"Second Space: New Poems" by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Robert Hass Ecco, 102 pp., $23. 95 The payoff of living a long...

Share story

“Second Space: New Poems”

by Czeslaw Milosz,

translated by the author and Robert Hass

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Ecco, 102 pp., $23.95

The payoff of living a long life is supposed to be wisdom, but more often it seems to bring infirmity, confusion and such calcified opinions that no amount of logic or experience can pry them loose.

Then there is Czeslaw Milosz.

The Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet died in August at age 93, just months before the publication of his book “Second Space.” The book stands as fitting memorial: I felt richer and stronger for reading it.

The new poems show Milosz still engaged with the meaning-of-life questions that prompted his writing for decades, still agile and profound in his thinking. He wrestles issues of his Christian faith, human nature and what lies beyond death, letting go of some of the pat answers theology offers. And there, in the acceptance of not-knowing, his wisdom shines.

Milosz translated the poems from Polish with help from his friend, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass. The unrhymed verse moves with an easy-conversation tone, often building to a graceful crescendo, as in these final lines from the poem “Werki,” named for a region in Lithuania:

As I, perhaps, just dream those rusty-golden forests,

The glitter of the river in which I swam in my youth,

The October from my poems with its air like wine.

The priests taught us about salvation and damnation.

Now I have not the slightest notion of these things.

I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide,

Yet He didn’t mention punishment, didn’t promise a reward.

“Second Space,” broken into five sections, includes a 23-part exploration called “Treaty on Theology” and an annotated narrative titled “Apprentice.” The book ends with a single long poem, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” reinterpreting the mythical story of a man who journeys to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife as an examination of the Christian belief in resurrection.

Here, in tribute to Milosz, is his poem “Late Ripeness.”

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,

I felt a door opening in me and I entered

the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,

like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas

assigned to my brush came closer,

ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.

We forget — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division

into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part

of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago —

a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror

of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel

staving its hull against a reef — they dwell in us,

waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,

as are all men and women living at the same time,

whether they are aware of it or not.

Sheila Farr is the art critic for The Seattle Times; sfarr@seattletimes.com