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RICHARD EDER

Laughter and Lament

ROAD-SIDE DOG;\o7 By Czeslaw Milosz\f7 ;\o7 Translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 208 pp., $22)\f7

November 29, 1998|RICHARD EDER

The title and the first of these 142 tiny allegories, epigrams and poemlets faintly echo an old saying that exalts action above commentary: "The dogs bark and the caravan passes." Czeslaw Milosz evokes it, as with so much of his writing, by turning it at an angle. It is, after all, the dogs who remain when the caravan is dust on the horizon--and perhaps even a mirage.

Milosz, the ironic and heartbreaking Polish poet, is the roadside dog. Poetry is the barking. Life is the hallucinatory caravan fading in memory. Approaching 90, he writes, he takes his past life "as no more than commentary to a couple of poems."

Age is one of several recurring themes in this collection (put into English jointly with the poet Robert Hass, Milosz's translator for so long that glove is all but indistinguishable from hand). Milosz deals with age in that inextricable mix of lament and laughter characteristic of many Eastern and Central European writers. For them, the masks of comedy and tragedy have become one and the same.

Here he is, this ancient teacher, troubled by the lips, chestnut hair and beautiful eyes--"proclaiming what?"--of a student "born at a time when I was teaching Dostoevsky and trying to cope with the realization that I was old." Because: "There is no end to being born and I, if allowed to continue to live, would sink again and again, dazzled by wonder and desire."

So much for ageless human susceptibility. There is a graver matter: the aging of the poet's ability to capture and transform the images that still swarm about him. "A multitude, an immense number of faces, shapes, fates of particular beings, and a sort of merging with them from inside, but at the same time my awareness that I will not find any more the means to offer a home in my poems to these guests of mine, for it is too late."

"Road-side Dog" is a valorous and beautiful work, in part because Milosz is unafraid to expose what is too late along with what quite marvelously is not. His inimitable vehicle is a vehicle in winter; and a number of his efforts--a partly fledged image, a thought that begins to scale the wall into unknown territory only to fall back--suggest a cold ignition whirring and failing to catch. Then, after three or four tries, comes a growl and exhilarating surge.

There are poems as haunting as any he has written. A haiku-like "Autumn," which offers the luxury of quoting it whole:

Cathedral of my enchantments,

autumn wind,

I grew old giving thanks.

There is the aching evocation to a woman known in youth and growing into a harsh, unidentified destiny. It begins:

Here we are on the other side.

Expeditions. Demesnes were

leased out. Steam rose from the

cinders.

It must be Helene over there,

dancing between the flames.

It concludes:

Who would have thought,

Helene, that our youth would

turn out this way?

The garden glowed in the sun

and summer lasted forever.

Later for a long time we learn

how to bear what is borne by

others.

And how to bless a moment if it

is without pain.

There is a brief cogitation about colors, only a few of which--yellow, green--possess their own names; others borrowing from natural objects: orange, copper, lilac, even red (derived, he tells us, from old Norse for rowan tree or perhaps rust). Beneath the etymological kvetch of an old poet seeking words to describe autumn there beats a shivering poetic under-pulse. It is a premonitory nunc dimittis, an appeal for release into unfleshed essence from the accidents of a world become 90 years too heavy.

There are witty, unexpectedly observed ironic pieces: one about a British knight en route to the Crusades, at sword's point with a German monk over who should carry the banner of St. George. "Nearly 600 years later, we learned from the list of recognized saints that the patron of knighthood, St. George fighting a dragon, never existed."

Another bit of irony carries forward Milosz's vision of history as cycles of illusory progress. He writes of the Spanish landed gentry in Northern California, early in the last century, attending each other's dances in elaborate costumes and with elaborate sociability. Their houses, though, were dirt-floored and bred fleas lavishly, thus adding inflamed energy to the dancers' gyrations.

"The civilization of politeness and of fleas, the pride of the 'native sons' of California," Milosz writes, "came to its end when their rule was supplanted by money, innocently at first announcing its might when the first English-speaking adventurers appeared, mostly deserters from whalers. In the middle of the century a new era began, of capital gone wild and of houses with bathrooms."

He doesn't need to spell out the loss. Milosz's life is not only almost as long as that of his troubled century but, as a Pole, he was twisted upon many of its contortions. His writing--for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1980--runs inveterately against the current, seeing as how he has barely avoided drowning in the major currents of his time and knows their dreadful courses.

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