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.