For both readers and writers, books beget books; poems, poems. For an adventure in fecund bookishness – book spawn -- read An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, edited by Cynthia Haven. Each portrait leads to other volumes.
Among the contributors is Richard Lourie, novelist (The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin) and longtime Miłosz translator and friend. In 1964-65, Miłosz recorded at his home in Berkeley a series of conversations with the Polish poet Aleksander Wat (1900-1967), a twentieth- century representative man. He’d been a Communist when young but after fleeing the Nazis was arrested by the Soviets and spent more than two years imprisoned in Poland and the Soviet Union. During this period Wat, a Jew, converted to Catholicism.
The transcribed Miłosz-Wat conversations were published in Polish in two volumes in 1977, under the title Mój wiek, and Lourie translated a one-volume edition, My Century, in 1988. Like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, it remains an essential guide to the madness of the last century, and the hope of survival and redemption. In “Love at Last Sight,” Lourie’s remembrance of Milosz, he writes:
“I was present at many of those [recording] sessions—Wat sitting by the window, the curtains open, the sunlight falling on his face, a blanket on his lap as if the prison cold was still in his bones.
“At those sessions I saw Czesław in a different light. He showed Wat deference. In part it was because Wat was eleven years older, in part it was because of Wat’s frail health, but really it had a deeper cause: Wat had a sort of spiritual seniority, a quality of presence that is instantly detected in prison cells.”
Wat took his own life (as did Koestler) in Paris in 1967. Forty years later in A Treatise of Civil Power, Geoffrey Hill includes “In Memoriam: Aleksander Wat”:
“O my brother, you have been well taken,
and by the writing hand most probably:
on photographs it looks to be the left,
the unlucky one. Do nothing to revive me.
“Surrealism prescient of the real;
the unendurable to be assigned
no further, voice or no voice; funérailles,
songs of reft joy upon another planet.”
Thirty pages later in the same book is Hill’s “Harmonia Sacra":
“Harmonia sacra, a few sacred crumbs,
and we're a scared people. Not even now
sapped or snapped, the willing of the form
of nationhood, royalist, republican,
the seventeenth-century vision of harmony
that all gave voice to and that most betrayed.
This sounds like Herrick but without his grace.
I sing of times trans-shifting were his words.”
The allusion is to Robert Herrick’s “The Argument of his Book.”