A Review of ‘Second Space’ by Czeslaw Milosz

In these late poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Second Space, we find a poet at ease with his craft, conversational, and willing to give us an intimate look into his thoughts. The “second space” of the title is the after life, the space opened up by death.

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?
(“Second Space”)

The first section of this collection grapples with the questions of faith–though Milosz’s faith seems sound–death and the afterlife. Far from gloomy, though, the poems are often light and witty as they tackle these big questions. Even when facing the dilapidations of old age, Milosz keeps a light touch:

High notions of oneself are annihilated
by a glance in the mirror,
by the impotence of old age,
breath held in the hope that some pain
won’t return.
(“Degradation”)

The pathos at the end of the stanza is balanced nicely by the hyperbole of high notions “annihilated: and then undercut  “by a glance in the mirror.”

After the opening section of lyrics, the remaining four sections are each comprised of a single long poem. The strongest of these is “Apprentice,” an autobiographical poem, with notes, about Milosz’s father, the writer Oscar Milosz. At one point, in both the poem and the notes, Milosz reveals a bit of Freudian/Bloomian anxiety over his own literary success:

The Nobel Prize is enough for the smaller ones.
It would not commend itself to someone who gave an incomprehensible gift
And announced the planetary victory of the Roman church.

His note to this reads, “When a certain Polish writer received the Nobel prize in 1980, some French newspapers expressed the opinion that it had been given to the wrong Milosz.”

As a Nobel laureate, Milosz needs no praise from me. His writing in this collection is polished and assured. He is one of those rare laureates who continued to produce quality work even after he had been awarded the prize, as this collection exhibits.

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The Brilliant Mess of William S. Burrough’s Cities of the Red Night

Cities of the Red Night, by William S. Burroughs, is a mess of a novel in the best sense of the phrase. Images, jokes, and provocative ideas fly off the page at such a pace that it is hard to keep track of them all. The novel itself tracks multiple characters through time and space while eschewing typical transition markers. For example, near the end of the novel a character is in a battle in one sentence and awake in a psychiatric ward in the next sentence. The affect is jarring and sometimes hard to follow, but the overall flow of the narrative is so strong that the reader is able to pick up on clues and reconstruct what is happening.

Burroughs world is one where freedom and violence reign.Sex and drugs litter these pages, and human life is cheap.

It’s an exclusive-type place where everybody goes. What do people do in Tamaghis? They see the Show. They all come here and see the the big Show. There’s a hanging show every night. The bar is filling up now, because this is Flasher night. The chic clients make their entrances through trapdoors in the floor and ceiling, or through disguised side entrances, and even now they are popping up through the floor in green drag screaming like mandrakes, dropping down through the ceiling in gauzy parachutes or with ropes around their necks, slithering in through mirrors and screens. Some are completely naked but most wear at least cowboy chaps, or scarves, or capes, or masks, or body paint, or sarongs, or snakeskin jockstraps, or Mercury sandals, or Scythian boots, or Etruscan helmets, or space suits with transparent ass and crotch.

Executions for show is the provocative idea here, but it’s the style that is the true star. Burroughs pours on the details, and his favorite tool in this novel is the list. He loves to go from the straight (“scarves, or capes”) to the humorous (“snakeskin jockstrap”) before ending with sardonic absurdism. This is the kind of messy genius that makes up the bulk of this novel and makes it such a celebrated part of Burrough’s work.

Poetry in the Dreamscape

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In Nine Coins / Nueve Monedas, Carlos Pintado’s poems are obsessed with dreams, but they are not dreamy. He refuses to fall into easy surrealism or follow the untrackable paths of dreams. His concrete poems are sometimes reminiscent of William Carlos Williams (the English translations here are by Hilary Vaughn Dobel):

We said:
love’s pardon
draws houses at the edge of the woods.
It was a silence
like that of a deer
discovering
its reflection in the water.
What loss,
we think
in that moment.

(“The Light Lingered”)

Dijimos:
la absolución del amor
dibuja casas final del bosque.
Hubo un silencio
como de un ciervo
que descubre
su reflejo en las aguas.
La pérdida,
pensamos
en ese instante.

(“La Luz Eternizaba”)

The concrete imagery of these poems sometimes elides the surprising nature of his language. In “The Light Lingered,” he switches from a plural narrative–speaking for himself and a partner, or perhaps the reader–to the startling image of a deer seeing itself. That image pulls this poem towards the story of Actaeon which is not a story of love’s pardon, but of rejection. And so there is thick tension throughout the brief poem, between we and the deer, reflection and self, pardon and loss, speech and silence.

The poems often return to the kind of tension, as “Halfway through the Poem” (“A Mitad del Poema”) puts it, “where it opens the dreaming into what is dreamed” (“que abre el sueño en lo soñado”). At times, the recursiveness of this tension makes the poems hard to follow, as in “Returning” (“Regresos”): “I wander through your dream and I / am your own dream, asleep” (“Deambulo por tu sueño y soy / tu proprio sueño, dormido”). Nevertheless, it is rare that the strong, concrete imagery  is blurred by meandering lines like these.

It is not hard to see why this collection won the Paz Prize for Poetry. Pintado seems a worthy successor to Octavio Paz, whose own poems owe so much to surrealism and the world of dreams.

Recent Discoveries

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In the midst of preparing for the holiday season, I discovered I was allergic to a number of common foods. The discovery came about through an allergy test. One hundred and four scratches were made into my back, dozens more into each arm. All to discover that there are many foods I love that I may not be able to eat.

I went to see an allergist because of the strange symptoms I was experiencing. I was having pins and needles (paresthesia) all over my body, more so in my trunk than in my extremities. In particular, I would get the feeling around my mouth when I ate. So while paresthesia doesn’t seem to be a common presentation for food allergies, I had some hints.

Fortunately, my sons’ allergist had a cancellation and I was able to visit him quickly. Early on, I showed a heightened allergic response to pineapple. I enjoy pineapple, but it’s not something I eat daily, so I wasn’t worried. But as the testing went on, more and more foods were added to my list. At one point, as the nurse prodded my arm with more tests, I began to feel the tingling sensation around my mouth, as if I were eating! I felt certain I was on to something, though as I soon discovered, I had uncovered more problems than I was prepared for.

Peppermint tea

Peppermint Tea

It fell well below freezing overnight, and the air is clear and hard and sharp. The peppermint tea’s aroma offers a counter sharpness, bracing and enlivening. As it swirls over my tongue, shards of flavor pierce the soft flesh. Flowing smoothly down my throat, the tea releases its warmth. I hover over the cup, bathed in the scent of awakening.