Author: Stephanie Saldana
A few days ago, I sat in front of an interactive map depicting the numbers of the month’s dead in Syria’s nine-month old uprising. It was designed so that you could click on any region and see the figures appear: 355 around Homs, 95 in Hama, 52 around Damascus. For a moment I tried to summon up what those numbers actually meant: the voices of the dead, their bicycles left parked in alleyways, the particular way that one might have said hello in the morning, or sung to himself as he made his coffee. A child left fatherless, a corner of the room that one used to stand in that would now be empty.
I have lived in Syria, and the streets and houses of those that I love are buried within that map. But I am not alone, and while this region has always been turbulent, there is no use in pretending that we are not in the midst of a difficult season. One can speak of Damascus, but also of Egypt, of Yemen, of Bahrain, not to mention the ever-present possibility that the situation here in Israel and the West Bank will explode. I find myself checking the newspaper in the morning to gauge how much the earth has trembled while we slept.
It is hard to know where to turn. I search for moments of beauty, shafts of light, chamomile coming into season. And I turn to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who would have been 100 this year. Last week, as the news from Syria grew worse, my husband and I gathered some friends in our Jerusalem home to celebrate his centenary year. There was something about reading his poems, in the midst of so much uncertainty, that seemed to tether us back to the earth. For more than any other poet that I know, Milosz had the ability to look at the horrors of his lifetime straight in the eye, and at the same time never to lose sight of hope. He believed, in some small way, that poetry can save. Indeed, his poems carry the possibility that the world is not beyond repair.
Milosz was born in June 1911 in what is now Vilnius, and he lived through both the Nazi devastation of Poland and then the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. After writing some of his most powerful poetry in Warsaw during World War II, including “Campo de Fiori,” in which he writes scathingly about Polish indifference to the massacre of Warsaw’s Jewish population in 1943, he defected to France and eventually to America, where he lived for more than four decades.
He never stopped writing in Polish, though for most of his life his poetry was banned in his native country, just as he never stopped writing about the lost world of his childhood, always bewildered that, when so many had died, he survived. In 1944, he writes of a table of his friends in a cafe, of whom “I alone survived.” The notion occupied him until his death 60 years later.
It seems to me that this is the source of his power. Only a poet who lost so much so soon could fully grasp the difficult truth that everything can disappear in an instant, not only people but cities, certainties. This realization is terrible, but it also brings life into focus. The world takes on a profound beauty because it cannot last. “A man should not love the moon,” Milosz tells us in his poem “Should, Should Not,” suggesting even that we chip the stairs with our boot, “As a reminder that the stairs will not last forever.”
Yet we cannot help but love, as Milosz knew – he who spent the entirety of his life trying to render in poetry what had been lost in the world, to make sense of it and to preserve what was beautiful in it. He gave names, faces, voices, houses, even wagons to those who had disappeared. His poetry was love embodied.
The journalist Mark Danner, who lives in Milosz’s old house in California, told a story to those gathered in our home that evening. One morning, he awakened, walked to the large bay window of Milosz’s home, and looked outside to see 14 deer grazing in the grass. He had never seen such a gathering. As he stood watching, the phone rang. A voice told him that Czeslaw Milosz had just died.
On his 100th year, I will think of those deer, gathering. I will continue to keep his poems beside my bed to read before I sleep. He is a reminder that in this dark season, amid our fear and anxiety, we must not lose our sense of awe, and our gratitude. We may not know if the particular beauties that come to us each day are sent as compensation for all that is lost, for all that continues to be lost. Perhaps it is only in the losing that we come to notice them. But that they are here is undeniable: This morning, a woman next to me on the bus with a bundle of sage. A pumpkin sliced to reveal orange flesh. What Milosz called “the immensity of existing things.”
In this brittle world, hovering between tragedy and grace, he reminds us that we must witness the tragedy but not succumb to it, and somehow, salvage some of the grace.
Day draws near
Do what you can.
– Czeslaw Milosz, “On Angels” (1969 )
Stephanie Saldana is author of the 2010 memoir “The Bread of Angels.” She teaches literature at Bard/Al-Quds.