Second Space
Czeslaw Milosz
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Buy *Second Space: New Poems* online

Second Space: New Poems

Czeslaw Milosz
112 pages
September 2005
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars
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Czeslaw Milosz won the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature and was cited for giving voice to “man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.” Milosz published his first poems in 1930 and wrote nearly until the day he died in 2004, at the age of 93. Born in Lithuania and raised in Russia and Poland, he came to the U.S. in 1960, when he accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley. His work was banned in Poland for many decades but nevertheless reached Polish readers through the underground press (samizdat, in Russian). After winning the Nobel, though, he was able to return to Lithuania and Poland; he lived in Cracow for the rest of his life.

His most famous book is probably The Captive Mind (1953), widely studied in the U.S. for its portrayal of totalitarianism and life behind the Iron Curtain. In this prose work, Milosz argues that the most effective dissent comes from those with the weakest stomachs: the mind can rationalize a great deal, but the stomach can only take so much. His most widely anthologized poem is “Campo dei Fiori” in which he responds to the Warsaw ghetto, which he saw in 1943.

Milosz was a devout Roman Catholic, and his poems have always reflected a deep faith in the human ability to transcend evil and that truth is revealed to those who genuinely search for it. Second Space is indeed such a pilgrimage, one with a cutting edge. In the title poem, Milosz urges the reader to “approach… the hanging gardens of paradise” and to observe “how spacious the heavenly halls are”:

A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers that there is an up.
And there is a down.
Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?
“Let us implore,” he begs us, “that” those spaces “be returned to us….”
The wonder of Milosz’s faith is also its breadth: never narrow or “fundamental” (though faith was for him fundamental) or literalist, he had room for all of us—polytheists, secularists, for all the colors that stain the coat of humanity. No wonder: “Treat with understanding person of weak faith,” he says, “Myself included.” He feels “warmth among people at prayer. / Since they believe, they help me to believe / in their existence, these incomprehensible beings” who worship before a “beautiful Lady” of “unsayble” “loveliness”:
Naturally, I am a skeptic. Yet I sing with them,
thus overcoming the contradiction
between my private religion and the religion of the rite.
As abstract and contradictory as the idea of a skeptical person of faith is, there is, in Milosz’s graceful lines (translated into English by the poet with the assistance of the incomparable Robert Hass) a cogent and compelling sense of what that contradiction embodies, namely, the act of diction itself. The “contra” in this diction isn’t a speaking against the self; it is a spiraling dance that leaves behind a trail of tears, blood, and marks on paper” “I respected religion, for on this earth of pain / it was a funereal and a propitiatory song.” All rites—especially funerals and poetry—are for the consolation of the living. “If God is in Heaven / and nearby” the dead are well cared for; it is “that people should suffer so much” that pricks our understanding and urges us on in the dance of poetry and ritual.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Brian Charles Clark, 2005

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