I learned just the other day that Czeslaw Milosz had died. Admirable man. Anti-fascist, and then anti-Communist. Like so many Europeans he experienced the lash of history first-hand. Which is why he died in America.
An oeuvre is an artist’s entire body of work. Those of you who paint or draw or write (I think that’s everybody) already have an oeuvre. The rest of your life will be spent trying to make it larger and better. I’m not sure what la prune de Cythere (I’ve removed the accent from the penultimate – great word! look it up – e, because it so often gets scrambled by email programs) is exactly. Not mango. Maybe breadfruit. Some tropical fruit, anyway. Prune is French for plum.
Conversation with Jeanne
by Czeslaw Milosz
Let us not talk philosophy, drop it, Jeanne.
So many words, so much paper, who can stand it.
I told you the truth about my distancing myself.
I've stopped worrying about my misshapen life.
It was no better and no worse than the usual human tragedies.
[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]
So, okay, at first glance this looks to be your standard letting-go-of-the-world poem: I accept my own unimportance and the inevitability of death and so it makes me free. The sea’s gonna be here long after I’m gone.
Only that doesn’t work, does it? And deliberately so. The voice is too weary, too petulant. If Milosz were really trying to sell you the party line, he’d make it more convincing. Instead, he says right at the beginning, “drop it, Jeanne.” He’s drinking “rum with ice and syrup,” and the phrasing tells us that he’s not only self-medicating but that it’s joyless drinking. And it ends with death, the graveyard imagery of purple-black earth, and dwindling into an infinite ocean. Which I should not have to tell you is an off-the-rack symbol of death.
So what is he free of? Life.
What a downer. But that’s not the whole story. Stay tuned tomorrow.