Facing the River

by Nathan Cobb
“A retinue advances in the sunlight by the lakes.”

PHOTO by Nancy Ellison. Czeslaw Milosz, Berkeley 1988.

I am not often the type to be captivated by the first pages of a book. I think it comes from my hesitance to be roped into things too quickly — I have to be convinced of the merit of a thing before I allow myself to be caught up in its essence. I don’t think that art can be judged by the emotional response it evokes immediately or that a song or piece of music should be dismissed simply because it fails to suit your disposition. Rather, Art should be studied, pondered, lingered upon — only after attaining a satisfactory degree of understanding should a judgement be made as to the quality of the Art. I also don’t believe in love at first sight, which is kind of the same thing.

I am often wrong, however. My wife picked up Facing the River, a collection of poems by Czesław Miłosz, in a used bookstore on New Year’s Eve — vaguely recognizing him as the Polish poet that a professer had once recommended. Curious, I opened to the first poem and was confronted by the line “We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.” Being a sucker for any and all devotional poetry, — from George Herbert to Scott Cairnes — I immediately decided that I needed to read this particular collection, and did so over the course of the following two days. Miłosz so thoroughly captures transcendental Beauty, from the first line of the first poem, that it was impossible for me to break myself from his words. Born in 1911, Miłosz lived through both World Wars and the communist overthrow of Poland — an experience which he observed first-hand in Warsaw, a veritable battleground in the 40’s. His tone is modern, reminiscent of Hemingway’s terse, straightforward prose or the mournful lines of Shostakovich’s late string quartets, but his themes are ancient. The poem “Why,” creates Psalmic allusions as it questions how a benevolent God could ignore the cries of his people, giving them over to the wicked:

“Have not the prayers of the humiliated been heard?
The bereft of their possessions, the slandered, the
murdered, the tortured behind barbed wire?

And I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 when I read “A Naiad,” which begins:

“The only proof of the existence of Miss X
Is my writing. As long as I am here
She lives not far from the places she loved.”

Miłosz is a good poet — possibly an excellent poet — and I found words in his poetry that I sought expression for, myself. He speaks of morality, mortality, humility, vocation, innocence, love, and the swift passage of time with its changes. “It would be more decorous not to live,” he says, and yet he writes of the least decorous of people — the oppressed and the oppressors, those erased by time and those who are forgotten before their time is even finished. Yet somehow, in the midst of these tragic themes, the quality most deeply impressed upon me by Miłosz’s poetry is that of hope. The poem that begins by describing Satan as “You whose name is aggressor and devourer,” shifts the paradigm in a Shakespearean fashion with a final couplet:

“A retinue advances in the sunlight by the lakes.
From white villages Easter bells resound.”

Miłosz’s devotion is evident and it is clear that despite the tradgedies which he endured personally and empathetically through his poetry, he is primarily concerned with retaining hope:

“At every sunrise I renounce the doubts of night and greet the new
day of a most precious delusion.”

And:

“That the gate of the Black Garden closes, peace, peace, what is
finished is finished.”

Maybe this could be construed as resignation, but I believe that Miłosz, with all the atrocities of the twentieth century seared in horrid detail into his mind, chooses to stop attempting a reconciliation of the evil and the good and, rather, accepts blindly the fate established for him by a beneficent God. I have learned something from this small collection of poems. I have learned that it is, in fact, possible to be captivated by the first line of a book — and, what is more, to be held captive all the way through to its final stanza. But more importantly, I have seen what it is to hold a black hope: a hope which holds fast to the Good it knows to be true and doesn’t require a complete understanding — for who can understand this:

“Nature devouring, nature devoured,
Butchery day and night smoking with blood.
And who created it? Was it the good Lord?”

Nathan Cobb is a resident of Houston, TX. He is currently pursuing masters studies in music theory, and enjoys spending time traveling with his wife, reading compelling books, and sharing good wine with his friends.


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