For many people, poetry is consolation, a balm to soothe personal and collective wounds. In the hands of the late Czeslaw Milosz, it is also razor sharp.
Milosz's Selected Poems 1931-2004 are shaped by history and chaos. Living in northern Europe, he witnessed two world wars, revolutions, and the slaughter of millions. Yet rather than make him harsh, those experiences burned into him a genuine sense of hope. In the first stanza of "Meaning" he writes:
- When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
The lines are neither naive nor false. Milosz knows how to find grace but does not let the world deceive him.
The second stanza of "Meaning" asks,
- And if there is not lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush
on a branch?
This clear-sightedness and keen intellect is one reason why his work is great. Milosz, a Nobel Prize winner, knows when to offer light and when to let things just "burn." There may not be any logic in this world, he admits, nothing on the earth but earth. The last lines of "Meaning" show his brilliance.
- Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.