A long way from Lithuania

FACING THE RIVER by Czeslaw Milosz, trs author and Robert Hass, Carcanet pounds 7.95

WE DID insist on numbers, decades and centuries, and therefore must not complain when they arrive in forms that induce hysterical glee or vertiginous anxiety. So around the corner comes 2000, with its three zeroes seeing, hearing and speaking no evil but cheerfully standing for knowledge, compassion and faith, or faith, hope and charity, or anything else that was somehow conceived and survived when there were fewer zeroes to go round. We don't even know what to call those years yet. "Nineteen- something" to "two-thousand-something"? That cliff-edge looks too far away to land on. As Les Murray writes of the Future, our idea of it fails to curve where it curves, though this has not prevented us from booking our tables for the night it starts curving.

All of us who decided to count together, then, are about to slip together through a gate into a clear white space. It is a unique time for us, but that's where counting gets you: all the way to childhood, judgement, and a vague innocence born of the hope that psychologically we can slough this wretched century. And for the first time in our lives, and the first time for centuries, we can now hear the sound of a poet who is about to pass through the gate at the end of the dreadful corridor, but both with us and without us. Czeslaw Milosz, born in 1911, is able, stilly and steadily, to contemplate what lies beyond that gate for us all and for himself. Even if he were not so consummately gifted a poet, his every utterance would carry that far. He brings a century with him, as it falls to some to do. Auden, born in 1907, could write about the Nazi camps both before and after they existed. On the day I read Facing the River, Srebrenica fell, and these poems concerned it.

For when Adorno supposedly said "No poetry after Auschwitz", he might have said "No poetry before", in the sense that whatever we can attempt now must carry the irradiated particles of what happened to our century, that the civilised, however they go, go onward stunned by it, making poetry of suddenly altered breath: the gasp in Plath, the hiss in Hughes, in most others the nature of the gap between stanzas. In Milosz the Holocaust is a sigh, and in Facing the River it is the same sigh as his valediction.

The sigh of Milosz is immense, a great minor chord of lament, resignation, indifference and, occasionally, consolation: "A retinue advances in the sunlight by the lakes" ("You Whose Name"). It also has flashes of giddying joke insight, where the membrane breaks and rationality lurches, as where he says of "This World": "What was only a trial run was taken seriously." In long, spaced lines like the breaths of the healthy old, he diverges from the world with a kind of glad shame, a sense of returning to the ranks of a force from which he never meant to stand out: "Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late do we discover how obedient we were." ("Capri"). Here the act of having written poetry manifests itself almost as a blush: "only by remembering poems once written is their author able to see the whole shame of it" ("Report"). When Milosz, who "lived in the America of Moloch", calls the age "shameless" he strikingly reclaims the lost force of the word. One is able to see shame itself in its depth and power, and wonder indeed what on earth ever happened to it.

Remembered individuals barely stand out against the fading of the scene: in "Lithuania, after 52 Years", he says of a lost beauty: "She will be permitted to go away or rather fly away/Simultaneously with my disappearance from this world." Marvellous images flash by, their uniqueness recorded almost guiltily in this poetry that yearns to recede to whiteness: "I fly Lufthansa, how nice that stewardess is, all of them are so civilised that it would be tactless to remember who they were" ("Capri"). Another lover is remembered only for the colours of her polka-dot dress.

Humanity is little more than a crowd seen far below, fixedly watching the progress of "The Human Fly": "All of them, obviously, in hats, looking up." Milosz finds that familiar scuttling crowd out of Dante by way of "The Waste Land" a new Purgatory, "with the Hospitaliers", a stretch of endurance and suffering that bears a definite resemblance to the life of Eastern Europe in our century. Then again, as a Lithuanian born into the neighbourhood of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, who would go on to hold a tenured position in sunny California, Milosz is well qualified to suggest parallels with the three kingdoms of the afterlife.

The late, late poetry of this master has largely divested itself of the incident and the individual, of rhyme, metre and the tricks of the trade, of the traditional delights and detours. It holds faith with a river, some woods, a remembered field and the gate of a garden: "I was a guest in a house under white clouds" ("One More Contradiction"). It will be too cold for some, too abstract for others, too bright a light, even, for the fading is to white not black. Then again, 2000 will be too much for many. Here is how a poet passes through the numbers.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor