by Kristi Moos
Which was more painful, to be a refugee in someone else’s country or a refugee in your own? ―Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief 1
We are asleep with compasses in our hands. ―W.S. Merwin2
The bath cabin where you used to leave your dress / has changed forever into an abstract crystal. ―Czesław Miłosz, “Elegy for N.N.” 3
|W.S. Merwin||Mahmoud Darwish||Czesław Miłosz|
The 20th century was a century marked by exile.
Industrialization. Urbanization. Political and environmental upheaval. Two world wars (Or three — or more–?) The atomic bomb. Technology. The past century has displaced and transformed Place in ways never before imagined. And the people of those places? They became exiles, sometimes in their own land. They were psychological exiles. Exiled from Place as it once was, what it became, and is becoming.
Polish poet and scholar Czesław Miłosz (1931-2004) often wrote poetry that meditates on psychological exile. He lived in places morphed for centuries by slippages in cultures, language, and political unrest. His poems recall memories of his youth growing up in rural Lithuania, Poland, and Czarist Russia.
During World War II, Miłosz lived in Warsaw: the city was ravaged by the German occupation. The quiet agrarian lifestyle of previous decades was gone. In 1953, he escaped to France on political asylum– leaving behind a place that would never be the same. Miłosz knew in one sense he would never return to his home. The ground might be there. A church, a road. But Miłosz conjures and mourns a reality that can no longer be in that place. In the poem “Elegy for N.N.” he writes:
We learned so much, this you know well:
how gradually, what could not be taken away
is taken. People, countrysides (71).
These places are taken from him (and the world) but not from memory. The sweetness of Miłosz’s yearning for the place of his younger years is perhaps most poignant in the poem’s following lines:
True, when the manzanita is in bloom
and the bay is clear on spring mornings
I think reluctantly of the house between the lakes
and of nets drawn in beneath the Lithuanian sky.
The bath cabin where you used to leave your dress
has changed forever into an abstract crystal.
This surreal landscape in the rural woods of Lithuania is never again accessible. The bath house is likely gone. His homeland, too — now an abstract in spirit. The idyllic place has become a glimmmer of memory captured in poetry. And poetry, like the land, is now purely imagistic and symbolic, reflecting loss outwards like “a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees” (47).
Israeli-Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) also mourned the loss of his Palestinian homeland. But unlike Miłosz, he fought tirelessly for the right to call it that– a homeland. He called for recognition that this place existed and, more importantly, still exists.
In Journal of an Ordinary Grief, Darwish describes riding from jail in a taxi toward home– to find that all the street names had been changed. Whole villages erased, people removed, a deep relationship to the land– erased. His grief had become ordinary to Palestinians. As Ibrahim Muhawi points out, for Darwish, there is a symbolist equation of himself and Palestine; his identity is ironically bound up in not-being, in placelessness. Muhawi points out that “irony is probably the literary mode most appropriate to exile…from the start, writing has shaped the other form of the homeland, not asking what lies beyond” (XV).
Like Miłosz, Darwish’s exile is deeply personal and psychological: “A place is not a geographical area; it’s also a state of mind; And trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood” (15).
Does this mean that the exiled self is always at exile? That Miłosz’s river holds the reflection of childhood, and never childhood?
“What is a homeland?” Darwish asks. “To hold on to your memory – that is homeland” (8).
Memory then, and poetry’s memory, is the one remaining place where the exile may again go home.
What Miłosz and Darwish have in common — exile, and love for place — is preserved in their poetry.
What if they had been silenced? What must be said of the power of poetry to sustain a place that no longer remains? What is lost when “Place memories” (and the collective personal: the historical memory) are exiled, lost?
Here’s where the work of poet W.S. Merwin (1927- ) has an answer.
Merwin was born in New York City and was raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His family life was scarred by violence and tragedy, past and present. Imagination became a stronghold– a place, as it were, where the world could be imagined and therefore, managed. Merwin moved frequently around the globe, living for spans of time in Spain, France, England, and elsewhere. And yet Merwin’s poetry retains at its core a buoyant spiritual connection to place. He gets there by imagining possibility, as in the poem “A Contemporary”:
What if I came down now out of these
solid dark clouds that build up against the mountain
day after day with no rain in them
and lived as one blade of grass
in a garden in the south when the clouds part in winter
from the beginning I would be older than all the animals
and to the last I would be simpler (222).
Here the poet-self is reconciled to place through imagination. Metaphysics are present, too. Perhaps it was the power of the metaphysical that allowed Merwin to re-imagine his plot of land on the island of Maui, a place ravaged by logging, erosion, and plantation agricultural. When Merwin settled there, he set about to restore paradise to paradise– the simple imagining come to life. And he did just that: he returned the native tropical forests to the soil, inch by inch, with his own hands.
Darwish saw the possibility of transformative reaction and action: “As long as the struggle continues, the paradise is not lost but remains occupied and subject to being regained” (8).
Miłosz was less certain of this possibility. Was the act of mourning his act of agency? Politics marred this reimaginging. Though he returned to Kraków in the last years of his life, he remained partially an exile. He was home, but paradise could not be regained. Nor perhaps should it.
But what Miłosz left behind was a literary legacy that contained both a love for place and a poignant critique of the politics that marred it. He used poetry as a compass– and passed it trustingly on to us.
“We are asleep with compasses in our hands,” Merwin writes. Yes– here we are, well-equipped yet unaware, always with the needle pointing homeward.
*all of the above excerpts are taken from the following respective works:
1 Darwish, Mahmoud. Journal of an Ordinary Grief Archipelago Books, New York: 2010.
2 Merwin, W.S. Migration: New and Selected Poems. Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington: 2005.
3 Miłosz, Czesław. Selected Poems 1931-2004. The Czesław Estate: 2006.