poems of czesław miłosz
rendered from the polish by jason francisco


love means looking at yourself
as you look at foreign things,
because you're one of many things.
those who see this way heal their hearts,
even if they don’t grasp it,
and a bird and a tree say to them:  my friend.

and he himself, and all the things he wants to put together in love,
it’s not that maturity comes to meet him.
he doesn’t ask about serving love or not,  
and serves best not really understanding.



the history of my stupidity would fill volumes.

some would be devoted to actions against consciousness,
like a moth that knows
and still approaches the candle-flame.

others would deal with silence before anxiety,
the whisper that you keep ignoring
even though it warns you.

i would deal separately with pride and self-satisfaction.
i used to be among their devotees
strutting as if in victory, unsuspecting.

but all of these books would have one subject:  desire.
my own?  yes, but not only,
because i was driven to be like others,
afraid of my wildness
and wildness greater than me.

the history of my stupidity won’t be written.
it’s late, to begin with.
and the truth is hard.


second space

all heavenly rooms declare another space

we approach them on stairs of wind
that veer from gardens of paradise

we approach them as souls ripping themselves from bodies
not quite soaring

we approach them praising white clouds
that mark the sphere dividing up from down

have we really forgotten this other space?
has it vanished in visions of heaven and hell?

we set out to meet salvation without unearthly meadows
and find no suitable resting place

now i hear weeping
i hear lament for the enormity of the loss

i see faces smeared with coal
and hair loosened in sadness

i am begging that it be returned to us
--oh now!--
that other space


if there is no god

if there is no god
many things are not permitted.
i am still my brother's keeper,
and i am not at liberty to torment him
with truthful, godless words.


in kraków

on the border of this world, in kraków,
i hear tapping on the flagstones of churches,
one generation following another.
i came here to understand something about the habits of people.
i see that the nakedness of a woman meets the nakedness of a man,
and the two combine as in the song of songs,
part divine and part carnal, completing each other,
every pair nestling into the living scent
of apples, saffron, cloves, incense, and the taste of a wafer.
i see visions of the one who keeps coming swelling the brightness of candles,
and a glow becoming divisible, separate for each who beholds,
receiving every one into a new flame.
i see remarkable shadows thrown over the glow,
and everywhere masks of silk, porcelain, brass, silver.
ordinary women and men do not want to mislead themselves.
mere crosses on marble will adorn their tombs.


mastering this craft (in memory of jarosław iwaszkiewicz)

the purity of color in his poems seduced me,
or was it his love affair with death?
he fell in love with death, this is certain,
because it held within it the whole of the illusion of being.

it removes towers of gold and rose,
the pale green marble of piazzas, and purple skies,
the red passage of a flute.

he knew all the ways death silences a lover’s groan:

in lilac-colored ashes amid grayness and stubble fields
there is an orange stain,
the flaming bush of your nakedness.

i have come to think that his sweetness is indecent.
death is not time’s only secret.
unfreedom is a temptation we are called to overcome:
it is up to us to put a table at the very edge of the abyss,
and on the table, to put a glass, a pitcher and two apples,
and to sit down with what is unattainable
once and once again.


it happened in wilno, in june 1940 or later,
after we had been overrun from the east—

the state that paid the old woman’s pension was gone,
and she let a room to a foreign officer, a captain—

he was a russian, a huge man, taciturn,
and friendless—

his reading light often stayed on into night,
and we knew that sometimes he lay on his bed in the dark—

no one really knew what kind of work he did,
and what measure of discretion it required—

we never learned his name,
and we will never know his thoughts—

we can only guess that he was struggling with a new experience,
a wholly new civilization—

he had been raised with no god and no devil,
and now marveled at the crowds in the churches—

the futility of human belief began to impress itself on him,
and bitterness at the sight of prayers thrown up to absence—

he probably meditated on evil,
on the suffering that human animals inflict on one another—

on the evil in which we all have a share,
and on our obligations in a world in which evil provides order—

and the question:  if saying no to evil means cursing one’s own birth,
what then?—

one night he put a bullet into his skull,
and the secret police came to take his clothes, his pistol, his books—

it would be indecent to say that angelic choirs greeted him,
though the gospel insists:  “blessed are those who thirst for justice”—

it is best to keep silent about faith,
remembering those who disappeared—

this planet mostly consists of traceless souls, acquired over earthly millennia,
and uncountable others who did not ascend to consolation—


to spite nature

so many misfortunes resulted from holding onto god
as a matter of belief—

this was part of my idea of human splendor,
the ways of an uncommon animal—

we animals:  we who construe our nature as beyond brute consciousness,
we who entitle ourselves to noble things, well-directed action, the sublime—

i knew a man who nearly became an angel,
almost like the images i found in the pages of romantic novels—

the biographies of the saints were there to back him up,
and friends to respect him—

leaving me, not knowing what to make of myself,
something less?—

in myself i found only instincts,
a dominant male, a hyper sperm-maker—

what i really wanted was strength and fame,
pride, notoriety, and women—

so i tried to construct in myself an apparatus of feeling,
a structure for love and sacrifice—

here a true story would be useful,
about jan the luckless and gosia the beautiful—

jan wanted gosia, who lived in a palace,
and was completely removed from the world—

her beauty seemed to float above normal life,
too high for a creature like him—

gosia wanted jan because he was smart,
or at least smarter than the others—

and because she knew her own faults,
and was flattered to be chosen at all—

so a marriage happened, and love,
which turned out to be two lonelinesses torturing each other—

until they divorced,
which could have happened, or not—

but in any case, i found out that skepticism suits me,
and a wholeness of doubt—

people are best known when divorced from higher qualities,
and the same is true for god—

this is the only way to approach harmony with myself,
and the human nature that transcends me—

and so i repeat:  “yes, i believe in god,”
having pried belief from its justification—


what should be

i should now be wiser than i was,
but i don’t know whether i’m any wiser—

memory is a story of shame and amazement.

i closed the shame inside myself,
but the amazements return in brightness—

a sun-struck wall, an oriole’s trill, a face,
an iris, a book of poems, the sense of a whole person—

these moments lifted above my severances.

you, who forgive me and love me,
i was amazed at your beauty—

that arch of your eyebrow, and your head, tilted,
and your reticent voice, seductive—

you weren’t perfect, but you carried perfection through you.

i swore to you, i vowed love to you,
but later my conviction wavered—

my sight is made of flickering glimpses,
not broad enough to grasp a monument—

i kept looking for unwritten verses in honor of women and men.

nobody knows their bravery, devotion, sacrifice,
all of it passed with them into eternity—

nobody knows,
and i’m beginning to seek once again—

i need an undying witness who alone will remember.


hear me

oh listen now through my errors and mistakes, because i have nothing else to claim for myself

i need protection from the day of dryness

the day:  that no swallow flies, no peonies or irises grow, no sign of you appears

the day:  that i am surrounded by the cruel, unable to marvel at anything

the day:   that i seem to myself an impostor and a cheater because i show up to pray

the day:  that i accuse you of making death a law

the day:  that i am ready to bend the knees before nothingness and call this world an evil playground



in a town where miracles occurred
pilgrims proceed.

merchants put up their booths
and begin another day of marveling

at the pointlessness that moves people
to buy tiny crosses, medals, rosaries,

even plastic bottles for healing water
in the shape of the madonna.

the sick on their stretchers,
and the paralyzed in their wheelchairs

all harden the glances of the merchants,
to whom it is plain

that faith is a placebo,
and religion an elaborate game of self-rescue.

they rub their hands
and spend all day reckoning,

adding to their inventory of crucifixes,
and nickel coins stamped with the effigies of popes.

the pilgrims smile nervously,
or grimace.

they detect a threat,
the same vague misgiving

that children feel around parents
who guess and keep their secrets.



it’s possible that the purpose is sustained
in the world’s uncountable numbers of eyes,
reflecting creation to infinity,
but more likely it’s the wonder of innumeration itself

and human fantasies, as for example
my imagination of a forest in raudonka,
or the breasts of paula
when i was in love with her.

where does god put these images?
it’s possible that the divine keep is a very large treasury
or better a computational exercise on a grand scale
in which numbers released from limits find rest.

it could be that god is constantly rewriting the math, comparing
reflected images with the calculus of all that happened,
smiling coyly at the wisest among us
who thought there were only reflections
and nothing else.


i am not

i gave away the truth to wander among the variances,
far from the “serenity of faith” and other self-satisfactions,
and against my people, whose rituals eclipse the saints.

it could be that i was a monk in a forest monastery,
year after year studying a flooding river from my window,
noting the particulars in an ancient language
incomprehensible to men and women in ordinary sheepskin coats.

i know now the absurdity of reclusive deliberation
beside the crooked fences of a small town
where hens peck at a dusty street.

for help i used to turn to an innocent woman
until i had trouble recognizing her.
someone turned her golden hair to wood and paint
in the fretwork of the altars.