Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Where I wax poetic about Milosz and living in a foreign city...

One of my most favorite writers is Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet (1980) from Lithuania/Poland. Oddly, though, even though it's been years since I left, I still associate him with Shanghai. Years ago, when I lived in there, I'd ride my bike over in the mornings to the Shanghai Public Library and spend two hours in their reading room before work, reading from his Collected Poems tome which contains much of his early and mid-career work. Those were such amazing hours: the reading room was empty (you had to practically sign your life away to get a card to enter) and the the 2nd floor had a wall of windows that faced a back garden. It was a rare opportunity to experience quiet and calm in that grid-locked, loud and boisterous city of 18 million.

Afterwards, I'd ride my bike over to my office, past the foreign embassies and villas in the old French quarter of the city, Milosz' words still playing in my head. 

And here I am walking the eternal earth.
Tiny, leaning on a stick.
I pass a volcanic park, lie down at a spring,
Not knowing how to express what is always and everywhere:
The earth I cling to is so solid
Under my breast and belly that I feel grateful
For every pebble, and I don’t know whether
It is my pulse or the earth’s that I hear,
When the hems of invisible silk vestments pass over me,
Hands, wherever they have been, touch my arm,
Or small laughter, once, long ago over wine,
With lanterns in the magnolias, for my house is huge. 
                                           - From "It Was Winter"  1964

I can remembering longing for winter in that city of heat and humidity, wondering if I would ever have the 
chance to experience a real winter again. And here I am, these years later, in a region famous for its cold 
winters and snow & ice. Shanghai feels a million years away and Milosz's work is one of the strongest 
memories I have of my years there.

This is what poetry should do: keep us alive as we experience and prime us for our future...

                                                           Shanghai Library: it's quite different now than it was then.


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