Thursday, October 24, 2013


It was near midnight. The late-risen moon,
like a brass bucket polished bright as fire,
thinned out the lesser stars, which seemed to drown.

~ Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 18; tr. John Ciardi

This is the most delightful tercet in a rather forgettable canto that deals with the “slothful” -- those who, while alive, have not shown sufficient zeal for their tasks. These are not the “sullen,” or the deeply depressed souls who end up in a muddy bog in hell. These are the slackers, the unmotivated, those at the portal of depression because they see no meaning and no reward in their work; sometimes they literally don’t know what to do and how to do it. When meaning arises, as during a flood or another emergency, the supposed slackers gain a sense of purpose as quickly as others.

In Purgatory, the purpose arises in the form of wanting to get to heaven. The former “slothful” now keep running to show their zeal.

“Faster! Faster! To be slow in love
is to lose time,” cried those who came behind;
“Strive on that grace may bloom again above.”

“To be slow in love is to lose time” -- nice and aphoristic, but not what we seek in poetry. And even the arrow-minded Abbot of San Zeno who, without stopping, barks back his reply to Virgil and Dante, can’t quite break away from the preachiness that mars the Purgatorio and especially Paradiso. Perhaps we need to be slow in love -- slow and silent and without the go-go-go spirit.

In Canto 18, the only  tercet that rises to true poetry is the one about the moon. That one obeys Wittgenstein’s commandment: “Don’t think. Look.” Or, as Larry Levis taught his students, “Gaze at the world.” A poet is a “gazer at the world.”

Here is the moon tercet again:

It was near midnight. The late-risen moon,
like a brass bucket polished bright as fire,
thinned out the lesser stars, which seemed to drown.

Lyricism starts already with “It was near midnight.” I am astonished that such a simple statement  touches us in a special way. It’s “gazing at the world.” Suddenly we are connected with the hushed beauty of a moonlit night. We can forget ourselves in it as those “lesser stars, which seemed to drown.” There is no sadness to this drowning, only dissolving into light.

And note the image of fire rather than water, which we’d expect to go with “bucket.” Yet the image water forces itself in, with the word “drown.” But the drowning is into light, a more unusual proposition. That’s of course how the stars “drown” -- they are invisible if one central light is too bright. As for the connotations of light, it would take many pages. It’s often associated with the divine. I don’t see why the soothing nature of darkness would be excluded as a manifestation of a benign deity, a soft-good night blanket -- but the cultural evolution of images has strongly privileged light.

Consider, for instance, the description of sunrise in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante finds himself in una selva oscura, the dark woods of error:

I raised my head and saw the hilltop shawled
in morning rays of light sent from the planet
that leads men straight ahead on every road.

        ~ tr. Mark Musa

Planet? I checked Ciardi’s translation: it’s planet. In Ptolemaic astronomy the sun was regarded as a planet. Yet elsewhere Dante speaks of the sun as a star, as confirmed by the famous last line of the Commedia: “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It’s just the first smudge of dawn of the modern worldview here, but that smudge will eventually become a supernova destroying the scholastic certainties. Dante was already a heretic. His savior was Beatrice, and he knew that the sun is a star.

But back to Purgatory and Canto 18. Another taste of lyricism is not granted to us until the next canto, where we meet the Angel of Zeal, “with swanlike wings outspread.” But that’s straining at it. It’s not the same lyrical splendor, which needs to seem effortless like sleep. As Milosz says, “Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.” Cognitive processing is unconscious, and forcing a system on one’s imaginings deprives us of deeper thinking, which tends to be both unpredictable and metaphoric. Let the images come could be a poet’s sole prayer. 

Gustave Doré Geryon

Of course there are many imagistic passages in the Inferno, in my eyes the best part of the Comedy.  When Virgil and Dante climb onto the back of Geryon, Monster of Fraud, the winged creature that will fly them from Circle Seven to Circle Eight, we get this beauty in Canto 16 (“he” is Virgil):

Then he called out: “Now, Geryon, we are ready:

bear well in mind that his is living weight

and make your circles wide and your flight steady.”

As a small ship slides from a beaching or its pier,
backward, backward — so that monster slipped

back from the rim. And when he had drawn clear

he swung about, and stretching out his tail

he worked it like an eel, and with his paws

he gathered in the air, while I turned pale.

Dali’s Geryon is a must here:

But Geryon is my shameless digression in this post. Let’s consider more light. In Canto 28 of Paradiso, Dante reaches the Ninth Heaven, the Primum Mobile, “the first mover,” the outermost concentric sphere in Dante’s earth-centered model of the universe. This sphere imparts movement to all the inner spheres surrounding the motionless earth.

Here Allen Mandelbaum’s translation is the most inspired:

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,

and any star that, seen from the earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.

Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it

when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

But let’s also look at Ciardi’s rendition of that ring of fire:

so close around the Point, a ring of fire
spun faster than the fastest of the spheres
circles creation in its endless gyre.

Rhyme can be wonderful. But I also love the image of the earth “girded” by the multiple layers of motion. 

Dante the Pilgrim proceeds to the Empyrean, pure light (literally: “fire”) which is arranged like an immense white rose, often called Dante’s “mystic rose.” The souls of the saved are seated on the “petals,” immersed in bliss. 

 We know that our perception of bliss depends on change, and we’d soon grow bored doing nothing but staring at a point of light. Yet obviously boredom could not exist in heaven, since that would detract from bliss. One solution that has been suggested is that the souls gazing at god have no memory, and thus are immersed in the eternal Now.    

Dante, however, retains his memory. As the climax of his journey, he is granted the sight of the Trinity as three overlapping circles of colored light. Here Mark Musa’s translation is regarded by critics as the most sublime:

Within its depthless clarity of substance
I saw the Great Light shine into three circles
in three clear colors bound in one same space.
. . .

O Light Eternal fixed in Self alone,
known only to Yourself, and knowing Self,
You love and glow, knowing and being known!

That circling which, as I conceived it, shone
in You as Your own first reflected light
when I had looked deep into It a while,

seemed in Itself and Its own Self-color
to be depicted with man’s very image.
My eyes were totally absorbed in It.

Frustrated Reader of the Sublime, if you expected a clear description of the Trinity with fewer capital letters, you obviously had not been warned enough in childhood that the mystery of the Trinity is beyond human grasp.

But on the page I have a helpful note affixed in a stranger’s hand: “Perfect self-sufficient ecstasy.” This is powerful, since Christianity has presented us with a suffering god. Dante imagines a happy god.

Trinity is a Greek rather than a Hebrew concept. In fact in Judaism it amounts to the highest blasphemy. But let’s not worry about the jealous god of vengeance. Neither jealous nor vengeful nor suffering, god is three happy circles of light. Three happy circles of gaily colored light! How could those circles have memory, or anything to do with human suffering? 

But wait, the light emits love as it glows. There are those who claim to have experienced divine love.  Is there a hint here of Einstein’s “friendly universe”? Not that Einstein ever claimed the universe was friendly; he only suggested that it’s an important question facing humanity. But perhaps all that matters if whether humanity is progressing toward being more friendly. 

Still, I admire Dante having come up with this geometry rather than presenting the painters’ cliché: a double throne in the clouds, two bearded men, one of them older, the dove hovering above, added for the sake of the number three.

The dove was the best part. I miss the dove. But enough unreality. Since la luce etterna is beyond human grasp, let’s walk out into the night and look at the moon. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Davos, Switzerland, the site of Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain"


I don’t remember exactly when Budberg died, it was either two years  
      ago or three.  
The same with Chen. Whether last year or the one before.  
Soon after our arrival, Budberg, gently pensive,  
Said that in the beginning it is hard to get accustomed,  
For here there is no spring or summer, no winter or fall.  

“I kept dreaming of snow and birch forests.  
Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by.  
This is, you will see, a magic mountain.”  

Budberg: a familiar name in my childhood.  
They were prominent in our region,  
This Russian family, descendants of German Balts.  
I read none of his works, too specialized.  
And Chen, I have heard, was an exquisite poet,  
Which I must take on faith, for he wrote in Chinese.

Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.  
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not forecast spring.  
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.  
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it that way.  

I sensed Budberg was right and I rebelled.  
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?  
Fame will pass me by,
no crown, no tiara?  
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,  
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,  
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.  
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.  
One murky island with its barking seals  
Or a parched desert is enough  
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”  
Endurance comes only from enduring.  
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,  
And climbed it and it held me.  

What a procession! Quelles délices!
What caps and hooded gowns!
Most respected Professor Budberg,  
Most distinguished Professor Chen,  
Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz  
Who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue.  
Who will count them anyway. And here sunlight.  
So that the flames of their tall candles fade.  
And how many generations of hummingbirds keep them company  
As they walk on. Across the magic mountain.  
And cold fog creeps in from the ocean, for once more it is July.  

Berkeley, 1975

      ~ Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

This is one of my favorite poems by Milosz. Remember that he lived in Berkeley, where it can be quite cool in summer -- yes, that cold fog blowing in from the Pacific, the heavy cloud-banks obliterating the beautiful bridges. The title refers to Thomas Mann's masterpiece set in a TB sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, where it can be suddenly freezing during summer, and relatively warm on a sunny, cloudless day in winter.

Of course the introductory theme here is not the confused seasons, but the whole feeling of unreality that can be part of living in exile. In another poem written in that period, “To Raja Rao,” Milosz writes,

For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else.

A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
. . .
There was, somewhere else, a real city,
with real trees and voices and friendship and love.


But exile is not the main theme there -- unless we extend the meaning of “exile” to “being a poet without an audience” -- and, to make it even worse, one who writes “in some unheard-of tongue.” It’s a confession that youth’s heroic ego project has been shattered, and “I the Unique” surrenders to the common fate of remaining unknown.

Things were to change dramatically for Milosz, but for many years he seemed to be one of the thousands of poets who dream of an audience, and they dream in vain. The poem was written five years before Milosz won the Nobel Prize. There is a story that one year before the Nobel, Milosz and C.K. Williams gave a reading at UC Berkeley, and only ten people showed up -- all of them to hear the American poet.

“A Magic Mountain” is Milosz as Ecclesiastes, announcing that all is vanity. First we have two Berkeley professors, Budberg and Chen, the latter apparently an exquisite poet in Chinese, dying without having won recognition, the year of their disappearance now even certain in memory. Jorie Graham says, “We must be unforgettable or not at all” -- a cruel piece of advice for 99.9 percent of humanity.

Budberg, a specialist in a field Milosz deliberately leaves blank to make him even more anonymous, does leave a trace in the speaker’s consciousness. He is the one who tells Milosz that Berkeley is a “magic mountain” without clear seasons of the year:

“I kept dreaming of snow and birch forests.  
Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by.  
This is, you will see, a magic mountain.”  
. . .
Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.  
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not forecast spring.  
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.  
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it that way.  

The faithful maple still sheds its leaves even though frost doesn’t come. Afterwards the new leaf buds in what was to be the golden-green festival of spring are hardly noticed, outdone by hummingbirds diving into the deep throats of tropical hibiscus, or the shallow chalices of flowers displaced from their climate.

At first the speaker rebels against the idea of being “stuck” on this academic Magic Mountain. This is the heart of the poem, and it beats close to despair, never mind the tone of casual self-mockery:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?  
Fame will pass me by,
no crown, no tiara?  
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,  
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,  
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.

Life is now practically over, and the future has been stolen away. Milosz exaggerates to drive the point:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?  
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown? 

To complete this self-mockery we get an academic procession, as if to say: “Here come the clowns”:

What a procession! Quelles délices!
What caps and hooded gowns!
Most respected Professor Budberg,  
Most distinguished Professor Chen,  
Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz  
Who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue. 

Every poet yearns for fame. This is true of all creative fields, of course. Picasso said about painters, “They all want to be Rembrandt.” It’s not a question of having an oversize ego. True, that’s a part of it: creative people need more than average narcissism to be able to isolate themselves from others to whatever extent it takes to develop their talent and master the craft. Otherwise they risk becoming “service persons” who live to serve the immediate needs of others, and never become the larger self that can then provide great gifts to many.

Let me amend the previous statement: poets, like all artists, dream of greatness and fame. True, if presented with a choice, the serious ones would choose greatness over fame, which they pretend to scorn, at least as an outward show of artistic purity -- but no matter what they say, every artist yearns for fame because fame means having an audience. No, it’s not about having a wonderful opinion about yourself -- I’ve met people who thought very highly of themselves without having any accomplishment to justify it, much less fame. Fame -- or at least recognition -- reinforces one’s sense of purpose. It provides the opportunity to give to others a unique gift rather than writing in a vacuum, “for gulls and sea haze.”

How can a poet survive being unknown? Milosz supplies a melancholy answer:

Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.  
One murky island with its barking seals  
Or a parched desert is enough  
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”  
Endurance comes only from enduring.  
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,  
And climbed it and it held me.

Remember, in this poem Milosz is five years away from the Nobel Prize, for which he has no hope. He has no hope even for minor prizes. He prides himself on having adapted to obscurity: “Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.” He says the landscape is enough, the generations of hummingbirds that accompany the procession of the unrecognized across their magic mountain. He also reminds the reader that we contribute to the world in ways unknown to us: “Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world” -- a motto reminiscent of Milton’s “They also serve who only stand and wait.” 

(A shameless and self-serving digression: One of my poems ends “They also serve / who perish in the desert” -- ah, the consolations of the desperate. I was once introduced as “the best least-known poet in America.”)

But after the passive consolation -- we are the children of the universe, we contribute something to the world simply by existing -- Milosz says something more interesting:

With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,  
And climbed it and it held me.

The rope that made him endure the lonely years of obscurity was his ability to recognize that his work had value, even in the absence of acclaim. “Had I not granted recognition to myself, I could not have survived so long without the recognition of my fellow men, besides a chosen few.” (Unattainable Earth, p. 39)

But “self-recognition” is a thin, creaky rope. It holds, but underneath it lies the abyss of despair. When one’s audience consists mainly of a handful of friends (“a chosen few”), falling into the abyss of depression, that dark side of ambition, is a constant danger. Only immigrant bitterness seems to me greater than the bitterness of poets who’ve been entering manuscript contests for twenty-thirty years. When they add up the entry fees -- if they dare perform this frightful exercise -- they see they could have traveled instead, or bought a mountain cabin. And worse, all those years, life was passing. What can they say to the spouses and children they neglected, the mournful voices of things that went undone?

Nevertheless, “self-recognition” is in fact an important factor. When I began to see with more and more clarity that I was a stronger poet than many of the contest judges, journal editors, and workshop instructors, I could no longer ignore the role of sheer luck when it comes to external success. When I began to hear this summary of poetry conferences:  “The participants were as good as, or better than, the presenters,” I realized that others had a similar perception. My peers told me over and over: “Talent is not enough. Hard work is not enough. It’s about luck and having the right connections. It’s about who you know.”

Those are pitiful consolations. The dark side of ambition is depression. Though the Middle Ages conflated depression and “sloth,” many of those who suffer from depression began as anything but slothful. On the contrary: they (I mean a specific subgroup, not all cases) started out ambitious and energetic, driven by a vision of high-achieving future. Once the vision is shattered and replaced by the perception of “you can’t win no matter what,” depression arrives, beating its dark wings.

Dark wings? Let me amend that. The wings of depression are blank. 


And yet the Middle Ages did know something important about depression. What’s the opposite of sloth? The answer is found in Ecclesiastes: “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

My cousin Franek, who did a lot of hiking in his youth, taught me the first rule of survival in the wild: “If lost, follow a river.” A river always leads to a bigger river -- and thus to a bridge, road sign, highway. But first: follow a river.

Work too always leads somewhere. As Sister Corita Kent said, “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.” Not necessarily to fame, but maybe to a different and more fulfilling field or venue. Again: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.”

That’s why, in certain fields, the heretically un-American advice -- DON’T DREAM -- makes supreme good sense. Nor should we encourage children to "dream big." Are you kidding? We should take another look at “great expectations.” They can be deadly. What works on a daily basis is micro-ambition -- concentrating on the project at hand. That can still be done at the level of excellence, and bring the delight of intellectual stimulation and esthetic beauty to others. And that is enough.


Milosz has another poem, a tender one, that ends by praising “diminished expectations.” It’s one of his best-loved poems. 

Archangel Gabriel, Gerard David, early 1500s.


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.

Berkeley 1969


Note that this poem too was written long before fame, in loneliness and obscurity. Yet it’s certainly not a poem of despair (“Magic Mountain” comes much closer, for all its assurances of endurance). Milosz’s “angels” are what he calls “eternal moments”: birdsong at dawn, the smell of apples and the magical light in the orchards toward evening.

In another poem, “I Should Now Be Wiser,” he says:

The shames I closed inside myself, but the amazements,

at a sun-streak on a wall, at the trill of an oriole, a face,

an iris, a volume of poems, a person, endure and return in brightness.

Such moments lifted me above my lameness.

Thus, beauty was one element of his salvation from despair. The other one was work. In “On Angels,” we see the importance of both beauty and work. Aside from the witty aphorism that human beings also invented themselves, it’s the last line that presents the main message: DO WHAT YOU CAN.

This message is not “think big.” It’s not “follow your dream.” It’s definitely not “Never settle for less than your dream.” It’s simply “Do what you can.” Work without asking about where you are going. Work will lead to something. Usually. Whatever else we may say about Milosz, he was certainly a workaholic.

And he had the last laugh. After giving up hope, but not work, he won the highest literary prize. He was sixty-nine. Suddenly he was reading to packed auditoriums. Strong American poets stepped in to help with translations. He became not just a famous Polish poet, but a world poet. (“You have to be translatable,” he slyly remarked.)

And the old but vigorous poet made the best of his old age. He produced an enormous amount of work in the last twenty-plus years of his life, never apologizing for the contradictions of having “two souls” -- one of them leaning to asceticism and rejection of the world, the other one Dionysian, “glorifying things.” That too is part of The Magic Mountain -- I mean now Thomas Mann’s great novel. But more on that in the blogpost to follow. 

 Davos Bobsled team, 1910. "Adler" means "eagle." The TB sanatoria described by Mann were located at such high altitude that the bodies of those patients who died during winter had to be transported down by bobsled. Why the thin mountain air, deficient in oxygen, was believed to be good for TB was a mystery.

In our Salon archives I found this interchange pertaining to the first part of Milosz’s “Magic Mountain” -- the unreality of California for someone who grew up in Lithuania.


I just loved that moody Berkeley poem and M reciting to the gulls. Made me think of Po Chu-i's "Madly Singing in the Mountain" reciting to the monkeys and birds. I'm so happy M found that living is the real prize. [Kate is referring to “The Poet at Seventy”; the poem ends on “the pleasure of being alive”]. It's so interesting that he felt that Berkeley to him wasn't a real city with real trees or kindred spirits when for young people like me it became the real city, the city of poetry because of him and the others who were there.


Here is Po-Chu-I’s poem:


There is no one among men that has not a special failing;
And my failing consists in writing verses.
I have broken away from the thousand ties of life;
But this infirmity still remains behind.

Each time that I look at a fine landscape,
Each time that I meet a loved friend,
I raise my voice and recite a stanza of poetry.
And marvel as though a God had crossed my path.

Ever since the day I was banished to Hsun-yang
Half my time I have lived among the hills.
And often, when I have finished a new poem
Alone I climb the road to the Eastern Rock.

I lean my body on the banks of white stone,
I pull down with my hands a green cassia branch.
My mad singing startles the valleys and hills;
Monkeys and birds all come to peep.

Fearing to become a laughing-stock to the world,
I choose a place unfrequented by men.

~ PO CHU-I. c.AD 816
translated by Arthur Waley


For the Chinese poet, nature, religion, and poetry all unite as his spiritual sustenance. Milosz had a much more difficult time, having been raised in old-time Catholicism, and then, out of desperation, trying to forge his own neo-Catholic faith, dipping into Swedenborg and the Gnostics, never quite free of doubt.

Maybe you are wondering: why is PCI so lyrical and Milosz so conceptual? Milosz too felt close to nature, but it was the meadows and lakes and forests of Lithuania, and later the French countryside; he had trouble feeling at home in California’s landscape, so different from the lush green of the rain-rich north. 

I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What would a man of the north
have to do with parched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dry streambeds,
hills the color of straw and clumps of boulders
like prehistoric reptiles – that’s for me
the soul of these regions.
And fog creeping out of the ocean,
begetting greenness in the ravines.
And spiny oak and thistles.

Where was it said that we would possess
the earth like a beloved,
and plunge into her deep, clear rivers,
and flow on fertile currents?


But then he had his beloved cat, and the deer that came to his yard, treating it as their salad bar. One time a doe gave birth to twin fawns on his lawn, and decided to stay there for a while. As for “parched,” he didn’t have it so bad there on Grizzly Peak. Worse by far was the near-complete lack of recognition (until 1980 and the Nobel Prize) and the loneliness he felt among the leftist academics in Berkley (though he knew from experience that France was even worse).

And there were his metaphysical wrestlings, now reading Swedenborg, now Simone Weil, now trying to feel at home again in the Catholic church (if my own experience is any guide, once you leave, you can’t quite return; once you have had a certain perception with the force of insight, there is no going back. On the other hand, as priests love to claim, that you can never fully leave: the emotional imprint of a Catholic childhood cannot be deleted). PCI at least had the serenity of his spiritual practice, though he too hints at loneliness, at guests who were invited, but did not come.

About the feeling of unreality: this is part of what goes with exile, with living in a place that’s very unlike your country of origin. The first landscape also establishes neural circuits that dictate what reality is supposed to be like. The differentness of another place creates a pleasant feeling of novelty as long as it’s a vacation and you have a home to go back to. Once that home is lost, the loss of familiarity is traumatic: the limbic system, based on attachment, goes into a shock of grief.

Even minor things come back as bits of grief, such as my literally gut-level thinking, during the first weeks, “This is not real milk”; “This is not real food”; “Why does the meat have no taste?” etc; and later, in California, much as I appreciate both palm trees and eucalypts, “These are not real trees.” Even Catholic churches were not real churches but shabby substitutes. I fell in love with Los Angeles, but fully knowing that this was not a real city. Let me share a short poem from long ago:


I miss real trees. The eucalypts
are not enough, not even their incense
after rain. I’m outraged the bark
peels off in raggedy patches.

A right-wing homunculus sits
in the middle of my brain, screaming
that everything looks wrong:
the houses look wrong, the lawns,

the schools, the children, the stores.
The libraries look like libraries,
but that’s not enough. The streets
look wrong, their lunar emptiness.

I try to appease the homunculus
with roses; yawning
with contempt he'll ask,
“But where is the scent?

These are not real roses.
And if your heart flips over that
scentless fabrication of false petals,
that’s not your real heart.” 

~ Oriana


I hasten to say that the local pine trees, with their magnificent long needles, did win my false heart, as did bougainvilleas (in spite of not being real flowers). The sense of unreality would come and go, and finally come over me less and less often.  

But I perfectly understand why Milosz settled in Krakow for the last years of his life. He went to Krakow to die because that city most reminded him of Vilnius (always Wilno for him). The general rule is that we love the familiar: a little trickle of a waterfall in the local mountains and not Niagara Falls (do I need to point out that that’s not real water?)

Frozen Niagara Falls, 1911


Milosz's style is surprisingly like your poetry style. At first I thought that you wrote the poem.

Must have been devastating for him to be a reader and not one person showed up for him. Doesn't say a lot about his ability to make friends. You would expect at least one person to show up if you are a featured reader.

Love the concept of the larger self as opposed to a person serving others.

I think Milosz has a mild sense of humor in his poetry. I can see how Milosz is an inspiration to you.

I love how you steer the blog to Ecclesiastes.

Love Archangel Gabriel’s blue outfit.

Best of all I love Milosz’s (and your) wisdom at the end, DO WHAT YOU CAN.


Hmm . . .  The similarity in poetic styles may derived simply from the fact that many modern poets tend to sound alike: relaxed, colloquial almost, but with nature imagery to impart lyricism.

Ecclesiastes just happens to deliver the philosophy of life that’s become my own: drop expectations (“vanity of vanities”), work hard with all your heart, and enjoy life as best you can.

In early paintings, angels tend to be colorful -- both their wings and robes. Archangel Gabriel is particularly color co-ordinated.