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
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil