“A Home in the Neon Heat of Nature”: A New Biography of Czesław Miłosz

November 7, 2021   •   By Cory Oldweiler

Czesław Miłosz: A California Life

Cynthia L. Haven

BANISHED FROM his beloved Florence in 1302, Dante Alighieri lived the rest of his life in exile. He would indelibly capture this bitter burden, its isolation and alienation, in Paradiso, the third book of his Commedia (1320): “You shall leave behind all you most dearly love, and that shall be the arrow first loosed from exile’s bow. You shall learn how salt is the taste of another man’s bread and how hard is the way, going down and then up another man’s stairs.” While it’s unknowable exactly how exile shaped the epic poem’s journey from selva oscura to rosa sempiterna, it would doubtless have been dramatically different had Dante been writing “in the great city, by the fair river Arno.”

After nearly 15 years of wandering, during which he faced the threat of being burned alive or beheaded if he returned home, Dante did have the chance to live out his days in Florence. An amnesty was granted in 1316, but it came with conditions, including fines and penance, that he was unwilling to meet. He spurned the offer, writing to a Florentine friend, “What! Can I not everywhere behold the sun and stars? Can I not under any sky meditate on the most precious truths?”

The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dubbed Dante “a patron saint of all poets in exile” and, as an exile himself for much of his life, likely could relate to both the Florentine’s proud defiance and his urge to seek some measure of solace in the constancy of the natural world. When, in 1960, Miłosz moved to the United States, accepting a teaching position at UC Berkeley, nature was very much on his mind. He was already living in exile, having defected to France nearly a decade earlier, but he had not escaped the haze of history that hung heavily over postwar Europe. The past was integral to Miłosz’s writing throughout his career, especially the horror he witnessed so viscerally in wartime Warsaw, but in order to continue to describe it “in such a manner that it is preserved in all its old tangle of good and evil, of despair and hope,” he had to soar above it, as he put it in 1980, after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Miłosz felt that the United States, specifically the American West, could provide that lofty vantage, that distance, that relative stability from the “demoniac doings of History.” He would live in the Golden State for 40 years, from 1960 to 2000, but according to Czeslaw Miłosz: A California Life, Cynthia Haven’s deeply considered new biography of the poet, Miłosz’s move to America was predicated on a fundamental error. “In immigrating to the United States, and specifically to California in 1960,” Haven writes, “he thought he was coming to the timeless world of nature. However, Berkeley was about to become a lightning rod for […] the world of change […] and he would be in the thick of it.”

Haven draws on a compendious knowledge of her subject, having mused on and written about Miłosz for more than 20 years. She met with the man himself on two occasions in early 2000, visits that turned out to be his last interviews in the United States, and since then she has talked with his translators, including Robert Hass, Lillian Vallee, and Peter Dale Scott; his family, including his son, Anthony, and his brother-in-law, Bill Thigpen; and his friends, including Mark Danner, who purchased Miłosz’s longtime home on Grizzly Peak. She has also edited two prior volumes on Miłosz, one collection of interviews and one of essays; has penned dozens of blog posts relating to him on her fecund website, The Book Haven; and has written numerous articles about him, including a 2013 essay for Quarterly Conversation entitled “Miłosz as California Poet,” which can be read as an urtext for A California Life.

That essay opens in the winter of 1948–’49, with Miłosz sitting in a canoe on a Pennsylvania river, waiting for beavers and contemplating defecting to the United States, as one does. He relates the riparian reverie in the “Natura” section of his 1957 poem “A Treatise on Poetry,” and Haven refers to the moment in her new book as marking “perhaps the most significant decision of his life.”

At that point, Miłosz had been in the United States for three years, since taking a post in New York City in January 1946 as part of communist Poland’s diplomatic corp. Within a year, he was promoted to cultural attaché and moved to Washington, DC, from where, in April 1948, he headed west on a three-month trip that took him to California and the Bay Area for the first time. He recalls the visit in Miłosz’s ABC’s, his 1997 quasi-autobiography: “I was enchanted with the journey to San Francisco, but it was like going to another planet, not to a place where one might live.” (That same text is also the source of Miłosz’s unforgettable take on L.A., which begins: “Los Angeles horrifies me.”)

Back on the East Coast, the “splash of a beaver in the American night” interrupts his contemplation. At that time, Miłosz harbored “an idealized notion” of the United States, Haven writes. Unable to come to terms with leaving Poland despite its problems to “establish a home in the neon heat / Of Nature” (as the poet puts it in “Natura”), Miłosz decides not to defect. Haven writes that years later he would call the decision “rationally speaking foolish but […] necessary.”

He returns to Poland and, under harrowing circumstances that are only briefly recounted here, defects to France in 1951. His wife Janina, pregnant with their second child, never left the United States, so despite an upturn in his professional life, Miłosz became increasingly depressed by the separation and his isolation. After years of pleas and threats, his newfound financial security enticed the family to join him in France, but the arrangement was transitory. Miłosz turned down the first offer of a teaching post at Berkeley, in 1959, but when it was renewed the next year, he accepted and the whole family headed back to the USA.

Once in California, “Grizzly Peak grounded him,” though, as always, he remained attuned to his roots. He taught contemporary Polish poetry and fiction, overseeing the publication of seminal volumes on both. And his own poems began to reflect his new surroundings — works like “A Magic Mountain” and “Throughout Our Lands,” both of which Haven discusses in depth. Her most lively chapter plunks Miłosz squarely into the unrest of the 1960s, showing him interacting with hippies in his home, rioters on campus, and even Henry Kissinger. Miłosz’s feelings about the protesters were complicated. “He took these events very seriously,” Haven writes, “understanding them as a fight for what was right while also criticizing them as an attempt to disrupt the societal order that had created a haven for civilized values — poetry and literature among them — as well as a sanctuary for himself and other refugees and exiles.”

Ensuing chapters cover the death of Janina in 1986 and Miłosz’s second marriage, to Carol Thigpen, and his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1980, but its most insightful passages examine repeated themes in his work. Some attempts at correlation — such as the rhetorical juxtaposition of California forest fires and the Nazi demolition of Warsaw — ring false, but generally Haven’s questions yield thoughtful discussion. One motif, introduced in the first chapter, is the counterpoise between être and devenir (French verbs for “to be” and “to become”), between the fundamental essence of things, especially in the natural world, and the universal movement of change, of history. She asks Miłosz about the dichotomy in their interview. “My goodness,” he replies. “A big problem.” He sketches some broad strokes about the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, post-Nietzsche philosophy, and postmodernism, but soon bails out: “In truth, I am afraid of discussing this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, it’s not possible.”

It’s more possible, perhaps, in a book, and Haven makes a valiant go of it, deploying the apparent antipodes of être and devenir as the balances of a scale with which to weigh his work. She repeats the interview with Miłosz near the end of the book and reevaluates her earlier thoughts, deciding that the terms are more relative than appositive, “a double helix.” Miłosz’s “twinning of vision and historical consciousness” could benefit Californians, she concludes, but admits that she is still wrestling with what it all means. “The subject eludes the rational mind the more we think about it, the more we try to pin it down, like trying to grab a fistful of water.”

While A California Life is not intended to be a complete biography, a biographer still carries the onus of her relative omniscience, and for those less familiar with Miłosz’s life and work, certain elisions can be disorienting or confusing. One example that crops up repeatedly is Oscar Milosz, variously referred to as Miłosz’s “kinsman,” “mentor,” and “guide.” Nowhere, however, does Haven expand on who exactly this integral figure was or what their relationship involved beyond one vague reference to a “formative sojourn” in France.

Since Haven has spent so many years living with the Polish poet, figuratively speaking, much of the work for this biography was drafted in the past, in those old articles, conversations, essays, and blog posts. As a result, A California Life can feel like a patchwork quilt at times, the seams showing in the form of jarring or artificial transitions and the introduction of concepts or characters as if they hadn’t appeared mere pages earlier. The crafting of quilts also requires dedication and passion, however, and both are abundant here. Haven lets us into her thought processes, even when she is questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations — in the relative present, at a café with Robert Hass as they thumb through Miłosz’s 2001 volume New and Collected Poems; and in the recent past, at Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home as the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends into the wee hours.

Miłosz, writing in his ABC’s, did not place much faith in biographies: “Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own. […] They are false because their individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.” Haven does not possess any magical insight into those linkages in Miłosz’s timeline, but by giving relatively free rein to her decades of contemplation, she often achieves what Miłosz believed to be the only redeeming value of biographies, namely that “they allow one to more or less recreate the era in which a given life was lived.” In this case, she evokes A California Life that soared high above an era of inescapable change.

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Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.