Pondering the Human Condition

Book cover
Second Spaceby By Czeslaw MiloszEcco Press. 112p $23.95

Czeslaw Milosz’s last collection of poems is a thoroughly typical series of lyric exercises, deepening and enriching the concerns that preoccupied him during his long career as a poet. The 32 poems in Second Space dwell on the mysteries of the human predicament and the movement of history towards final fulfillment. Though never unappreciative of earthly pleasures, Milosz was most profoundly concerned with ultimate matters. To the end, his vision was clear, his insight incisive, his heart pure.

Second Space is divided into five sections. The first is a collection of 28 poems; the second, third and fourth of which are longer lyric sequences with multiple parts; the last a rendering of classical myth. The poetic forms are loose and varied, in Miloszs terms, more spacious (as he speculates in the poem Ars Poetica?), allowing for the lyric meditation so characteristic of this prolific Eastern European poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.


The poems in Second Space come from Miloszs ruminations on the human condition as he confronted life in his 10th decade. Age did not diminish the vigor of the spirit, and the poetry testifies to Miloszs longstanding preoccupation with the larger issues of the human predicamentsin, suffering, mystery and beliefand demonstrates his anguished attempts to reconcile the existence of God with the presence of evil in this ripe and fallen world. As he notes in High Terraces, All my life I tried to answer the question, where does evil come from?/ Impossible that people should suffer much, if God is in Heaven/ And nearby.

The first poem in Part I, Second Space, strikes the emotional keynote for the collection as the speaker laments the loss of the kind of fixed belief in other worlds of heaven and hell. Paradise pervades these poems. In Nonadaptation, a 13-line lyric, he declares, I was not made to live anywhere except in Paradise. Sensual delights mingle with spiritual apprehensions as foretastes of the paradoxical return to the past which will be the future. While some poems are nearly prayers, such as the beautiful Hear Me (Hear me, Lord, for I am a sinner, which means I have nothing except prayer), others, like If There Is No God and To Spite Nature, are skeptical, if not agnostic, assertions.

The shorter poems re-present themes and motifs reworked in the longer sequences. Father Severinus, an 11-part interior monologue from the heart of a priest without faith, rings with a poignancy derived from simple honesty. The old man prays daily for the grace of understanding,/ though there is in me only a hope of hope, meditating on the mystery of the Redemption and our human suffering.

Milosz is too honest and knowing to offer a resolution to the problem, yet the central lyric of the sequence, 6. Presence, creates a dynamic equilibrium, opening, Lord, Your presence is so real that it weighs more than any argument, and closing, Lead me where only Your light abides. The dilemma at the heart of Father Severinus is neither new nor original; but Milosz’s delineation of its existential impact on a man of faith moves the reader with its urgency and beauty.

Part III, Treatise on Theology, is a meditation offered by another older man who has made a conscious choice to avoid what people call the serenity of faith, declaring that wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me. Scrupulous examination of the world leads him in one direction, and he cannot cease asking why? at every turn. In Section 22, Treat With Understanding, he describes himself thus: One day I believe, another I disbelieve, and honestly captures the essence of the situation.

If Second Space has a weak section it is Part IV, Apprentice. Interwoven with the story of Oscar Milosz is the story of young Czeslaw’s early crisis of faith. His examination of his cousins work and formative influences (Goethe and Swedenborg) is simply too dense with contextual detail.

Second Space ends aptly with Orpheus and Eurydice. Milosz follows classical legend up to a point: en route back, Miloszs Orpheus reveals a different dimension:


Under his faith a doubt sprang up
And entwined him like cold bindweed
Unable to weep, he wept at the loss
Of the human hope for the resurrection of the dead.
Because he was, now, like every other mortal.


This Orpheus, his faith assaulted by doubt, is curiously contemporary in his affliction. His lack of faith causes tragedy, or does it? In the last stanza, Orpheus only falls asleep, in a world that both underscores and celebrates that loss:


Sun. And sky. And in the sky white clouds
Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will Ilive without you, my consoling one!
But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.


Joseph Brodskys description of Milosz in 1975 as one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest, seemed a bit hyperbolic then; but Miloszs achievement in the ensuing decades may have proven Brodsky right. Certainly, the landscape of letters has lost one of its most noble and endearing souls.

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