Czesław Miłosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951. In 1960 he began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, where he lived most of the time until 2000, when he moved back to Krakow; he died in 2004.
There are many reasons why I have recently wanted to read from the writings of Milosz in several genres. After I had already started on A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, which he compiled in his 80’s and which is essentially a gift to modern readers, I discovered that this kind and generous man had been teaching at Berkeley during the years when I was deciding where to go to college. Berkeley was one of my top three choices back then. In the Now, my mind wandered into the land of “What if?” What if I had attended Berkeley and had known Professor Miłosz as a poetry teacher?
Ah, but he didn’t teach poetry. He taught Slavic literature, and many of his colleagues didn’t even know he was a poet, until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. So if I had attended “Cal,” I would probably not have known of his existence until now anyway, and that would have made me a little sad.
As it is, the fact that he lived in the Berkeley hills (where my grandmother spent most of her life) for 40 years, and wrote many poems during that time about his experience in and of California and its landscape, draws me to him powerfully. One more thing that links us: his father and my grandfather were both born in Riga, Latvia, probably about the same time. Here is a poem that builds a bridge in his heart from a church in Berkeley back to his homeland and to his dear mother.
Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom he said: “Talitha, cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”