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Unattainable Earth by Czeslaw Milosz; translated by the author and Robert Hass (Ecco: $17.95; 102 pp.)

May 25, 1986| Tom Phillips | Phillips has recently illustrated and translated "Dante's Inferno" (Thames & Hudson, 1985). and

For the poet in exile, there must come a time when the pressure of the language surrounding him in the world where he now leads his life will threaten the walls of the cave where he jealously guards his mother tongue. As the dominant world language, English exerts a formidable pressure, yet, Milosz, though living and working in America, still writes (as he says in the introduction to his recent "Land of Ulro") without trying "to reach anybody in particular, except perhaps a few fastidious people able to read my Polish and belonging to the same circle of literati." Nothing like making the reader feel shut out.

The present, much slighter, work heightens this effect of exclusion by its very form. It is in essence a "Commonplace-Book" in which the author's ruminations trigger and are triggered by extensive quotations from other writers; almost an anthology in which Milosz elects himself the most cited contributor. He inserts several pasages from the work of a distant relative, Oscar Milosz (ironically himself an exile in France and writing in French), whom he visited in Paris in his youth. Orwell, Lawrence (with three whole poems), Baudelaire, Goethe and Wittgenstein also feature in a large supporting cast.

The incipient inbreeding of Milosz's own writing, however, is suddenly thrown into relief when he starts quoting Whitman. Here is the real thing, the passion and the utterance as one, with a generosity of spirit and scope that allows few competitors. Milosz himself begins to look pallidly parochial, since he quotes Whitman in all his amplitude, poem after poem, nine pages of them in all; and that in a book itself only 100 pages long (a proportion that might be considered beyond propriety).

Having thus willfully overshadowed himself, it is to Milosz's credit that his own particular and translation-veiled voice can still be heard. Robert Hass is an excellent translator, robust and sensitive, yet one is well into the book before one realizes what is missing, for, suddenly, in a poem called "Salem," Milosz breaks his vow of cultural Trappism and translates himself. Immediately, all the nerve-ends are present, together with a clumsy vulnerability no other translator could risk. Through the familiar nostalgia, there is a rush of the here and now:

Now you must bear with your poor soul.

Guilt only, where you proudly stood.

Diplomas, honors, parchment, scrolls,

lectures at Harvard, doctor's hood:

Tongues in which nothing loudly calls.

I walk somewhere at the world's end,

in Wilno, by a bridge called Green.

An old woman reads postcards that I send

from Baton Rouge or Oberlin.

We both have reason to lament.

The long bridge of exile links the names and personages, and, paradoxically, Wilno lives as an understandable place rather than the private memory invoked in Milosz's more usual I-know-this-as-you-cannot vein. The proud Polish intellectual is one with the fabric of American history, is one with the simple guy behind the pizza counter with his tacked-up views of somewhere small in southern Italy.

The book is divided into sections, each with a gnomic title (e.g. "Unexpressed," "I, She, He") and each containing both prose and poetry, some of it rather opaque. The aphoristic prose, for example, ranges from the wryly wise ("We always hope that everything will be all right, because others are better than we are?") to the monumentally trite ("A decent man cannot believe that a good God wanted such a world"). The best of the poems do occasionally take wing, especially the elegiac love poetry. Once or twice, it is even in sight of Whitman soaring above.

"Unattainable Earth" leaves me with the uncomfortable impression of authorial self-importance. A virtual campaign on the part of the New York Review of Books, with its disproportionate coverage of Middle European and Holocaust literature, has made us perhaps guiltily overestimate the work of victims and exiles: The present book, not dense enough to compensate for its slenderness, could only have been made and published in such an atmosphere of overindulgence.

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