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To read Leonard's translation of Borowski

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Milosz Czeslaw Milosz


Translated from Polish byKress Leonard Kress


Bells in Winter

Riding out of Transylvanian mountains,
Through primeval forest and Carpathian ridge,
At nightfall, once, halting at the edge
Of a fording place (my companions
Had sent me to find the way), I dismounted,
And setting my horse to graze, unstrapped
The Holy Scriptures and read, rapt
By the Letters of Paul—at once I was granted
Such a gift from the rushing stream
And light of the setting sun's fire,
That the sight of evening's first star
Lulled me into a powerful dream.
A young man in ornate Greek attire
Touched my hand and said—“Time
For mortals runs like water. I've probed
Its depth to the very bottom.
In Corinth Paul rebuked me, for I robbed
My father of his wife; he barred me from
The common table of my brethren.
Since then I've been exiled from the horde
Of Saints, all these years my love of sin
Led me, poor plaything, floored
By temptation—to satisfy demands
Of eternal Damnation. But from the slime
My Lord and God, unknown that time,
Tore me with a lightning flash.
Your truths amount to nothing in his hands;
His mercy saves all living flesh.”

Awakened under the great starry skies,
Surprised by this help unexpected,
My former cares now trifles rejected,
I wiped with a kerchief my moist eyes.

I've never journeyed to Transylvania.
I didn't bring back messages to my church.
But I could have.
This is an exercise in stylistics.
The pluperfect tense
Of imperfective countries.

Instead I will tell you something that hasn't been fabricated.
The tiny street almost opposite the university
Is really called Literary Lane.
On the corner, a bookstore but no books, just drafts and sheets
Heaped to the ceiling. Unbound, tied with string,
Printed and handwritten—Latin, Cyrillic,
Hebrew letters. More than a hundred, three hundred years.
They must have been worth a fortune.
From this bookshop another could be seen,
Similar, almost facing it,
Identical proprietors: faded bears,
Long gabardine caftans, reddened eyelids.
Unchanged since the year Napoleon passed through.
Nothing has changed here. The privilege of stones?
They are that way and like it. Beyond the second shop
The lane curves along a wall, passes a house
In which a poet, famous in our city,
Wrote a tale about a Princess named Grazyna.
Right by a wooden gate with studs
Huge as fists. Under the vault, on the right,
Stairs smelling of paint, where I live.
Not that I would have picked Literary Lane,
It just happened, there was a room for rent,
With a low ceiling and a bay window, a wide oak bed,
And a stove that heated the raw winter,
Consuming logs brought from the hall
By the old servant, Alzbieta.

There doesn't seem to be any reason—
For I soon went farther way than any road
Through woods or mountains could reach—
To think about that room over here.

Yet I am one of those who believe in Apokatastasis,
A word that promises returning movement,
Not what is fixed in Katastasis,
And appears in Acts 3,21.

It means: Restoration. This was believed by Gregory of Nyssa,
Johannes Scotus Erigena, Ruysbroeck, and William Blake.

Thus each thing, for me, has a dual existence,
Both in time and when time shall no longer be.

And so one morning, in biting frost
And cold drizzle, in a dreamlike gray mist,
The air suffused with crimson light
Turning snow banks rosy, and streets made slick by runners,
Smoke and puffy steam, sledges clanging, jingling,
Horses coated with hoarfrost, each hair distance.
Then bells—from Saint John's,
The Berardines', Saint Casimir's,
The Cathedral's, The Missionaries',
Saint George's, The Dominicans',
Saint Nicholas', Saint Jacob's.
So many bells. As if all hands pulling ropes
Were erecting a solemn edifice above the city.

So Alzbieta, wrapped in her kerchief, would go to morning mass.
For a long time I've thought about the life of Alzbieta,
I could count the years but I prefer not to.
What are years, if I see the snow and her tiny shoes,
Funny, pointed, fastened on the side.
And I'm the same, though the conceit of the body
Begins and ends.

Once again chubby angels blast heir golden trumpets.
And the stoop-shouldered priest in his chasuble,
Today I'd compare him to a scarab
From the Egyptian wing of the Louvre.

Or sister Alzbieta communing with the Saints—
Witches dunked and broken on the wheel,
Under the image of the could-kissing Trinity,
Until they confessed that at night they transformed to magpies,
Serving girls taken for their masters' amusement,
Wives delivered divorce decrees,
Mothers with a package below the wall,
Leads with grimy fingernails along the letters,
When the choirmaster, a sacrificer, a Levite,
Climbing the steps, sings: Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

Prie Dievo kurs linksmina mano jaunyste.

Mano jaunyste
.
My youth.
As long as in the ritual
Of my own words
I swing the censer and the smoke rises.

As long as I raise my voice to implore:
Momento etiam, Domine, famulorum, famularumque, tuarum
Qui nos praecesserunt.

Kurie prima masu nuejo
.

What kind of year this day? Easy to remember.
A year when the Eucalyptus forests froze in our hills,
Free wood for every fireplace, enough to stock
For the rainy season and storms from the sea.
In the morning we cut logs with a chainsaw,
A strong, predatory dwarf, bursting in the roar and stench of burning.
And the bay, low, beneath us, the reveling sun,
And the towers of San Francisco, beyond the rust-colored fog.

Behind me, the same consciousness unwilling to forgive.

Perhaps only wonder will save me.

If not for that, I wouldn't dare to pronounce the prophets' words:

“Whatever can be Created can be Annihilated; Forms cannot;
The Oak is cut down by the Ax, the Lamb falls by the Knife,
But their Forms Eternal Exist forever. Amen. Hallelujah!”

“For God himself enters Death's Door and always with those that enter
and lies down in the Grave with them, in Visions of Eternity
till they awake and see Jesus in the Linen Clothes lying
that the females had woven form them and Gates of their Father's House.”

And if the city below was consumed by fire,
As well as the cities of all continents,
I would not say with my mouth of ashes it was unjust.

Judgment, which began in the year seventeen hundred and fifty-seven,
Though not for certain, perhaps in some other year.
It might come to pass in the sixth millennium or next Tuesday.
Suddenly the demiurge's workshop will silence in unimaginable stillness.
And the form of every single grain will return in glory.
I was judged in my despair, for I couldn't comprehend this.