A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 7 June 2008


Ever since Old Girl Of The North Country linked to the poem Encounter by Czeslaw Milosz a few weeks ago, I've been trying to trace a poem of his called Eyes which impressed me so much when I first read it. It wasn't in New and Collected Poems 1931-2001. Finally and only yesterday I tracked it down in an old file of newspaper cuttings and reviews. I'd cut it out from a newspaper and filed it so randomly it had proved almost impossible to locate. An admission I shouldn't be making as an ex-librarian. Anyway, I read it through and liked it as much as I did when I first read it. Here it is.


My most honourable eyes, you are not in the best of shape.
I receive from you an image less than sharp.
And if a colour, then it's dimmed.
And you were a pack of royal greyhounds once,
With whom I would set out in the early mornings.
My wondrously quick eyes, you saw many things,
Lands and cities, islands and oceans.
Together we greeted immense sunrises
When the fresh air set us running on trails
Where the dew had just begun to dry.
Now what you have seen is hidden inside me
And changed into memories and dreams.
I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds of the world
And I notice in myself a distaste
For the monkeyish dress, the screams and drumbeats.
What a relief. To be alone with my meditation
On the basic similarity in humans
And their tiny grain of dissimilarity.
Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
That grows large and takes me in.

It's from the posthumous collection Second Space: New Poems and translated most readably as usual by Robert Hass. It must have been written when Milosz's eyesight was failing just before his death in 2004 at the age of 93. I find moving the dignified way in which Milosz deals with his approaching blindness. This poem has some personal resonances for me: my own father turns 90 this month; our next door neighbour is a remarkable lady of 97 whose own eyesight is now rapidly failing; and, in a much more minor way, a few years ago, after I'd experienced a flashing light in my right eye, some of the jelly-like vitreous humour detached itself from the retina. Since then I've had to put up with a flotilla of irritating floaters permanently swimming round the eyeball. I asked the opthalmologist if they would dissolve and disappear. She blithely replied they probably wouldn't - and it was likely I'd get more of them. Ah, the remorseless ageing process! Hardly a serious medical trauma compared with most eye problems I know - but annoying nonetheless. The brain is supposed to get used to them and eventually not "see" them, but I haven't managed to trick mine into doing that yet.


Lucja Grabowska said...

very glad to see, among so many others, the name of Czeslaw Milosz, one of the greatest and most appraised Polish writers. What a difference in the intensity of emotions in reading the poem in the original (my own native) language and translation! Translation is an interpretative act, moreover, all languages are different... in best case translation can render literal meaning of the text, but, especially in poetry, there is much more than just literal meaning...the feeling/ emotion of the author so often enclosed in the figurative language like metaphors / similes, is what makes the text unique, fresh and alive and those most important things, fail to be expressed through another language...
still, a wonderful experience to compare those texts in that way and feel these differences...

The Solitary Walker said...

I think Milosz is a very fine poet indeed - world class. Though, of course, I've only the Robert Hass translations to go on... However, they are well thought of, and Milosz and Hass had a mutually respectful relationship. Often the further the translation deviates from the literal meaning, the nearer it may approach the spirit of the original. Though, of course it's an impossible task, as you say. But it's all we have - unless we are fairly fluent in the particular language! I think the best translations can go much further than simply render the literal meaning and that's all, however; the best translations can also use trope and metaphor to capture something of the original metaphor, perhaps using quite different metaphorical methods...

Thanks for your interesting comment, Lucja.