Czeslaw Milosz: a poet’s long passage back home

Special to The Times

During A late night in Krakow, nonagenarian Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz was tipping back the vodka with Jerzy Illg, editor in chief at his Polish publishing house, Znak. Late in the evening, a touchy topic dropped on the table: Where would Milosz like to be buried?

Should his final resting place be with his mother, in a city near Gdansk? Illg dismissed the notion outright. “Who will light a candle for you there?” he asked.

Should he be buried instead in his beloved homeland, Lithuania -- perhaps in Vilnius, the city of his youth?


Illg proposed the famous cemetery in the Salwator district of Krakow. Many poets and critics were buried on the hilltop graveyard. It would provide “good company and a good view.”

When, sometime later, Illg told Bronislaw Maj about this conversation, the younger poet chided him. Milosz had been fishing for the obvious answer, the mollifying answer: Wawel, the ancient castle/cathedral complex at the very heart of Krakow. Poland’s leading poets are honored there -- Norwid, Slowacki and, of course, the nation’s ur-poet, Adam Mickiewicz, another Polish-speaking Lithuanian. “Of course it was a joke,” Illg recalls, “but it has a deep truth.”

This “deep truth” embraces the ambiguities left after the 2004 death of Milosz, who had one of the most contentious burials in recent memory. Demonstrations were preempted only by a personal message from Pope John Paul II. What a contrast with the poet’s quiet decades in Berkeley as a professor. He had said, after receiving the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, “I want to return to my quiet ways.” Then why, 20 years later, did he move to Krakow, where he was treated like a rock star? The answer is many-stranded: Krakow was the culmination of a journey that was spiritual as well as geographical.

Krakow, as Illg’s anecdote reminds us, was not Milosz’s city. But according to Agnieszka Kosinska, the poet’s assistant for eight years, “The most important thing is that Krakow resembles Vilnius very much.” Milosz was drawn to architecture, atmosphere and old friends. “These are the people with whom he had a thousand discussions, a thousand literary evenings,” says Kosinska.

Moreover, in 1993, he was given honorary citizenship in Krakow, with an apartment on Boguslawskiego, one block from Planty, the park that circles the city where the medieval walls used to stand.

On the surface, the dingy gray brick building where Milosz spent his final years doesn’t seem like a great swap. His cottage on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley had abundant flowers, privacy, a stunning view and California weather.


But this was the home of his mother tongue. He wrote tirelessly, adhering to a rigorous schedule into his 90s. “Milosz is the only poet, as far as I know, who wrote all the time, continuously, for 80 years,” says Joanna Zach, assistant professor at Jagiellonian University and author of “Milosz’s Search for Self.” Zach helped Milosz and his American wife, Carol, resettle. Carol remodeled the apartment so it had the homey feel of Grizzly Peak -- complete with an old TV, Milosz’s Powerbook and the magnifying glass that accommodated his deteriorating eyesight.

Milosz returned to America only once. In the summer of 2002, he flew to San Francisco, where Carol was being treated for bone marrow cancer. “The real catastrophe was her sudden death,” explains Aleksander Fiut, interlocutor for “Conversations With Czeslaw Milosz.” “He was extremely depressed after her death. Before, he was able to laugh. After, sometimes he smiled.”

When Znak published Milosz’s final collection, “Druga Przestrzen” (“Second Space”) in 2002, the poet inscribed Illg’s copy: “To the ferryman who takes Carol to the other shore.”

Charon is a characteristically pagan nuance. Milosz found the Catholic Church’s nationalistic trends repugnant, although he regularly attended St. Idzi’s, an 11th century church at the foot of Wawel. According to Kosinska, the last few years demonstrated his ars moriendi.

“He prepared himself as much as he could,” she says. “Czeslaw really wanted to die. He prepared for the moment. He finished his eternal business.”

Milosz’s journey led him to a young Dominican priest named Father Zbigniew Krysiewicz, who describes their relationship this way: “We have met on a quite inexplicable ground which was his own way back to God. Somehow by accident, it was me who had accompanied him till the very end. . . . It is hard to say why.”

One reason is self-evident: He was the priest at St. Idzi’s, where English Masses were offered, and Carol preferred Mass in a language she could understand.

“This longing for God -- he had that quite strongly,” says Krysiewicz. He was invited to the apartment on Boguslawskiego, where the poet grilled him provocatively, for Milosz was as famous for his doubts as for his certainties. Their conversations became a fixture: two or three hours once a week, sometimes once a month. What did they discuss? “Let’s say you had an experience with a great fire once -- you have a vague memory of it,” Krysiewicz recalls. “You have spent a lot of years trying to describe it, and read a lot of books describing it. What you remember is an echo of it. You search and look for someone who can testify about this fire -- that it is real -- who can testify beyond words, because we know that words are too weak.”

Krysiewicz speaks reluctantly, haltingly; he was Milosz’s confessor, after all, and performed last rites. “My position was to be in the shade, and remain in the shade,” he says. “He went reconciled, certainly. But there are some things I can’t tell you.” He pauses. “He was a mystic, his poetry is mystical and metaphysical.”

In 2006, Znak published a posthumous volume of Milosz’s work, “Wiersze Ostatnie” (“Last Poems”). But other poems were in the making, even on his deathbed.

During his final bedridden months, Zach read Milosz’s poems back to him; he was depressed and wanted inspiration -- the inspiration to write more poems. Andrzej Franaszek, cultural editor of the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, also read to him. Both recall the intensity of his intellectual life, even then.

Franaszek says that Milosz often reviewed his life, his conscience and his choices -- about his defection from Communist Poland in 1951, or his relationships with his first wife, Janina, and his two sons. “Maybe,” he reflected, “I wasn’t able to give them closeness, love.”

Zach recalls one of her last meetings with Milosz in the hospital, the morning after a blood transfusion. “He felt he had experienced a revelation,” she says. “He said, ‘I know what I’m going to write about when I go home from the hospital.’ And that day he started to dictate to me a poem. He never finished that poem. It was a poem about his experience in the hospital -- of compassion and how he experienced his body, and his contact with other people who were lying next to him -- touching to the very core of humanity.”

Ultimately, Milosz was buried in neither Salwator or Wawel, but at Na Skalce (the church “on the rock”), final resting place of many distinguished Poles. Illg prophesies a posthumous relocation; it would not be unprecedented, he says.

Milosz’s death has left a hole in Polish letters. But it’s left, perhaps, a larger hole in the lives of those he knew.

“It sounds strange,” says Franaszek, “but it was hard to imagine he was able to die. It seemed just natural that he is. He lives and lives and lives.”

Illg echoed the same sentiments in a poem last year, “A Letter to Czeslaw Milosz”:

For even after your phone remained silent

I would think, driving Dietla, that if I took a right turn

Into Sebastiana, then Boguslawskiego,

And rang the doorbell, I’d hear the tapping of your stick

And a question booming at the opening of the door:

So, Jerzy, what shall we drink tonight?


Cynthia Haven’s research in Poland was sponsored by a Milena Jesenska Journalism Fellowship from Vienna’s Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Her “Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz” is forthcoming.