It is so extraordinarily important what we remember from our past! Its recovered fragments look like slippery stones on which we are crossing to the other side. And when we try to map our trajectory, these barely visible steps are our best chance to endow our lives with a linear development, with the coherence of a story.
It is the centenary of Czesław Miłosz’s birth, and I am trying to understand the origin of my attachment to this poet. When I was growing up and reading poetry in communist Warsaw, he was never officially mentioned. I therefore do clearly remember when I first heard about him, and see the scene associated with that event. Imagine the quite somber post-war living room of Warsaw intelligentsia, with a couch to sleep on, a piano, a round dining table pushed against an armchair and surrounded by chairs, a bookshelf and even, by a window, a desk to work at. The size of apartments dictated the mixing of sleep, leisure, and work. It was in such a living room, in an armchair, that Hanna Szumańska-Grossowa, a poet and translator, used to read poetry. She also liked to talk to us, high-schoolers, about many things, poetry included. It was from her that I learned about this poet in exile, and from her that I borrowed Ocalenie – in what I know now was the first and, till 1980, only volume of Miłosz poetry published in the People’s Republic of Poland. I still can see her sitting there, under a lit standing lamp, with a cigarette in her hand and a glass of red wine on the table. I can also see the book itself, yellowed and rather fragile. Though I barely recall the impression these poems made on me, there was something mysterious that remained from reading them – a feeling so slippery that I cannot catch it anymore. A sense of meeting a real poet? A glow? A communicated pain? Remembering it is like looking at a movie with the sound turned off. Too far back in the past.
What I do remember more vividly, perhaps because it was mostly visual, is the impression made then on me by a different artist, more than one generation older than Miłosz and, although not forbidden, equally absent from our bookstores. I have in mind Tytus Czyżewski, a futurist poet and painter, a one-time founding member and leader of the Formiści group. I think about Miłosz and Czyżewski together because at that time they seemed both to belong to the equally distant past. And because I owe my acquaintance with that painter to Bronisława Przybosiowa, another mother of a schoolmate. The former wife of the poet Julian Przyboś and a highly cultured person, she had a formidable library full of rare and odd volumes of poetry and art. It is from her that I borrowed a couple of thin booklets produced by Formiści around year 1920, and the artist I remember best from them was Czyżewski. She, like Hanna Szumańska-Grossowa, lived by art and was glad to share it with us. She too remains in my memory with a cigarette in her hand, but instead of sitting under a lamp, I see her playing bridge – in the 1960s a favorite game of our parents and ourselves.
My interest in avant-garde, so intense at that time, did not continue for long. But till now I feel a nagging doubt whether I returned the booklets to their owner. I left Poland approximately 5 years later and immediately became a devoted Miłosz reader. It was as easy as subscribing to “Kultura”! Suddenly, he was not a war poet anymore (as he was in Ocalenie, i.e., the volume later translated into English as Rescue), but a very urgent and contemporary voice speaking to me through poetry and essayistic prose. I would read him very attentively for years, losing interest only once (it was a kind of a crisis), around 1990. But in 1992, I went to a conference at Rutgers and was one of a group of friends to whom he read his new poems. He just pulled a bunch of pages out of his pocket and read, among other poems, “A Polka-Dot Dress” and “Wanda”. And I was back.
The Formiści episode comes back to me because it was one of the most important artistic infatuations of my school years. The majority of my interests were fairly standard for the times, though now they may sound exotic. Having basically no TV, we were reading whatever exciting things were being published, including serially re-issued translations by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński’s of the novels of Balzac and Stendhal. These were links to the past, though provided for us by a very forward looking state. And we were pulled towards the past and towards the hidden. This is why I remember so well the yellowing book of the exiled poet and booklets of unappreciated expressionist group. And am grateful to the two women, who conveyed that knowledge to us – school kids that we were – and somehow started us on the path to literature and to Miłosz. The past is gone, but its “goneness” is not complete.