Czeslaw Milosz, “A Story”

I have to thank my good friend from LA, Peter J., for introducing me to the work of Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who won the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. Pete served an LDS mission in Poland and had Milosz’s Collected Poems sitting prominently on his shelf in his living room. I used to pick it up and browse it every once in a while when hanging out at his apartment. Eventually I broke down and got my own copy.

I really like poetry that is fragmentary and minimalist, and Milosz’s poetry is not that. He’s kind of the opposite: discursive and big. His poems unfold in long lines and sentences, and often tell a story. For example,

A Story

Now I will tell Meader’s story; I have a moral in view.
He was pestered by a grizzly so bold and malicious
That he used to snatch caribou meat from the eaves of the cabin.
Not only that. He ignored men and was unafraid of fire.
One night he started battering the door
And broke the window with his paw, so they curled up
With their shotguns beside them, and waited for the dawn.
He came back in the evening, and Meader shot him at close range,
Under the left shoulder blade. Then it was jump and run,
A real storm of a run: a grizzly, Meader says,
Even when he’s been hit in the heart, will keep running
Until he falls down. Later, Meader found him
By following the trail–and then he understood
What lay behind the bear’s odd behavior:
Half of the beast’s jaw was eaten away by an abscess, and caries.
Toothache, for years. An ache without comprehensible reason,
Which often drives us to senseless action
And gives us blind courage. We have nothing to lose,
We come out of the forest, and not always with the hope
That we will be cured by some dentist from heaven.

The title of the poem, “A Story,” and the first line, where the poet promises to tell “Meader’s Story,” at first appear to refer to the same thing. But if this were really Meader’s story, we would expect the “moral” to be something very different, perhaps the importance of not judging another’s actions. Isn’t that what Meader learns, that despite the bear appearing ferocious, in fact its motivations were simple and, tragically, innocent?

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This misdirection is what makes the conclusion of the poem so powerful. That switch to the first-person plural “us” in the fourth-to-last line suddenly thrusts readers into the position of the bear. We no longer imagine ourselves as Meader confronting this dangerous but misunderstood force. Instead, we imagine ourselves as dumb animals, tortured by incomprehensible pain and unable to find relief except in our own deaths. The ending is truly haunting. What are the simple but incomprehensible pains–physical, emotional, or spiritual–that drive us to act the way we act?

Milosz knew something about pain and despair. He was born in 1911 in Lithuania and was part of the resistance against the Nazi occupying forces in Warsaw during WWII, then defected from Communist Poland to France in 1951, later coming to the United States in 1960, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Much of his early poetry deals unflinchingly with the horrors of war, and the difficulty of finding beauty in a world of mass destruction and savage inhumanity. His poetry is deeply moving, and I return to it frequently.

K and I spent many a late night hanging out with Peter, Jean, Mal, Melissa, Joey, Katie, Scott, and Jennie, among many other close friends we made during our six years in LA. I remember endless, ranging conversations about books, movies, religion, parenting, music, and food. This doesn’t have much to do with the poem, except that it feels like a part of Milosz and other poets when I read them, these conversations. I love reading and reflecting on a poem in solitude. But I also love when the poem opens up into an encounter that transforms and deepens a friendship.