BookFox normally sticks to short stories and literary novels, but every once in a while I break my self-imposed limitations and dabble in other genres. Czeslaw Milosz is a poet that can make me break my own rule.
An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz is a biography consisting of remembrances from thirty-two friends, colleagues and students. It offers a mosaic of Milosz' life, habits and thoughts, veering between public history (Berkeley, exile) and intimate quotidian details (how he dealt with a watch's dead battery).
The remembrances are definitely not hagiographic. Milosz is called "difficult," "brutally frank," and frequently described as bracingly acerbic. There's even an essay titled "He Also Knew How to Be Gracious," as though the idea needed defense. But to be fair, there are plenty of examples of that graciousness on display, for example in the holograph poems (poems written longhand by the author) he gave as gifts to others.
Milosz, more than any other writer, made me feel what's it's like to miss home, to be separated from home, and "An Invisible Rope" highlights that pain in his life. I'd never been emotionally connected to the plight of political exile, but Milosz makes you feel his angst. It's beautiful that the boomerang of his life — home, away, and finally welcomed back home to Poland after the fall of Communism — reflects the mythic arc of the Odyssey, and reinforces the symbolic weight of Home.
For those of you wondering where that invisible rope of the title came from, Words Without Borders provides the answer:
The title of the book, An Invisible Rope, comes also from “A Magic Mountain,” a refutation of defeat, perhaps apt for a poet who dealt with political tensions, who was banned in his own country, and yet who became Poland’s best-known poet:
Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
"Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.
If you're keen on Milosz' poetry, don't skip his nonfiction. "To Begin Where I Am" is a wonderful collection of essays — the first in the collection, on why he writes, offers a more succinct justification for writing than George Orwell and Joan Didion's attempts at the subject. Second, try to tackle "The Captive Mind," his famous nonfiction book inveighing against Communism.