Milosz preserves the memories of childhood in essay collection

May 10, 1992|By Zofia Smardz

BEGINNING WITH MY STREETS.

Czeslaw Milosz.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

288 pages. $30. In the preface to this collection of reminiscences and essays, Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz reflects on the choice that confronted him when he found himself an immigrant in America: "Either to leave behind what existed only in my memory and to find in what surrounded me material for my reflection or, without renouncing the present, to try to bring back the streets, landscapes, and people from my past." He chose the latter, and his work, both poetry and prose, resonates with the profound echoes of a distant time and a sensibility peculiar to his exotic origins.

These same echoes sound in "Beginning With My Streets," starting with the title essay, which is a descriptive memoir of Wilno, a provincial city in prewar Poland where Mr. Milosz was born in 1911 and educated.

The city is known today as Vilnius, the capital of independent Lithuania. Its recent position across the front pages lends currency to the poet's meanderings up and down the streets of his childhood, streets of a city that only a few years ago, and certainly when this essay was written in 1967, would have seemed shrouded in deepest obscurity to most American readers.

Of course, Mr. Milosz makes no claim to giving us the Vilnius of the present day. The city he evokes is Wilno, where Poles and Polish governed, where he attended university and joined student clubs, visited friends and relatives, watched ferries and log rafts ply the Wilia River along with the occasional "naked lad in a kayak . . . unaware of the devilish traps History had already set for him."

History in Wilno/Vilnius has never been simple, and Mr. Milosz sets out the imbroglios of the region both in the title essay and in a "dialogue" with Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. His Vilnius was an entirely different city, rebuilt in Soviet bloc style after the war, stripped of its once-large and vital Jewish population, occupied and governed by Russians instead of Poles.

The complexities and difficulties of East European politics and history are an issue of which Mr. Milosz is, in fact, ever conscious. None of these essays, even those apparently of a purely literary or philosophical nature, fails to touch at least in passingon the question of what was until so recently "the other Europe," and his own role as a poet hailing from that long-enslaved territory.

"There are moments when it seems to me that I decipher the meaning of afflictions which befell the nations of 'the other Europe,' " he states in his Nobel lecture, included here, "and that meaning is to make them the bearers of memory -- at the time and Europe, without an adjective, and America possess it less and less with every generation."

We see how Mr. Milosz the poet preserves memory in an essay such as "Elegy for N.N.," in which he analyzes his own melancholy poem of that name, written upon learning of the death of a former lover from whom he had not heard for many decades. Similar in their efforts to capture the memory of a deceased contemporary are his portraits of Paris-based Polish emigre publishers Zygmunt Hertz and Father Jozef Sadzik.

Mr. Milosz, as it happens, has a wealth of amazing memories, having known in his time such Polish literary luminaries as Witold Gombrowicz, Stanislaw Vincenz and poet Aleksander Wat, each whom is the subject of an essay in this book. But memory is not his sole preoccupation for, as he notes in 1980 in his Nobel lecture, the poet's "true vocation" is "to contemplate Being." This he does in a series of philosophical essays analyzing consciousness, time, the relationship between reality and language, and the evolution of creativity.

Mr. Milosz has always been aware of the irony in his position as a successful literary figure in the West who practices the more obscure of the literary forms (i.e., poetry) in an obscure tongue (most of his work is translated from Polish). Yet his work succeeds simply because he is never afraid to think deeply about life -- in short, to contemplate Being and reinforce memory. It's a task he performs most dutifully in "Beginning With My Streets."

Ms. Smardz is a writer who lives in Washington.

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