lost. He was the opposite of a Buddhist that way: emotionally, he could not accept the fact that everything passes. It was only after he witnessed the orgy of destruction during WWII that he returned to Catholicism – but not without continuing doubt, and desperately seeking some image of heaven that would make sense. He even imagined a cosmic super-computer in which the matrix of everything that exists on earth is preserved, so that it can be re-created. Not just people, but houses and furniture. Even ants and earthworms. Having witnessed annihilation, Milosz was insatiably hungry for existence.

He also suffered from guilt and anxiety, self-medicating with alcohol. Thus another feature of the kind of heaven that he tries to describe in his poems is freedom from self-torment. But his most successful work describes earthly paradise. This short poem is hugely popular:


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.



Had not seen that Dali painting but it was immediately recognizable as his. The Dali museum is here in St Petersburg, Florida. If one lowers one's eyelids to gaze at this image, one sees the horned beast/god or bull skull that appears in another painting.  So one might see Christ as the sacrificial bull or devil but one can also see the image as a womb with its outstretched fallopian tubes and fimbriae grasping at the ovary behind it. It is indeed a channel of the divine XX feminine and the temple of the womb is where she meets her lover, is pierced with the arrows of love and is transformed. The egg is the Virgin. Also note the conjoined moon and sun in the background:  another fertilization symbol, modifying the sphere to the shape of an egg (or earth and heaven).

We are all the sons and daughters of G*D.

Look at the vagina between his feet. The road led straight to the temple.



I think you are amazingly right on about the similarity of the hands to the fimbriae of the fallopian tubes. And you are of course totally right about Christ being the sacrifice – that’s the official view (the raising of the host –hostia means “victim”). Saturated with the image of the crucifixion, we may forget the continuity with the archaic tradition of sacrificing an animal to a particular deity (in the Jerusalem temple, the altars flowed with the blood of sacrificial lambs; the Catholic mass is based on the Hebrew animal sacrifice ritual).

I don't think this kind of response was possible in 1960, say, except in small circles of mythology scholars. When I arrived, America struck me as giving lip-service, at least, to religion as it was a century ago, I imagine. Europeans get freaked out by American religiosity. But I saw right away that the real god was money (this was my first exposure to commercials! I immediately saw them as similar to Communist propaganda, but more pernicious in the sense of their hidden power to mold the psyche), and the religious talk was the required smokescreen. The more worship of the golden calf (note the statue of the golden bull on Wall Street), the more "God Bless America" invocations.

I suspect that Joseph Campbell's popularization of world mythology, along with the goddess movement, affected the more educated people, making them see the religion they were brought up in a wider global perspective – an important step toward detachment. The rediscovery of the divine feminine was of course another very important development.

Eastern religions go beyond seeing seeing you as the children of God. The Eastern view has always been that, like Christ, we are both human and divine. The closest the West has been able to come to this is by speaking of the “divine spark” within each human being. Only recently Father Keating, a Benedictine monk who has studied Buddhism, began saying that “our deepest self is Christ.” Milosz might agree with that; the difference is that Milosz wants the human self totally preserved, and not only the divine self. I am afraid we have to see this as wishful thinking, and simply try to make the best of life while it lasts, including enjoying the little eccentricities that make each person unique and precious. Hoping for a paradise (or even simply preservation) elsewhere only takes our energy away from trying to maximize  what blessings we do have. 

Dali: Christ of Saint John of the Cross; note the somewhat fimbriae-like fingers