Book Review: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Year of Publication: 2004

Number of Pages: 56

Publisher: Tupelo Press

Genre: Poetry

Note: this post contains an affiliate link.


The first thing to strike me about Ilya Kaminsky: that he could be so well-known after publishing only one book. Dancing in Odessa is Kaminsky’s first and, to date, only full-length poetry collection, with his second book Deaf Republic due out in 2019. But for several years now, it seemed like everyone who knew poetry knew this poet, raved about him, and believed that he was one of the best and most promising poets currently writing in America.

Having read that one poetry collection, I can now say that they were all right.

Kaminsky was born in Odessa in the late 1970s and immigrated to America with his family in 1993. Though Russian is his first language, he writes in English because, as he put it, “no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

And “insanely beautiful” is exactly what these poems are: ethereal and visceral, sometimes joyful, but sometimes dark, holding the things of heaven in one hand and the things of earth in the other.

The book is divided into four sections, with a poem proceeding the first and ending the last. That first poem, “Author’s Prayer,” is one of Kaminsky’s most famous, and for good reason. Here are the first two stanzas:

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body.

I must write the same poem over and over,
for a blank page is the white flag of their surrender.

This poem puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”: it’s that perfect piece of writing that lets you know who this poet is, where he’s coming from, and what his aims are for his art.

The first section of the book, “Dancing in Odessa,” focuses on poems of war, family, and homeland. These can be very bleak, disturbing poems, especially as the speaker describes the ways in which civilians are brutalized by an opposing force, and yet, there is a bit of light shining through all the darkness:

. . . The city trembled,
a ghost ship setting sail.
At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.
We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream. [“Dancing in Odessa”]

The second section explains itself: “Musica Humana: an Elegy for Osip Mandelstam.” Combining verse and prose, as well as the voices of a few different speakers, this section tells of the life of the great Russian poet and his struggle to survive under Stalin’s regime. Being only passingly familiar with Mandelstam’s poetry, I’m probably not this section’s ideal reader. Even so, the beauty of Kaminsky’s lyric isn’t lost on me, as he describes the plight of this “modern Orpheus” and his journey to becoming a poet.

The third section, “Natalia,” is a sequence of love poems. Like “Musica Humana,” it is written in both verse and prose and uses multiple speakers. I’ll be honest, I found it a little difficult at times to tell who was saying what to whom; nevertheless, these are gorgeous poems, full of passion and containing some of my favorite lines in the collection:

I want her to imagine our scandalous days in Odessa when we will open a small sweets shop–except for her lovers and my neighbors (who steal milk chocolate in handfuls) we will have no customers. In an empty store, dancing among stands with sugared walnuts, dried carnations, boxes upon boxes of mints and cherries dipped in honey, we will whisper to each other our truest stories. [“Natalia,” 1]

 

bless one woman’s brows, her lips
and their salt, bless the roundness
of her shoulder. Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life. [“Envoi”]

The fourth and last section is titled “Traveling Musicians” and consists of poems about and to four writers: Paul Celan, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, and Marina Tsvetaeva. This is another section where I think some more background knowledge might have been helpful (I’ve only read Celan, and him just barely), but I still enjoyed these poems too, in large part because of the author’s skill at rendering characters. I often feel that people in poetry seem very airy and insubstantial. I can’t imagine meeting these people in the flesh because I don’t really know what they are like: I only know how the poet feels about them. The poems in “Traveling Musicians,” however, feel like meeting actual people, instead of imaginary beings. In these poems, Kaminsky exhibits not only a capacity for praise (these are his heroes, after all), but also an insight into people themselves that allows him to put them down as living, breathing beings on the page. Not all poets can do that.

Finally, the book ends with a long poem called “Praise,” tying together all of the main threads running through this book: childhood, family, love, outsiderdom, Kaminsky’s own growth as a poet, and finally, peace and gratitude. After putting our emotions through the ringer, Kaminsky saw fit to give us this little respite, and send us off feeling emotionally and spiritually refreshed. Or at least, that’s how I felt reading these final lines:

I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation–

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.

But you asked
for a story with a happy ending. Your loneliness

played its lyre. I sat
on the floor, watching your lips.

Love, a one-legged bird
I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.
O the language of birds

with no word for complaint!–
the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness
drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscurer thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats,
over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

You can count me among those who wait eagerly to see what Kaminsky does next.

A Few Authors for Women in Translation Month

In an event created by blogger Meytal Radzinski, August has become “Women in Translation Month.” In the last several months especially, I’ve made a point of reading more translated literature—especially translated poetry—but even so, my knowledge of translated women authors is still very limited. So, here are a few translated women authors I’m hoping to read more from in the future. I can’t promise I’ll read all of them during the month of August; they’re just some names I want to keep in mind.

Christa Wolf
Translated from German

Two bloggers whom I greatly admire—Melissa from The Book Binder’s Daughter and Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed—both recommend Wolf highly. Her work consists primarily of novels, often inspired by mythology or history. Recently, Melissa reviewed Wolf’s novel No Place on Earth, based on the lives of the German Romantic poets Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode. It sounded fascinating (although tragic), and the excerpts Melissa quoted were incredibly beautiful. Wolf’s autobiographical works sound intriguing too, such as the novel City of Angels which more or less traces the shape of Wolf’s life as a writer and scholar in East Berlin shortly after the reunification of Germany.

Anna Swir
Translated from Polish

As I’ve been reading more about Czesław Miłosz, I’ve gotten to know a lot more about his Polish contemporaries, including the poet Anna Swir. Similar to Miłosz, she was an eyewitness to the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of 1943, and even volunteered as a nurse in a makeshift hospital for the resistance fighters. Her war experiences leave a definite mark on her poetry, however she is also known as a poet of the body, taking the female body as a subject long before such writing was considered acceptable in mainstream literature. I’ve read just about everything of hers I can find online, so I’m eager to get some of her collections before long, including the two translated by Miłosz, Talking to My Body and Happy as a Dog’s Tail.

Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian

By now, Ferrante has been talked up so much that I wasn’t sure I wanted to read her: I worried she couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Nevertheless, Fariba’s recent BookTube review of My Brilliant Friend piqued my interest. She rated this book very highly, and I trust her judgement, so I might give Ferrante a try anyway.

St. Julian of Norwich
Translated from Middle English

In addition to writing one of the most influential religious books in Western Christianity, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian is also noted as the first known woman writer of the Middle Ages. I’ve actually already starting reading Revelations in the Project Gutenberg edition translated by Grace Warrick, and I find it both fascinating and uplifting.

Simone Weil
Translated from French

Another Christian mystic, though her work is considerably more recent than Lady Julian’s. Weil was a French philosopher, social critic, and theologian who is counted as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. At the moment, her book Gravity and Grace looks especially interesting.

Which translated women authors would you recommend?


Image of Christa Wolf (left) by SpreeTom and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image of Simone Weil (center) is in the public domain (source).
Image of St. Julian’s statue by rocketjohn and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Best Books I’ve Read in the Last Year

This list started with a question asked on Twitter:

I chimed in with my response, but today, I thought I’d elaborate on the answers I gave. And because I found it too hard to pick only one book, I decided to name one from each of the three main genres.

Fiction: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (tr. by Constance Garnett)

I’m not even halfway through this one yet, but it is still the best fiction I’ve read in the past year. To be honest, I just picked this book up on a whim one day; I expected I would get bored a few chapters in and put it aside. Instead, I got carried away by the story and the characters, who, I might add, are some of the most interesting and most life-like characters I’ve read about in a long time. This book is beautiful in every possible way.

Nonfiction: Miłosz by Andrzej Franaszek (tr. by Michael and Alexandra Parker) and The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski

I couldn’t choose between these two excellent biographies, so I chose them both. The Fellowship is unique in that it attempts to mesh the biographies of four different people together into one story and more than succeeds, whereas Miłosz, though only taking a single human life as its subject, is no less ambitious for the depth into which it penetrates Miłosz’s work and thought. Besides, both books are about writers I love, so they’re bound to rank highly with me.

Poetry: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Poetry Twitter was very excited a few weeks ago to learn that Kaminsky’s second book, Deaf Republic, finally has a publisher. That reminded me that I hadn’t read Kaminsky’s first book yet, though I had heard wonderful things about it. As I’ve since found out, Dancing in Odessa is well-worth the praise it receives from nearly every corner of the poetry world. I’m going to attempt a review of it before long, so for now I’ll only say that this book is stunning and it won me over in unexpected ways.

That’s all for now, what about you? What’s the best book (or books) you’ve read in the last year? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — July 2017

Image by Sticker Mule.
  • This month, Philip Yancey’s Washington Post op-ed on “the death of reading” caused a lot of buzz. You can read that here.
  • It also inspired some interesting responses, including this one by Cynthia Haven tying Yancey’s ideas into Czesław Miłosz’s idea that we are living in a time of “the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths.”

A Few Words about First Lines: Poetry Edition

As promised, here’s the companion to my post on opening lines, this time turning the focus to poetry.

John Donne, “The Canonization”

For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love,

Come on, who (besides Samuel Johnson) doesn’t love a beginning like that? It’s short and snappy, it’s to-the-point, and it brings that immediacy that is Donne’s signature. While some will fault Donne for his seeming lack of restraint, for the way his words and emotions seem to tumble out one on top of the other in his poems, some of us consider that less of a weakness and more of an asset. If Donne’s poetry is breathless and excited, it’s because he is breathless and excited and wants to impart a sense of that to his readers. It’s not a style that’s going to suit all tastes, but it does suit my taste.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding

A lot of poets talk about marrying sound to sense in their poetry, but no poet does it better than Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here, all of these repeated words, sounds, and syllables make you rush along with the poem, giving you that sense of uplift and ecstasy that Hopkins is trying to express. Where Donne turned his excitement into long strings of words and complex conceits, Hopkins achieved a similar effect, but better, from repeated sounds and careful attention to rhythm.

W. B. Yeats, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,

There: without knowing a thing about Aengus (at least, I didn’t when I first read this), you’re instantly transported far and away. Maybe something about the idea of having a fire in one’s head (but won’t that burn you horribly?) lends it the sort of “diverting newness” that makes poetry worth reading in the first place: it arrests you for a moment, takes you out of your present place and circumstances, and encourages you to investigate something outside of them.

Paul Celan, “Corona” (tr. by Vivian Smith)

Out of my hand autumn eats its leaf: we are friends.

Similar to the Yeats poem, this line has a kind of strangeness about it that I find intriguing. If you go on to read the rest of the poem, you’ll see how it has a sort of triumphant tone to it, of the lover who feels he can conquer the world and everything in it on the strength of his love. That tone comes out in this line too, I think, with the speaker seeming already to have claimed part of the world as his own, so that it must eat out of his hand.

So, there’s another list for you. Do tell me about your favorite opening lines in poetry in the comments section.

A Few Words about First Lines

I’m still reading Anna Karenina, which, as you may know, contains one of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

That got me thinking about other opening lines that I especially like, and before long, I had a list. For now, we’ll focus only on works of fiction, and maybe first lines of poetry will be its own post.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

BERNARDO: “Who’s there?”

For Shakespeare especially, opening lines were extremely important. Because Elizabethan theater typically lacked backdrops, creative lighting, and costuming, it was all up to the actors and the playwright to establish the atmosphere of the play. In this case, we begin with a brief exchange between Bernardo and Francisco, two guards at Elsinore, who, meeting each other in the dead of night, aren’t certain of who the other person is. From the very beginning of the play, there’s a sense of unease, suspicion, and wariness that carries on throughout.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

For a story that’s as intense and emotionally-charged as Jane Eyre, I always thought this was a really prosaic way to begin. But like the first lines of Hamlet, this helps set the tone for us: this is the only world that young Jane knew, one that was dark, dreary, and confining. One that, at every turn, tries to stifle her self-determination.

Charles Williams, War in Heaven

The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, as there was no one in the room except the corpse.

Although Williams can sometimes seem labyrinthine and exclusionary, he does know how to pique a reader’s interest if he wants to, in this case, mixing a shocking crime with a kind of droll, black humor.

C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

I’ll confess right now that I haven’t read the whole Narnia series, and that I wasn’t a terribly big fan of the books that I did read. Still, I can’t forget this line, if only because it tells you everything you need to know about the insufferable Eustace Scrubb in the least space possible.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

It was a pleasure to burn.

Here’s another short and sweet line that cuts to the heart of who this book’s protagonist is, or at least, who he is at the beginning of the story. For Guy Montag, burning books is not just a job or a duty that he performs for the good of his fellow citizens, it’s recreation. It’s fun. This gets to the root not just of Guy’s problems but of the problems of the entire society he lives in: not only have their mind been corrupted, but their hearts have as well. They get joy from the wrong things, they see value in what is senseless and are blind to it where it truly exists.

That’s all for now. How about you? What are some of your favorite first lines from literature? Let me know in the comments!

Why Macbeth‘s Birnam Wood Prophecy Actually Works

In case I hadn’t mentioned it here before, I love Macbeth. Passionately. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play (other than Hamlet) and its main character is one of my favorite protagonists in all of literature.

In spite of that, I can understand why a lot of people dislike it: it’s pretty dark and violent, even for Shakespeare, and the ending can seem a little odd. I’ll concede that the resolution to the “none of woman born” prophecy was a bit of a cop-out; however, I’m not so sure I can say the same about the next most infamous plot point in Macbeth, the fulfillment of the Birnam Wood prophecy.

In case your memory needs refreshing, in Act 4, Scene 1, a spirit conjured by the Weird Sisters tells Macbeth that he can never be defeated until Birnam Wood, the forest surrounding Macbeth’s castle, comes against him. Naturally, Macbeth interprets this to mean that the trees themselves will have to move of their own volition before he can be overthrown: “That will never be. / Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?” So you can imagine Macbeth’s surprise in Act 5, Scene 5 when his castle is attacked not by an army of walking trees but by an army of men camouflaging themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood.

This, understandably, can be rather disappointing to some. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, was so disgusted with Shakespeare’s handling of the Birnam Wood prophecy that he corrected the mistake in his own Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating the human-like tree creatures we now know as ents. But, while guys dressed like trees might not have the same element of surprise and wonder as walking trees, I do think that, in the context of Macbeth, such an inauspicious fulfillment to the prophecy works.

In the dramatic conventions of Shakespeare’s day, a tragedy wasn’t a tragedy at all if it didn’t concern itself foremost with the hero’s downward spiral into darkness. We can see how this plays out gradually in Macbeth: Act 1 reveals the murderous ambition he harbors, Act 2 sees him killing his king, Act 3 has him ordering the murder of his best friend, and in Act 4, he sends soldiers to slaughter Macduff’s defenseless wife and children. By Act 5, he has reached the nadir of his corruption. This reign of terror can only end with his death. Macbeth, however–still under the influence of the witches, but also drunk on his own pride–believes that he is invincible, that he is so great that nothing of this world can harm him. It would take nothing short of a brand new natural phenomenon to take him down.

The forest closes in on our Macbeth character in Throne of Blood (1957).

Contrast the mighty, exalted image Macbeth has of himself with the paltry spectacle of his enemies. Different directors might stage this scene in different ways: for instance, in his 1957 retelling of the Macbeth story Throne of Blood, director Akira Kurosawa has his actors moving whole tree trunks while shrouded in fog, making the ambush look much spookier than it sounds on the page. Still, it cannot be denied that these are men pretending to be trees, and not the awe-inspiring walking trees that Macbeth anticipated. These people are false, similar to how Macbeth is a false king, trying to wield a power that cannot truly be his. When faced with these warriors and this fulfillment to the prophecy in which he had placed so much trust, Macbeth’s delusions of grandeur quickly fall to pieces. He is forced to confront the fact that he too is only a man, still subject to the same universal laws and the same morality as other men, instead of the all-powerful, almost God-like creature he believed himself to be.

That’s it for me. What do you think? Do I make a good point? Am I overreaching to try to save my favorite play from the ridicule it justly deserves? Let me know in the comments.

First Impressions: Anna Karenina

I’ve had an unread copy of Anna Karenina in my bedroom for about two years now. Last week, I decided to start reading it, bringing to it a hazy conception of the plot and a slight sense of inadequacy stemming from my chronic neglect of Russian novels. At this point, I’ve just started to read Part 2 (of 8), and so far, I am massively enjoying this book.

The main plot of the novel, of course, centers on Anna, an upper-class woman in a loveless marriage, and her disastrous affair with a dashing young army officer, Count Vronsky. In addition, there are several subplots starring the friends and family of both Anna and Vronsky. One of the first characters we meet, for instance, is Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, whose wandering eye threatens to destroy his own family. There’s also Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, an idealistic farmer who falls madly in love with a girl named Kitty. Poor Kitty was in love with Vronsky before he met Anna, and is left all alone after Levin, stung by her rejection, goes back to the countryside.

A few preliminary thoughts:

  1. For whatever reason, I went into this book expecting Anna to be a mostly unlikeable character. I may have been confusing her with the heroine of Madame Bovary, who, by all accounts, is very spoiled and selfish. So I was surprised when I found myself really liking Anna. Though the last few chapters of Part 1 see her starting to slip, she has, for the most part, been perfectly kind and decent to everyone she meets. Her affection for her young son Seryozha, and for children in general, endears her to me as well. She seems like a sweet person now, so I’m interested to see how my perception of her changes as the story progresses.
  2. I also might be interested to compare Anna’s situation with that of her brother: both are unfaithful to their spouses, but where Anna is publicly shamed and ostracized, Oblonsky, so far, has not suffered at all for his indiscretions. It might also be interesting to compare how Anna and Vronsky are each treated when their affair comes to light.
  3. I know that Anna’s story is going to end unhappily, but I dearly hope that Levin and Kitty’s doesn’t.
  4. Despite the Slavic languages professor who said that no English translation of Anna Karenina is “actively bad,” I still have some misgivings about this one. When I bought it, I didn’t pay much attention to the translator, Constance Garnett. I’ve since learned that, despite her being loved by many an English-reader, Mrs. Garnett is often reviled by native Russian speakers, particularly for her translations of Tolstoy. (Vladimir Nabokov called her translation of Anna “a complete disaster.” So there’s that.) Of course, not knowing Russian, I can’t judge for myself whether this is a good translation or not. Just the same, I’m already planning future rereadings of this book, just to see if I get anything from the other translators that I didn’t get from this one.

Anyway, those are just some tentative thoughts on the novel, pending a full review at some undetermined date in the future. Meanwhile, have any of you read Anna Karenina? What did you think? What translation did you read? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — June 2017

Image by Melissa Askew.
  • Rain Taxi magazine has one of the last interviews Derek Walcott gave before he died. He and interviewer Michael Swingen talked about Hart Crane for most of it, so there’s some fascinating analysis there.
  • This month, there was a ton of articles about Gwendolyn Brooks, for the occasion of her 100th birthday (I wrote one too!), but one of my favorites was this post from the Poetry Foundation about the archive of Brooks’s papers and photographs at the University of Illinois, with pictures included.
  • “That is what we do as writers. We are constantly fighting our forefathers, the writers who have gone before us, unwriting what they’ve written and trying to do better than they have done”: Image Journal just debuted their new podcast. The first episode features author Richard Rodriguez and it’s terrific.
  • And lastly, Dana Gioia spoke at the Sierra Poetry Festival last month, where he delivered a wonderful speech in defense of the arts and followed it up with a poetry reading. (Only thing is the video cuts out just as he’s starting to read THE BEST POEM IN THE SET.) (HT: Cynthia Haven)

“Mary Magdalen and I” by Czesław Miłosz

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with Czesław Miłosz’s poetry. One poem in particular that I keep returning to is “Mary Magdalen and I,” translated by Miłosz and Robert Hass:

The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen
Chased from her by the Teacher with his prayer
Hover in the air in a bat-like flight,
While she, with one leg folded in,
Another bent at the knee, sits staring hard
At her toe and the thong of her sandal
As if she had just noticed such an odd thing.
Her chestnut-brown hair curls in rings
And covers her back, strong, almost virile,
Resting on her shoulder, on a dark blue dress
Under which her nakedness phosphoresces.
The face is heavyish, the neck harboring
A voice that is low, husky, as if hoarse.
But she will say nothing. Forever between
The element of flesh and the element
Of hope, she stays still. At the canvas’s corner
The name of a painter who desired her.

This isn’t an actual painting Miłosz is describing: he mentioned once at a poetry reading that he “invented” the painting and therefore, he said, the painter in the last line is him.

And like a master painter, Miłosz attempts to tell us as much of this woman’s story as he can solely through depictions of physical things. Mary’s pose, for instance—head down and “staring hard / At her toe and the thong of her sandal”—suggests a few things to me. Since Jesus could possibly be standing next to her (assuming her exorcism was recent), it could be a show of reverence for Him, denoting Mary’s piety. The gesture of staring at her own foot and shoe “As if she had just noticed such an odd thing,” for me, also brings to mind the image of a very young child who is mesmerized by commonplace objects. It makes me think of someone who is small and vulnerable and innocent, all of which describes Mary in this instance.

Getting to Mary’s physical features, they too help tell the story that’s been told about her for centuries: her hair, for instance, “curls in rings” because of a Talmudic passage in which the word “Magdalen” is sometimes translated to mean “curling women’s hair”; since artificially curled hair has for so long been associated with prostitutes, this little detail helps reinforce the story that Mary Magdalen was a reformed prostitute. (There’s actually no Scriptural basis for that, but anyhow ….) Her hair rests “on a dark blue dress,” blue being associated with heaven and often used in religious art to clothe saints. And yet even with the blue dress, we can still see how “her nakedness phosphoresces.” Looking at paintings of Mary Magdalen from about the early Renaissance onward, you’ll notice that many of them depict Mary partly undressed, sometimes with her whole torso uncovered. I’m no art historian, but I think I can safely say that these paintings depict Mary in a sort of transitioning state between her old life (that of the sinner and prostitute) and her new life as one of Christ’s disciples.

Miłosz himself said he didn’t have an actual painting in mind when he wrote this poem, but it still reminds me of “Mary Magdalene in a Landscape” by Annibale Carracci.

And, as far as I can tell, that’s partly what the poem is about: being caught in between heaven and earth, “the element of flesh and the element / Of hope.” One thing I’ve always loved about Miłosz is how honest he is about the realities of living in a fallen world. While his poetry often glories in the things of the earth, at the same time, he recognizes these things to be corrupted, lesser versions of what they could be. He can be honest about the sin, death, and pain that plague the world, without giving up his duty to praise the world. I think this poem portrays that sort of duality in an especially elegant way, contrasting the humble, innocent, child-like Mary Magdalen with her surroundings, in which demons “Hover in the air in a bat-like flight.”

However, as we come to the end of the poem, we see that Mary is no longer front and center, but rather, the artist painting her is. Not only are we made aware of the painter’s presence, but we are also told that he is in some way aroused by this image of Mary Magdalen. I wondered about these last lines at first, wondered why it was even necessary to mention the painter, let alone that he “desired her.” Now, I think these lines do a couple of things.

First, they bring the poem full circle. The poem begins with “The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen” and ends with “The name of a painter who desired her.” Each time, we are confronted with a state of spiritual imperfection, which brings to my mind what seems to be the recurrent nature of sin. I hope I don’t sound too bleak: if Christ has freed you from sin, you are free indeed, but that doesn’t mean that the process of being made holier won’t be long and laborious. Salvation is instant; sanctification is not. That won’t be completed until we are actually with Christ in heaven. For many Christians (and Miłosz apparently was one of them), this is a painful reality: the idea that, even as we strive to be the best we can, we still fall short and do what we, justly, hate. (See Romans 7.) But, even while we’re on earth, there’s always hope—more on that in a minute.

The second reason why these lines are important is because they point to the relative unimportance of the artist in relation to the work he creates. As I mentioned earlier, the painting in this poem says something very meaningful about the spiritual realities of the world. However, that last line reveals that the artist’s primary thought is of “desire” for this woman—or for women in general—and not the spiritual or historical weight that Mary’s story carries. Nevertheless, good things are still accomplished through this man and his work, in spite of his less-than-noble ambitions.

For me, that speaks to a sort of Providential action in life, whereby the things we do, even when we do them imperfectly or for the wrong reasons, can still be used to better our fellow men, and even to glorify God. That’s why we shouldn’t despair, even as we look on our own sinfulness and the fallenness of the rest of the world. Of course we should deplore any and all sin and avoid it whenever possible, but recognizing sin for what it is doesn’t have to lead us to despair. Instead, it gives us greater opportunities for rejoicing: it lets us better appreciate the providence of God when we realize that everything works together for Him, even our own imperfections.

That’s all for now. Do let me know in the comments if I’ve completely misinterpreted this poem and what you take away from it.

Book Review: Miłosz by Andrzej Franaszek

Translators: Michael and Aleksandra Parker

Original Language: Polish

Year of Publication: 2017

Number of Pages: 526

Publisher: Belknap Harvard

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography

Find it on The Book Depository (disclosure: I’m an affiliate).


One of the side effects of my reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones was a desire to read more by and about Czesław Miłosz. Heaney spoke glowingly of Miłosz in those interviews, calling him a genius and saying that, from the first time he read him, “I was in thrall,” an experience I can certainly relate to. Though I had known about Miłosz and his poetry for I can’t remember how long, I didn’t know very much about the man himself or even about the historical background against which some of his poems are set. So it was a lucky coincidence that, just as I was finishing Stepping Stones, I learned about this book, the first full-length biography of Miłosz in English.

First full-length biography, but not the full length of this biography: translators Michael and Aleksandra Parker have cut down Andrzej Franaszek’s original 1,000-page tome to just over 500 pages. What remains flows together pretty seamlessly, though there were a few spots where it seemed like something should have gone before. (From a section dealing with the infancy of Miłosz’s oldest son Antoni: “[Mrs. Miłosz], instead of writing film reviews, spent endless hours feeding him, changing him, and washing nappies.” Except there was no mention of her writing film reviews previously.)

However, a few editorial oversights are not nearly enough to detract from Franaszek’s superb work: this book was over ten years in the making and its beautiful prose, the depth of its research, and its attention to detail prove that the time was well-spent. Best of all, it relies heavily on original sources, including Miłosz’s poetry, essays, fiction, and even some unpublished work.

Of course, none of this would matter if the subject of the biography was not a person worth reading about. So, why read about Miłosz? Much has been written recently about the prescience of his nonfiction—in particular his 1953 study of Marxist totalitarianism The Captive Mind—and how it can help us understand and respond to politically tumultuous times. But, while I have no wish whatever to discount the worth of Miłosz’s political writing, I think focusing solely on his role as a political commentator will only give you part of the picture. As far as I’m concerned, what made Czesław Miłosz great was not only his political acuity (though he certainly had that too), but also his wisdom, his spiritual awareness, and his conviction. The world will always need astute intellectuals to help us make sense of political realities, but just as much or more, it needs people to help us make sense of historical, social, and metaphysical realities. It needs people who can not only see the truth, but who are also willing to speak up for it no matter what. This is what Miłosz, both in his life and work, was striving toward. This is what makes Miłosz an essential author in a time when things like truth, goodness, and beauty are quickly slipping away from us. And that’s why I recommend anything that will help you understand this author and his work better.

“kitchenette building” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Yes, I’m very late, and this time, I missed a special occasion: last Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks. I had been taught Brooks’s poetry since elementary school, but it’s only just recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate her and her work. One of my favorites from her is 1945’s “kitchenette building”:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

There are a lot of things poetry is expected to do. At one time, the primary goal of most poets was to remind people of their history and heritage, to ensure that these things were not forgotten. Today, many people consider poetry to be a voice for the voiceless, speaking out against the injustices in a society. At all times, though poets have been there to speak truth to certain fundamental human experiences, experiences that we all have regardless of our place in time or space. What I love about Gwendolyn Brooks is how she’s able to do all three at once.

For instance, in 1945, this poem would have borne witness to the deprivations suffered by poor blacks at the hands of their landlords in city centers such as Chicago, where Brooks spent most of her life. It gives us not only the sensory details of the place—the sights and smells of it—but also an idea of what it felt like to live in one of these overcrowded tenement buildings, of how it feels to be trapped in one.

And how does she create that feeling of entrapment? Start with the shape of the poem: there are two stanzas dedicated to life in the kitchenette building itself and two dedicated to the speaker’s “dream.” Those dream stanzas, though, are contained within a sort of pen made up by the other two. These two things–tenement life and the dream of better things–are equally a part of the speaker’s reality, but one, sadly, is boxed in by the other. The poem loops back around to where it began, leaving us missing the beauty that went in between.

Anyway, that’s those are my thoughts on it. Do let me know in the comments what your favorite Gwendolyn Brooks poems are.