Dear T.,

Dear self: today you turn thirty-one. Do you feel that? Do you feel your bones adjusting to the weight around your body, to the soul you carry? And have you found out what it meant, to want to be here?

Another year older. I’m not very sure we’re wiser for it, but we definitely have made some choices, haven’t we. Yes we did. Perhaps that’s the thing—to continue making decisions that spur your life inch by inch towards some direction. It doesn’t even have to mean forward or backward, because didn’t we say we’ll try to live spherically, in many directions? Didn’t we say: moving without leaving, and didn’t we do exactly that this past year?

Where are we going, self? Where will our feet take us, where will our mind lead us, where will our body agree to go? What are we willing to embrace this year? And do you feel that, the apprehension that murmurs in your chest like a fluttering bird, the uncertainty that makes you weak in the knees? And will you go anyway?

Have you forgiven yourself for it, the fuck-ups, the constant undoing and redoing? Have you accepted that you will always lose something, and when that happens, the question to ask is: and what have I gained?

Last year you said: Be good, forgive, exist. The year before that: I think maybe it’s time to be found. The year before that: You’re not alone. The year before that: It takes courage to live.

Do you hear it, all the echoes of your past selves trying to tell you that you are loved? The unknown yawns before us, and yes, maybe we’ll fuck it up. And maybe we won’t.

Happy birthday, old fool.

Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

This is from The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, published by Ecco Press, 1988.

Things I want to teach myself: how to be transparent but not give away all the mystery, how to be honest but not be overwhelmed with vulnerability, how to be accepting without being defeatist, how to be here and be really here.

Things I am unlearning: how to be cruel. How to be empty. How to die.

Poetry Reading
Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.

I enter.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.

I am supposed to tell them
why there were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.

This is from A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, published by Harcourt, Inc., 1996.

Dear October: I need you to be over. I am so tired. I think I’m coming down with something. A fool: they loved calling me that.


The Greatest Love
Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
“You have hair like pearls.”

Her children say:
“Old fool.”

Thinking about my grandfather again.

Late Ripeness
Czeslaw Milosz

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

I am at the lowest point of my life. Sunday was supposed to be for rest, for taking a deep breath, for snuggling under the covers and sleeping in and ignoring the harsh world outside. I didn’t do all of this, because I had work to do. In fact that’s all I do: work and work and work and work and work. Damn work. Fucking work. I’ve been running on about twenty hours of sleep spread out within the past few days. I knew that I had to break some time but I didn’t know it would happen last night.

It’s just that everything is going wrong lately. No matter what I do. Everything is going wrong. I am thrown out into the ocean, so far from the shore, and I don’t know how to swim and I am drowning. I keep on kicking and trying and flailing my arms, but I am not able to save myself.

Nobody there is to save me. The cold is wrapping itself around my body and my mind tries so very hard to fight back but everything is against me. For a moment I saw the beauty of it, this thing that could kill me, and suddenly I wanted so badly to meet it, to embrace it, to go away with it and never return. But even that is too good. So I am jolted back to violence, to things spiraling out of control, to a series of unfortunate events that I have no power over. And I just can’t do it anymore.

So at about ten in the evening, I’ve probably had the most horrible breakdown of my life. I cried so hard. In fact, I haven’t stopped. I am still crying now. It’s been more than three hours. The tears just won’t stop. I don’t even know what I am crying about anymore. I rarely cry, and now everything is coming out of me like flood. Do I still own this body?

I threw things. I’ve never done that before. I threw a lot of things. Everywhere is a mess. All I want to do now is crawl under the table, curl up and sleep and never wake up again. I have been thinking about this for the last hour. I think it would feel terribly good to just lie down and turn my body inwards and hide inside myself. I would do this forever.

I am terrified. Why is this happening to me? Why is everything happening to me? All I want is for things to go as they should, for machines to work, for plans to follow through, for people to be reliable, and for my life to go exactly as I have planned. I am doing everything I am supposed to do. Very rarely do I get to do what I want. Most of the time I do what I have to. And I’m okay with that. Why can’t the universe spare a little kindness? In fact, what is the point of everything? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with this one wild and precious life? Why am I given anything at all if I can’t have it for always? Why do I dream? Why do we keep fooling ourselves?

Wasn’t it Barthes who said that we must face our delirium in order to understand it? Well I am. I am writing down my demons now. But I am never really free, am I. Even words fail.

Czeslaw Milosz

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

This is from The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, published by Ecco Press, 1988.

I remember this conversation I had with someone I know (I hesitate to call her friend, although I would imagine she calls me that), maybe around two years ago. We were talking about God. Or rather, I was talking about God, and my disbelief with religion, and all the other icky feelings and things about faith. I didn’t open this conversation just so we could cross over the small talk. I was writing a position paper for my English class, and why I chose the subject of agnosticism is just foolish on my part – I was being frisky with the subject as of late, because of that damn Theology class, and I needed to say something and have no one to say it to, and I saw the paper as an opportunity for verbal diarrhea. It was win-win for me, because I can unload all of my thoughts and not have to do research at all, with it being in my head constantly. Also, there’s no one to witness this indulgence, except for my absent-minded professor who spills coffee on her blouse every morning – a pretty safe bet, if you ask me. Anyway — there I was in the cafeteria, talking to myself, writing, arguing, editing, arguing like a banshee, and all this time my classmate, who reveres religion, was watching me and listening to me. Suffice to say, it didn’t end well for me: I got an invite to attend a Bible reading class and a soft, pitying look that was supposed to rip me into shreds.

This is way too much context for a poem.

Czeslaw Milosz

The word Faith means when someone sees
A dew-drop or a floating leaf, and knows
That they are, because they have to be.
And even if you dreamed, or closed your eyes
And wished, the world would still be what it was,
And the leaf would still be carried down the river.

It means that when someone’s foot is hurt
By a sharp rock, he also knows that rocks
Are here so they can hurt our feet.
Look, see the long shadow cast by the trees;
And flowers and people throw shadows on the earth:
What has no shadow has no strength to live.

Whenever I doubt myself, I always remember this poem. Was I brave or was I a hypocrite?

In Black Despair
Czeslaw Milosz

In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
pretending to joy, although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question — who can answer it —
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?