cover image Milosz's ABC's

Milosz's ABC's

Czeslaw Milosz, Czesaw Miosz. Farrar Straus Giroux, $24 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-374-19977-7

""Man has been given to understand/ that he lives only by the grace of those in power./ Let him therefore busy himself sipping coffee, catching butterflies."" So muses Polish migr poet and Nobel laureate Milosz in one of his earlier poems, and such might be the principle guiding this most recent collection of his writings. Bits and pieces of memoir are ranged in alphabetical order, making up a curious glossary of a life lived in Poland and the United States and a literary career spanning six decades. Reminiscences of Poland before, during and after WWII occupy much of the volume. Even when Milosz is chronicling his life since he settled permanently in California in 1960, after a period of exile in France, his memories center on friends made in childhood at school in Wilno. Brief character sketches are intermixed with reflections on subjects like Milosz's sense of obligation to the Polish language and Polish literary tradition, his admiration of poets like Walt Whitman and Joseph Brodsky, and, more generally, on themes like curiosity, fame and terror. It is these sections that will engage American readers, who elsewhere are likely to flounder in a sea of names. The fragments of autobiography collected in this edition represent only a selection from the texts of two Polish ABCs, and readers will be grateful for the culling. It is difficult to escape the sense thatDlike butterflies in a dusty caseDthe scraps of memory affixed here have lost their living glitter. (Jan.)