Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Encounter' by Czeslaw Milosz (1936)

                   We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
                        A red wing rose in the darkness.

                        And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
                        One of us pointed to it with his hand.

                        That was long ago. Today, neither of them is alive,
                        Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

                        O my love, where are they, where are they going
                        The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
                        I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

                        trans: Czeslaw Milosz & Lillian Vallee


It is extraordinary that ‘Encounter’ is separated by 35 years from Milosz’s poem ‘Gift’ (the piece I started these reflections with) and yet seems to have so much in common with it. It is as though ‘Gift’ closes a small circle in his work which, for me, is more successful than the large orbits of his other grander pieces. With ‘Encounter’ he makes use of the same simple and direct style as found in the later poem. And like that poem, it is incredible how far he takes the reader in such a short interval.

The one feature that clearly distinguishes the two poems is the time-frame in which the poem exists and this difference gives rise to a difference in form. ‘Gift’ is one moment, and that moment is lived through in one stanza which holds it together. That poem does have a simple sequential quality, but it is not just a sequence of events – it is a sequence of images and feelings.

With ‘Encounter’ Milosz is dealing with memory and events separated by a great gap in time – or perhaps more correctly, the one event looked at twice from different times. And this event is not so much one moment but one moment interrupted by a happening – the quiet monotonous motion of the wagon and the thoughts of those travelling on it, jolted as a hare flashes across the road in front of them.

Just as the hare’s sudden presence interrupts the travellers’ awareness, the poem interrupts the awareness of the reader by its sudden shift in time: “That was long ago.” It is interesting that this fracture in the time-frame is quite similar to that used in Robert Creeley’s ‘The Long Road…’ (which I looked at last week) when he writes in a plain manner, “We all grew up”. And in both poems the following lines makes clear the nature of that fracture: the events that have occurred in between that moment in the wagon and the point of recollection. In both cases it is really death that has happened.

To extend the comparison further, the two poems – having created this shift in time and perspective – resolve the implications of it differently. For Creeley, there is the expected sense of longing and, even more directly, anxiety in the line:

                                    Where are they now?

It is significant that the poem hangs on a question. With Milosz, the effect would’ve been the same had he ended the poem on the third last line, with his question:

                                     O my love, where are they (?)…

While he doesn’t attempt an explicit answer to this question he does qualify it with the last line:

                                    I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

So where Creeley’s poem ends with the hint of the existential, Milosz finds a kind of mystery which cannot be understood, but hides behind such moments. It is as though the hare has become a symbol for the unexpected and ultimately life enforcing nature of existence. Yet, there is also a hint of uncertainty, I think. The fact that the last line must explicitly state his feeling might suggest that it is a conscious movement towards hope. And that movement, sudden like the hare’s, inverts the meaning. Perhaps hope is just that: an inversion of our expectation and experience.

Here's a wonderful feature length celebration of Milosz's work at UC Berkeley, introduced by poet Robert Haas.


  1. Great choice Noel. A beautiful poem that captures that moment when two separate existences meet, and bring a new reality into being. Though separately, or individually they may pass away, the reality they brought into being by their meeting is suspended like a knot in time. Wonderful!

  2. Thanks Niall (I've finally rumbled your true identity Dublinepost!). Really glad you enjoyed the poem. I've only watched some of the celebration but it's a great introduction to the man and his work. Only one more poem to look at before I move onto different subjects. Appreciate you hanging in there through this particular project. Good luck with your own work.

  3. This is such a lovely poem, it reminds me of Death in Nova Scotia by Elizabeth Bishop and I feel has echoes of the style of Ethan Frome by Edith wharton. Great choice of poem!