14 Mar 2013

Czeslaw Milosz in Exile in California

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Czeslaw Milosz — 1911, Szetejnie, Lithuania — 2004, Cracow

Milosz’s defection from Communist Poland resulted in exile, exile from history, from European civilization, from memory, and from the Northern landscapes of Poland and Lithuania to California, the uniquely American hybridized version of Botany Bay blended with the country of the Lotus-eaters, of chaparral desert and Pacific fog, of ahistoric imbecility and unbridled consumption, California which turns its back on history and civilization, yet preternaturally offers constant sharp glimpses of the dystopian future.

Cynthia L. Haven offers a nice appreciation of the exquisite character of Milosz’s fate: an exile as remote and barbarous as Ovid‘s at Tomis on the Black Sea, yet deprived of tragedy by the plush privileges of an elite University appointment and all the wine shops, shopping malls, and restaurants of the most self-indulgent region of the New World.

She offers a nice quotation from the poet himself:

I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What can the wet north say to this scorched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dried-up creek beds,
Hills the color of straw, and the rocks assembled
Like Jurassic reptiles: for me this is
The Spirit of the Place.

Ms. Haven does a nice job of describing the ambivalence of the experience of California of the civilized man in exile, the fear of real assimilation, of being unable to do without one’s favorite restaurants, of growing weakly dependent on a Riviera-like climate, of becoming happily Californian.

Miłosz returned to Poland for good in 2000, coming back to California only as his wife was dying in a Berkeley hospital in 2002. At her funeral, he whispered to Hass, “I’m afraid this place will catch me.” The return to Poland allowed him to turn against the land that had alternately embraced and ignored him.

Hass told me in an interview shortly after Miłosz’s death: “I just think he had some years of bitter loneliness, and what came back to him, when he came here to California again, was that. The isolation. When he first came here, he didn’t much like California. Then you follow, in some of his writings, he’s become a Californian and is quite loyal to it. As soon as he got back to Poland, then he could hate and resent his time in California.” He couldn’t divide his loyalties—but the rest of us do it daily, teetering on the ambivalences that make up our relationship to our adopted home on the West Coast.

Milosz lived in Berkeley on the lower slopes of the mountains offering this view.

One Feedback on "Czeslaw Milosz in Exile in California"

Cynthia Haven

Thanks for the mention! Hope to be writing more on this topic.


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