Czesław Miłosz: A California Life

Cynthia L. Haven. Heyday, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-59714-553-4

“The irony is that the greatest Californian poet... could well be a Pole who wrote a single poem in English,” suggests journalist Haven (Evolution of Desire) in this detailed biography of Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004). California was crucial to Miłosz’s life and work, Haven argues, and notes that the Polish poet had a complicated relationship with the U.S.: “He longed for America yet loathed it, too.” The narrative follows Miłosz as he worked in U.C. Berkeley’s Slavic department starting in 1960 and taught Polish literature, during which he found American students “unreliable and undisciplined.” Haven also traces the poet’s relationship to his home country: when he returned for the first time in 30 years after he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, he had questioned “whether he still had any audience in his native land—after the censorship, after the years in exile—and so the crowds stunned him.” Much has been written about the poet, and Haven finds new ways into his life by inserting herself into the narrative—discovering Miłosz’s Bells in Winter in a Palo Alto Bookstore, visiting him in his Grizzly Peak home, attending his packed last public reading at Berkeley—and her examinations of the influence of place on his poetry are insightful. Fans of Miłosz’s work should give this a look. (Oct.)