Monday, 8 September 2014
Sean O'Brien's 'The Citizens' and Czeslaw Milosz's 'Dedication': Mirror Images
Ruins of St Casimir Church in Warsaw, Poland, 1945. Photographer unknown
This week, Sean O'Brien's poem 'The Citizens' appeared as the Griffin Poetry Prize poem of the week. You can read it here:
THE CITIZENS (Sean O'Brien)
I am an admirer of Sean O'Brien's work (as well as having done a poetry workshop with him in London which was one of the most enjoyable I've attended.) His poetry is wry and Northern, chiseled and cold in imagery but not in feeling. Among contemporary British poets he seems to have a particularly strong feeling of place and history.
I had read 'The Citizens' before; it appears in O'Brien's collection November and I know that I appreciated it when reading the book. However, sometimes a poem really strikes you at a particular moment. In the case of this poem, perhaps it is the events surrounding my reading of it, in this dark year of 2014. When it came up on the Griffin Poetry Prize website, I re-read it several times, almost compulsively.
After reading the poem at least five times, I realised that it reminded me of another poem, which is this:
DEDICATION (Czeslaw Milosz)
I have meant to write about the great Polish poet Milosz for some time, but thus far I haven't succeeded. Honestly, the prospect intimidates me. Milosz is so monumental that I don't feel adequate to the task. But I appreciated the way that 'The Citizens' and 'Dedication' seemed to speak to each other. 'The Citizens' is undoubtedly a Milosz-ian poem.
There are images which reflect each other in the two poems: the rivers, the cities, and the potent emblems of death. There is also the keen sense of valediction and the impression that the speaker is trying almost desperately to explain himself. There is the sense of historical truth, even witness, in both poems. Beyond all that, there is also a dark ambiguity in each poem. In 'The Citizens', the speaker seems to represent a group which has committed genocide or at least acts of violence and oppression; he knows that this "[i]s what is meant by history", and acknowledges it both guiltily and confidently, with an air of justification ("What language? You had no language.") At the end of the poem, the speaker fears both that his people will not leave an acceptable legacy, and that they will be judged adversely - although "We fear that the fields of blue air at the world's end/Will be the only court we face" could indicate, more than a fear of judgment, an even greater dread that the universe might be godless.
'Dedication' is a poem I have spent some time puzzling over. I think it helps to know a bit about Milosz's complex life under totalitarian regimes and as a defector to the West, and the criticisms he faced at times regarding his political and religious views. To me it is a profoundly ambiguous poem, to the extent that I can't entirely tell if he speaks to an enemy or to a friend. I am not sure if the speaker can tell, either. Is the dead one (ones?) who the speaker addresses an oppressor, or a victim? Does the speaker address all oppressors and victims? "I put this book here for you, who once lived/So that you should visit us no more," he says in conclusion. Is this an attempt to exorcise a dark force (from his mind, more so than literally) - or a wish to no longer be haunted by the thought that his poetry did not necessarily "save/Nations or people", or even one particularly loved person? Is the speaker mourning the fact that his poetry couldn't stop conflicts between people who, under other circumstances, might live in peace and be truly good?