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Spring 1997

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A Road-Side Dog

I went on a journey, in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to stretches of forest, where tangles of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; or I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their reins, and wait till, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor inside it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once, but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night— I don't know where it came from— in a predawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.


*


Narrow-Minded

My knowledge is limited, my mind puny. I tried hard, I studied, I read many books. And nothing. In my home books spill from the shelves, they lie in piles on furniture, on the floor, barring the passage from room to room. I cannot, of course, read them all, yet my wolfish eyes constantly crave new titles. In truth, my feeling of limitation is not permanent. Only from time to time an awareness flares of how narrow our imagination is, as if the bones of our skull were too thick and did not allow the mind to get hold of what should be its domain. I should know everything that's happening at this moment, at every point on the earth. I should be able to penetrate the thoughts of my contemporaries and of people who lived a few generations ago, and two thousand and eight thousand years ago. I should, so what?


*


Eyes

Operator: That's how it is. I allowed you, for a moment, to see the flower of the nasturtium with the eyes of a butterfly. I allowed you to look at a meadow with the eyes of a salamander. Then I gave you the eyes of various people, so that you could look with them at the same city.

—I admit that I was too sure of myself. I admit that there is little similarity between what those streets meant to me and what they were for others walking the same sidewalks I did. If only I were convinced that that was all there was to it— a huge number of individual, uncoordinated perceptions and images. But I have been searching for one, humanly seen, common-to-us-all truth about things, and that's why what you have shown me was such a trial and such a temptation.

Without Control

He could not control his thoughts. They wandered wherever they liked, and as he observed them, he grew uneasy. For they were not good thoughts, and, if he were to judge himself by them, there was, deep within him, a lot of cruelty. He thought that the world was very painful and that human beings didn't deserve to exist. And he suspected that the cruelty of his imagination was somehow connected with his creative impulse.


*


A Search

A feeling that there must be a set of words in which the essence, so to speak, of the horror discovered in this century could be captured. Reading in memoirs, reminiscences, reports, novels, poems, always with hope and always with the same result: "Not quite." Only timidly did the thought emerge that the truth about the fate of man on earth is different from the one we were taught. Yet we recoil from giving it a name.


*

The Last Judgment

The consequences of our actions. Completely unknown, for every one of them enters into a multifaceted relation with circumstance and with the actions of others. An absolutely efficient computer could show us, with a correction for accidents, of course, for how to calculate the direction taken by a billiard ball after it strikes another? Besides it is permissible to maintain that nothing happens by accident. Be that as it may, standing before a perfectly computerized balance sheet of our lives (The Last Judgment), we must be astonished: Huh! Can it be that I am responsible for so much evil done against my will? And here, on the other scale, so much good I did not intend and of which I was not aware?


*

Anima

He was writing more and more about women. Did it mean that his anima, oppressed for years, asked, late, for liberation? Or, to put it differently, that his subconscious, until then liberating itself only in his poems, took upon itself the role of a gentle woman physician who first had to strip him of his armor before touching his flesh?


Czeslaw Milosz
(translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass)




Czeslaw Milosz, who was born in Lithuania and lived for many years in Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His many books include Provinces, Unattainable Earth, Facing the River, and Road-Side Dog. He died in Krakow in August of 2004.

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