for Czesław Miłosz

For a moment as brief and long as eternity
he sees what the blind man sees in the blink of an eye:
a sun that never sets, forms wrought from gold, purity
before it falls or is restored to grace, the grey sky

beheld from the far side of dawn. As if in a dream,
he walks amid universals, essences of names,
and marvels at the beauty of birds, the snowflakes teem-
ing through the ethereal windows of souls, and the flames

of dear dead Heraclitus—now at last understood.
For as long as a moment is he sees the Father
embrace the Son—forever since the onset of time.

He has climbed out of the phantasmical cave for good,
martyred by what rills in the blood, no longer bothered
by those in fetters—yet part of the natural crime.

 

Leo Yankevich’s latest books are The Last Silesian (The Mandrake Press, 2005) Tikkun Olam & Other Poems (Second Expanded Edition), (Counter-Currents Publishing, 2012), Journey Late at Night: Poems & Translations (Counter-Currents Publishing, 2013) & The Hypocrisies of Heaven: Poems New & Old (Counter-Currents Publishing, 2016).  More of his work can be found at Leo Yankevich.com.

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15 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a very fine Petrarchan sonnet that touches upon a perennial philosophical problem: the relation of perceived change to imagined permanence. The “phantasmical cave” alludes to Plato and his world of ideal forms, while the mention of Heraclitus points towards the inescapable reality of an endless stream of mutability. “Forms wrought from gold” and”universals” are in perpetual counterpoint to “what rills in the blood.”

    It is very difficult to use the sonnet form for a complex philosophical meditation. Yankevich does it with ease.

    Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    Strangely, Joe, the octet is Shakespearean, and only the sestet Petrarchan, a hybrid in other words, which is perfectly fine. And the meter seems to be hexameter, the resultant longer lines allowing more breadth to lay out a philosophical idea. And I get the sense that the author is inviting his readers to become philosophers in their own right, but not so much as to solve the entire universe in a single poem.

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    The form is impressive; it certainly is a variant sonnet form as CB Anderson notes, and bold using that longer line. But what strikes me most is the sheer beauty and felicity of some of his expressions. I almost don’t know why but I find the ‘of dear dead Heraclitus’ extremely moving, and I love the philosophical idea of the eternal Father embracing the eternal Son eternally in that ‘is’. Truly, we have a marvellously gifted poet here.

    Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    The lines all have thirteen syllables (taking into account one elision in line 8), so the poem might be seen as purely syllabic, or as something that can be scanned loosely as hexameter. But they are not the strict alexandrines of Ernest Dowson, or others who have tried to assimilate that line into English poetry. Yankevich is an accomplished translator from Russian, Polish, and German, so the verse here may be echoing metrical patterns from those languages.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Duly noted. Only Leo can say for sure what his master plan was.

      Reply
  5. Amy Foreman

    Leo,
    I so enjoyed this sonnet’s pleasing interplay between the temporal (“For as long as a moment”) and the eternal (“forever since the onset of time”), between the unholy (“part of the natural crime”) and the perfect (“purity before it falls”). It is the fleeting glimpses into the infinite that mark great poetry, and you have given those to us in this poem, most eloquently.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      As usual, Amy, you have cut right to the heart of it. But why, pray tell, are glimpses into the infinite so fleeting? This is less a direct question than a pondering of the arcane nature of poetic expression in any human language.

      Reply
      • Amy Foreman

        Interesting question, C. B.

        I think of the passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” I was talking about this with my eldest son (20) yesterday, and he said, “Mom, we never consider this when we read the Old Testament prophets, but there were actually YEARS that went by between one visitation or ‘Word of the LORD’ that came to them, and another. We tend to think that if we knock on heaven’s door, then we ought to get an immediate reply, but the prophets waited. And waited.”

        Habakkuk, one of the minor prophets, must have felt this frustration of the infrequency and transience of revelation, when he counseled himself and his listeners: “For the vision [is] yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.”

        Thanks for the food for thought, C.B. Of course, I don’t know the answer to your question, and, indeed, probably none of us does. But I do know this: Watching and waiting for any revelation, whether from music, poetry, scripture, or everyday life, takes patience and continuance, qualities that our high-speed internet culture mostly eschews.

        And, in addition, I believe this: that I can look forward to a day when I will see “face to face,” when I no longer “know in part,” but when the gaps in my knowledge of the infinite will be filled in, completely. That’s when I’ll be able to answer your question. But, of course, you’ll know the answer, then, too! 🙂

  6. Leo Yankevich

    Thank you all for your comments. This poem is roughly 20 years old and written in the classical line of Polish poetry, the 13-syllable line used by Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in most of his sonnets.

    Below is a quote from Wiki:

    “Polish syllabic verse is similar to French. The most common lengths are the thirteen-syllable line (“trzynastozgłoskowiec” or “Polish alexandrine”), the eleven-syllable line (“jedenastozgłoskowiec”) and eight-syllable line (“ośmiozgłoskowiec”). The rules of Polish verse were established in the 16th century. Polish metrics were strongly influenced by Latin, Italian, and French poetry. To this day originally Italian forms (like ottava rima) are written in Poland in 11-syllable lines. Accentual verse was introduced into Polish literature at the end of 18th century but it never replaced traditional syllabic metres. Today 9-syllable lines are extremely popular. They are iambic or choriambic.[7]” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabic_verse

    Reply
  7. Leo Yankevich

    Here’s another poem, written during the last year of the previous century in blank 13 syllable lines:

    SHAMAN

    At the onset of grey time, gathering like storm
    over the deformed lull-licking limbs of onyx oaks,
    coal-black birds circle the chalcedony of the sky,
    looking for mercy where Gabriel would have greeted them.

    And, in the conjured waves worshipping the other shore,
    the shaman of secrets looks into his burnished stone,
    cast down again by the gentle sword of his own death—
    for the apocalyptic horses are ever neighing.

    Seven years old, I see him weeping in the first light
    of every disinherited dawn heaven disowns,
    on the banks of the milky river by the grave bridge,
    holding his heavy heart in his hand as he jumps in.
    And, forever, it seems, he sinks towards oblivion,
    like a saviour walking into the depths of a tear.

    Reply
  8. James A. Tweedie

    This poem and this conversation is why I enjoy and appreciate the SCP. Thank you, Leo, for introducing us all to yet another world of language and poetry.

    Reply
  9. David Paul Behrens

    All of you gentlemen (and Amy) in this comments section blow me away with your immense, superior, and scholarly knowledge about classical poetry and its history.
    My knowledge, limited in comparison, was gleaned from browsing in libraries, public and private, conversing with some aspiring and some accomplished poets, on park benches, street corners and occasional parties with intellectual and literary types. Somebody told me I always talked in rhymes, which prompted to start writing down my thoughts, which developed into structured verses of rhyming poetry. (I was once jailed for twenty-four hours in the same cell as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, of the free form (formless) stream of consciousness , beat poet variety, in the Dade County Stockade in Miami Beach in 1972.) I have no formal education in regard to writing.

    All I Know about this poem, “The Philosopher”, is that it is deeply fascinating, deeply moving in a spiritual sense, deeply thought provoking, transcending time, and of course, very well written. In short, it was very deep. You are a superb poet, Leo .

    Reply
  10. David Watt

    I cannot add much more to the comments above, except to say that it is thought provoking, spiritual, and extremely well written.

    Reply
  11. Monty

    Why Milosz, Leo? I’m certainly no expert on Heraclitus, but Czeslaw Milosz is the only Polish poet with whose work I’m fairly well acquainted . . and I just found myself wondering why this poem was ‘for’ him.
    Is it ‘cos Milosz has influenced yourself; or ‘cos Milosz was influenced by Heraclitus; or is there a link with Milosz in the poem which has flown straight over my head? Or is it none of the above?

    Reply

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