Here’s the third poem in the anthology. If you missed yesterday’s poem, or if you want to find out more about this project, click here.
Today’s poem is from Czeslaw Milosz, and it’s in something of a dialogue with yesterday’s poem. Within the anthology, it belongs to a section tentatively called ‘Ripples’. This section focuses on the effects that those who are mentally ill can have on those around them – such as family, loved ones and friends. Czeslaw Milosz’s poem is one of an extraordinary candour, and Milosz does not spare himself in any way. He addresses the stigma laden attitudes he used to hold, and acknowledges an important point – that we all have the capacity for madness within us; that we’re always a few steps away from a darkened door. It’s an extraordinary poem of an all too rare candour. Milosz, like Robert Lowell, will rear his head again in this anthology.
Milosz was an extraordinary man in his own right, and he’s an unsparing witness to the twentieth century. Milosz was a teenager in the Warsaw ghetto, and he was active in the Polish underground movement. In 1951 he defected from Poland, initially settling in Paris, then to the United States. Shortly thereafter his work was banned in his native Poland. It was only when the iron curtain fell that he could return to his native Poland. I can’t speak for the original Polish, but his English translators (mainly Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky) translate Milosz beautifully. His work is shot through with a clarity and a precision that I’ve found difficult to find elsewhere. Anywho, I’ll leave you to mull over the poem. Be sure to check back tomorrow for poem number four!
To Robert Lowell
I had no right to talk of you that way,
Robert. An émigré’s envy
Must have prompted me to mock
Your long depressions, weeks of terror.
Presumed vacations in the safety of the wards.
It was not from pride in my normalcy.
Insanity, I knew, was insinuating itself
In a thin thread into my very being
And only waited for my permission
To carry me into its murky regions.
And I was watchful. Like a lame man.
I used to walk upright to hide my affliction.
You didn’t have to. For you it was permitted.
Not for me, a refugee on this continent
Where so many newcomers vanished without a trace.
Forgive me my mistake. Your will was of no use
Against an illness that held you like a stigma.
And beneath my anger was the vanity,
Unjustifiable, of the humiliated. A bit belated,
I write to you across what separates us:
Gestures, conventions, idioms, mores.