FERRYING POETS AROUND OHIO: On Getting Lost with Milosz

I just watched the Polish movie, Milosz (2014), (*See below how to view the film), a wonderful documentary on his life and writing from his earliest life to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 till his death in 2004. 

My mind was replaying its own documentary of the six hours I spent with Milosz in the late 1970s, before the Nobel, and the music swelled for the moments when I got the two of us lost in the Flats, driving around, trying to find the Polish restaurant Cleveland State English professor Dave Evett had reserved for dinner.

Oh lord, how did I get here, I wondered for the thousandth time of my life in Cleveland, where I had a tendency to get into more wonderful trouble than I have anywhere before or since. 

How I got Milosz in my car was how I got so many poets into my old Ford Granada-- I was hanging out in the Cleveland State English Department and Alberta Turner, head of the CSU Poetry Center was looking for someone with a car. There was often deep silence as she'd ask around: people would flee, be off to class, to pick up kids, and then she'd look at me, the recent grad student turned adjunct. I never felt up to the job, but I loved Alberta and I loved poetry. I couldn't say know though my stomach would knot up.

I especially loved Milosz's poetry. His poem, "Ars Poetica" has been on my desk ever since those days, with its lines all poets should keep in mind:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us   
how difficult it is to remain just one person,   
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,   
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

More recently, I have posted this quote beside it, hoping to chasten my 
current tendency to want publish more and more poems: "Before you print a poem, you should reflect on whether this verse could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with him[her]self and the world."

And interestingly enough, my freshman composition students liked his poems too, especially but not only the many first and second generation Poles in the class. Later that evening, when I walked into the huge auditorium, I was surprised how many of the 70 of them had shown up for an evening reading.

I have no memory of where exactly I picked Milosz up, or how I got him to my car. I can't imagine what he thought of it. The paint job was still good, bright red exterior with a red exterior, but I had gotten it secondhand, and the gear shift, heavy with the dials for the lights, kept falling out of its socket and dangling by the wires. And an acquaintance had glued a white plush unicorn to the middle of the dashboard, not something I really wanted nor anything that I related to, but perhaps the acquaintance saw me as a unicorn, or at least a very small unusual beast. (Fortunately, this was a year before someone keyed my driver's door with "Fuck you," which I didn't have the money to have repainted.) 

But off we went, into the Cleveland Flats. I have never ever in my life since then gone into the Flats alone without getting lost, once on foot at 10:00 p.m. when my car broke down. But that afternoon was the first time, so I didn't yet know what I was incapable of.

Neither of us spoke much. Milosz had a reputation of being restrained, and I was absolutely tongue-tied. I am sure I told him how much I liked "Ars Poetica" and every other poem of his I had read, but really, I was focusing on DRIVING, which I have always been good at as long as I give it every ounce of my nerves. 

At one point, he reached up and patted the unicorn on my dashboard and said, "Have you seen the new Walt Disney movie about the unicorn? It is surprising, wonderful." 

And then, we were in the Flats. And then we were lost. The directions I had weren't working. And then, as my car was stopped at a set of railroad tracks, marching toward us came a phalanx of factory workers, dressed in denim blues, each carrying the silver or black lunch boxes that my dad, a welder back home, had carried every work day of his life. I remembered what this was from the news all that week. I turned to Milosz and said, "Today, one of our largest and oldest steel factories is closing. This is the end of the last day of work for these men." 

We sat in silence watching and nodding as the men passed, some nodding but most with their heads down. For me, that was the hour when Ohio's industry began corroding, blending into the rust belt along the Great Lakes.

In the documentary, after Milosz wins the Nobel and returns to Poland, he stands side by side with that country's most famous worker and writer, Walesa, and the two are jokingly referred to as "Lech Milosz and Czeslaw Walesa," which they both laugh at-- are they really that interchangeable? 

Was Milosz feeling as heavy-hearted as I in that moment? Did he understand as Walesa would have? I doubt it, but I did see him brought to tears shortly thereafter. 

Because shortly thereafter, I got my bearings or St. Anthony found me, or something, and we made it to the restaurant, which clearly was honored to have this native son. Every waitress-- and there were several for the large table of mostly English Department faculty-- was dressed in very native costumes. We ordered, there were toasts, so much I don't remember, but I remember that when Milosz took the first bite of his dish, big tears welled in his eyes, and he said, "This is the best bigos I have had since I left Poland." 

Could that have been true? Could there have been no Polish restaurants in Berkeley? Bigos, by the way, is a very traditional hunter's stew. You can find recipes online. I didn't have it that night, but I have had it since at Stash, the Polish restaurant in Old Montreal, and it's a pretty good stew.

After the dinner, someone else drove Milosz back to the auditorium, and I joined some of my students who had clustered together for their first poetry reading. We all knew we were hearing an august, moving reading from a true poet. After the reading, I waited in line with everyone else to say good-bye, never even asking him to sign my copy of his book. I never have. When I think of the signatures of famous poets I have ferried about and never gotten an autograph from, I can't quite figure why, but I don't regret it. For now, the memories are as indelible as ink. Certainly those few hours with Milosz are.

The movie goes on with Milosz' life long after Cleveland and me to win the Nobel Prize, at which point he is filmed at UC Berkeley. He had received the news of the award and gone off to teach his class on Dostoevsky, then joined the faculty in a crowded informal meeting where he was awarded a second prize, a parking place! Those of us who have done time at UCBerkeley (and me only as a three-month long guest) know what an award that is. Milosz, in one of the few times he smiles in the film, lights up and says the parking place is the biggest award he has ever received and everyone laughs. Ruefully. 

The film also takes us to his trip back to Poland, through the very difficult illness and death of his first wife and the suicide of one of his sons, as well as the death of his second wife. Many Polish academics and friends and his second son speak honestly about the best and worst of him. All in subtitles, which is to say, filmed in Polish, which is to say, probably the best language to convey his story


(*Note: Kanopy is an on-demand streaming video platform for public libraries and universities that offers films and documentaries. In Northeast Ohio, we are very fortunate to have this service through the Cuyahoga County Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library systems. It is terrific and if you have a membership to one of those libraries and haven't checked on it yet, you should.)

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