The 8th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks came and went last Friday, and I was very moved to hear former U.S. poet laureate Robert Haas read this poem aloud on NPR. It is by Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), and it was first published in the New Yorker magazine on Sept. 17, 2001. I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t identify all these seemingly biblical-historical name allusions. Or maybe they are just names on headstones. Any help? -ed.
In a Parish
Had I not been frail and half broken inside,
I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself half broken inside.
I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church
To get rid of my self-pity.
Michaels who lost every battle,
Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who
Is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation?
In hospital muck and the smell of urine,
With their weak and contorted limbs,
And eternity close by. Improper. Indecent.
Like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like
An elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island.
Our childishness and stupidity does nothing to fit us
For the sobriety of last things.
They had no time to grasp anything
Of their individual lives,
Any principium individuationis.
Nor do I grasp it, yet what can I do?
Enclosed all my life in a nutshell,
Trying in vain to become something
Completely different from what I was.
Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners.
With the hope that the trumpet of judgement will call us by our names.
Instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds.
They rise then, thousands of Sophias, Michaels, Matthews,
Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews.
So that at last they know why
And for what reason?