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Luminous Things – A Favourite Book

Poet Enda Wyley writes about her favourite book of poems

A Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology of international poetry, is one of my favourite books of poems. Inspiring in content, it succeeds as a collection of short poems personally chosen by Milosz, that range across time and continents, each introduced with a short, insightful comment by this master poet.

The book begins with a brilliant introduction. Milosz quotes Roethke, who spoke of ‘that dark world where gods have lost their way.’ This line sets Milosz off wondering if poetry can find the cures that science, theology and philosophy have ultimately failed to provide. Whether or not you agree with the view posed in this question, I have always found it uplifting that the poet’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot – if it is good poetry – look at things of this earth other than as colourful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.

This is a life-affirming book and appropriately starts with a section titled ‘Epiphany,’ which celebrates through poetry the privilege of the moment. There are the epiphanies of landscape which Czeslaw directs us to in the Japanese haiku – the opening samples both tiny flashes of brilliance.

Kikaku
1661- 1707

Above the boat,
bellies
of wild geese

– Translated from the Japanese by Lucen Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Issa
1763- 1827

From the bough
floating down river,
Insect song.

– Translated from the Japanese by Lucen Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Translation is important in this anthology and many of the poems chosen are translated jointly by Czeslaw Milosz and his friend and co-translator of his own poetry, the poet Robert Hass. Other translators include the poets Kenneth Rexroth and Jaan Kaplinski.

There is a refreshing sense of ‘now’ to these translations. Can anything peculiar happen when a man walks down a street and kicks a can? In their translation of Jean Follain’s poem ‘Music of Spheres,’ Hass and Milosz capture a moment which is simultaneously ordinary and profound.

He kicked the cylinder
of an old can
which for a few seconds rolled its cold emptiness
wobbled for a while and stopped
under a sky studded with stars.

Who would not want to wake to a poem such as this? There is nothing I love more than to open this anthology at random first thing in the morning and to begin my day by reading whatever poem the pages open on. I feel privileged to be connected on a daily basis with such fine poems – some by poets I had actually never heard of when I first encountered this anthology over two decades ago: Wislawa Szymborska, Jaan Kaplinski, Tomas Tranströmer, Jane Hirshfield, Anna Swir, W.S. Merwin, Zbigniew Herbert, Denise Levertov. I am indebted to Czeslaw Milosz for introducing these poets to me and have also always felt safe as a reader, guided by Milosz’s choice of their poems which he has sorted into sections with compelling titles such as ‘The Secret of a Thing,’ ‘People Among People’ and ‘Woman’s Skin.’

Of these choices, Milosz writes that, ‘my anthology shows that I select mostly poems that express warm feelings.’ The word ‘mostly’ hits a chord for me, as there are poems in the book that have stayed with me precisely for their forbidding nature. ‘I Go Back to May 1937,’ is a poem by Sharon Olds which is cruel in its depiction of her parents standing in the late thirties ‘at the formal gates of their colleges.’ Olds wants to go up to them and warn them about the vile future that awaits them.

You are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of …

Instead, her parents become like paper dolls, which she wants to bang together and say to them, ‘Do what you are going to do, and I will tell you about it.’ Startling for her heinous portrayal of her parents’ life, Olds’s poem is far from ‘warm’ but nonetheless is powerful, driven as it is by passion and the bitter honesty of a daughter.  

There’s a poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz too, which once encountered cannot be forgotten, filled as it is with a desperate nihilism (as a young man he fought as a soldier in a guerrilla unit against the Nazis) but one which is also driven by a deep empathy for the human condition.

A Voice

They mutilate they torment each other
with silences and words
as if they had another
life to live …

– Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz

But the majority of poems in this anthology are joyful, celebrating what Milosz calls ‘things-moments,’ which the poets capture, preserve and have made eternal.

It is to these moments that I turn to every morning. The sun’s up, coffee bubbles on the stove and on the kitchen table, my well-thumbed copy of A Book of Luminous Things, opens to a new enchantment.

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Enda Wyley is a poet and children’s author. She has published five books of poetry with Dedalus Press, the most recent of which is Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems (2014)