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Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Book in the Ruins (Czeslaw Milosz)

Milosz' poem, A Book in the Ruins, was suggested by Humble Servant (who also provided the text) in the comments to this post. The audio can be found at the Internet Archive; text is below.

update: The URL of the file has changed because I replaced it with an amplified version. I've fixed the above link to direct people to the new version.

A Book in the Ruins

A dark building. Crossed boards, nailed up, create
A barrier at the entrance, or a gate
When you go in. Here, in the gutted foyer,
The ivy snaking down the walls is wire
Dangling. And, over there, the twisted metal
Columns rising from the undergrowth of rubble
Are tattered tree trunks. This could be the brick
Of the library, you don't know yet, or the sick
Grove of dry white aspen where, stalking birds,
You met a Lithuanian dusk stirred
From its silence only by the wails of hawks.
Now walk carefully. You see whole blocks
Of ceiling caved in by a recent blast.
And above, through jagged tiers of plaster,
A patch of blue. Pages of books lying
Scattered at your feet are like fern-leaves hiding
A moldy skeleton, or else fossils
Whitened by the secrets of Jurassic shells.
A remnant life so ancient and unknown
Compels a scientist, tilting a stone
Into the light, to wonder. He can't know
Whether it is some dead epoch's shadow
Or a living form. He looks again
At chalk spirals eroded by the rain,
The rust of tears. Thus, in a book picked up
From the ruins, you see a world erupt
And glitter with its distant sleepy past,
Green times of creatures tumbled to the vast
Abyss and backward: the brows of women,
An earring fixed with trembling hand, pearl button
On a glove, candelabra in the mirror.
The lanterns have been lit. A first shiver
Passes over the instruments. The quadrille
Begins to curl, subdued by the rustle
Of big trees swaying in the formal park.
She slips outside, her shawl floating in the dark,
And meets him in a bower overgrown
With vines, They sit close on a bench of stone
And watch the lanterns glowing in the jasmine.
Or here, this stanza: you hear a goose pen
Creak, the butterfly of an oil lamp
Flutters slowly over scrolls and parchment,
A crucifix, bronze busts. The lines complain
In plangent rhythms, that desire is vain.
Here a city rises. In the market square
Signboards clang, a stagecoach rumbles in to scare
A flock of pigeons up. Under the town clock,
In the tavern, a hand pauses in the stock
Gesture of arrest — meanwhile workers walk
Home from the textile mill, townsfolk talk
On the steps—and the hand moves now to evoke
The fire of justice, a world gone up in smoke,
The voice quavering with the revenge of ages.
So the world seems to drift from these pages
Like the mist clearing on a field at dawn.
Only when two times, two forms are drawn
Together and their legibility
Disturbed, do you see that immortality
Is not very different from the present
And is for its sake. You pick a fragment
Of grenade which pierced the body of a song
On Daphnis and Chloe. And you long,
Ruefully, to have a talk with her,
As if it were what life prepared you for.
—How is it, Chloe, that your pretty skirt
Is torn so badly by the winds that hurt
Real people, you who, in eternity, sing
The hours, sun in your hair appearing
And disappearing? How is it that your breasts
Are pierced by shrapnel, and the oak groves burn,
While you, charmed, not caring at all, turn
To run through forests of machinery and concrete
And haunt us with the echoes of your feet',
If there is such an eternity, lush
Though short-lived, that's enough. But how ... hush!
We were predestined to live when the scene
Grows dim and the outline of a Greek ruin
Blackens the sky. It is noon, and wandering
Through a dark building, you see workers sitting
Down to a fire a narrow ray of sunlight
Kindles on the floor. They have dragged out
Heavy books and made a table of them
And begun to cut their bread. In good time
A tank will clatter past, a streetcar chime.

Czeslaw Milosz, Warsaw, 1941

(This is the first audio file I've actually recorded on my computer, instead of having to record by telephone. The reading isn't perfect, but the quality is much better than audioblogger stuff I have been doing. For software, I used Audacity, an open source program. For hardware, a Shure SM57 microphone and the Behringer TUBE ULTRAGAIN MIC200 pre-amp. Many thanks to John Mullins, Pat Deighan, and Dan Wagner for the loan of the hardware.)


Brenda Schmidt said...

John, that's great! Amazing, the difference in quality. It's so clear.

Humble Servant said...

Thank you very much for reading it.

The quality is much better, but the volume doesn't go as high--I had the volume all the way up on my laptop (no separate speakers) and it wasn't really loud enough--I only have to go to about 2/3 volume on the other audioposts.

What I like about this poem (besides the rhymes which really sing--from a translation, yet), is the discussion about art and "real people." In the face of all the dead, how can we dare abstract their experiences into poems or songs? Nothing can be adequate to their dignity, one can't be respectful enough. How is it that it is okay to go on making poems and things, with their artificial structures and their images and their precious allusions, when real people are dead and dying? That's the discussion (in a poem with structure and rhyme and those classical allusions) that I like.

MackJohnny said...

Thanks, Brenda. I'm pretty happy with it. I'm going to record a few more things this week. I've got the gear until Thursday. I've already done the Housman parody from a previous post's comments, and The Shooting of Dan McGrew; just have to get around to uploading them. And I have a few I plan to get to. But I think I'll ask for a few more requests today.

MackJohnny said...

You're welcome, humble servant. Sorry about the volume. I think I've fixed that for later recordings, but I don't think I can fix A Book in the Ruins. It was the first one I tried, and I was ironing out kinks. I may have to re-record it.

Milosz. Mandelshtam. In their poetry, they both managed to leave the dead and dying their dignity without sacrificing their art. Perhaps it is their precision of approach and detail? Perhaps treating a poem as a real and fragile and precious thing in its making allows the poem to contain what is real and fragile and precious? Perhaps this is true of all art?

Humble Servant said...

Okay--more thoughts:

1. Since this poem, I think, is about, "How the hell can I justify doing poetry in Warsaw Nazi hell?" I think it only fair to properly indict Milosz the man (we've groped before on the relavance of the assholishness of the makers of good art). From what I've read, he did not participate in the uprising and managed to survive. After the war, he served the Communists as a diplomat (not just low-level flunky), but then defected--his poems eventually enscribed on the momument to the victims of the Gdansk uprising that eventually brough about the fall of Communism. Perhaps the poem is a bit better for that burden of guilt that an aware author with such a background ought to feel about those real people he didn't (or couldn't) help.

2. What is it with the references to Lithuania? Both Milosz and Nabokov refer to Lithuania as some kind of promised land or fabled country. I've googled to see what literary references to Lithuania are supposed to evoke, but I can't find any discussion. Any guesses?

Zach said...

Humble Servant, it may be that Lithuania was the "bread basket" of Russia. Just a guess.

Zach said...

Sorry, scrap that last comment. Brain fart. Ukraine's the bread basket, dummy.

MackJohnny said...

I know nothink! But I'll see what I can find out.

Humble Servant said...

Milosz was born in Lithuania and I would leave it at nostalgia for his youth if I hadn't seen it also in Nabokov. One Nabokov example (from Ada--referring to a reference to the word "electricity" which is no longer used in polite company): "You cannot. It is banned even in Lithuanian and Latin." (It is probably a compliment to group Lithuanian with Latin given the context.)