Another Way of Knowing – Reading A Book of Luminous Things

“I would have nothing against calling my anthology a book of enchantments.” (xx)

–Czeslaw Milosz

Czesław Milosz not only has a difficult name for English speakers to get their tongues around, his poetry is also difficult. But in 1996 he edited a collection of poems that is full, as he says in the introduction, “of enchantments.” A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry is not a collection of the Polish Nobel laureate’s poems, but a drawing together of poems from around the world and through many centuries, and the criteria Milosz used to choose them were “size and accessibility to the reader.” (xv) He wanted brief poems that could sing to many ears.

The collection is luminous, as promised. I’ll just give you a taste by way of encouragement to have you go read more. This is an excellent book for people who think they might want to read more poetry but are perhaps frightened off by its reputation.

One of the sections I most enjoyed was titled “Nature,” which features a number of reflections on animals. It has always seemed to me that animals have an admirable way of being in the world, unburdened by human tendencies toward excessive self-consciousness. The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska obviously feels the same:

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.

Scruples are alien to the black panther.

Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.

The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.

The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly

live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos

but in other respects it is light

–‘In Praise of Self-Deprecation’ (21)

In a section titled “Moments,” poems try to capture the artistic and philosophical weight of the very instant. Another Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, captures the imperative to hold on to passing time with a beautiful image:

‘In the rear-view mirror suddenly

I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;

great things dwell in small ones

for a moment.’

–‘Auto Mirror’ (128)

Or perhaps the ancient Chinese poetry that dots this collection will speak to you. It was a revelation to me. Li Po, an 8th century poet, captures something eternal about the experience of meditation:

The birds have vanished into the sky, 

and now the last cloud drains away.

 

We sit together, the mountain and me, 

until only the mountain remains. 

—‘The Birds Have Vanished’ (277)

Poetry is teaching me to listen for the transcendent in every small thing of the earth. It is a way of seeing that escapes other modes of knowing. Denise Levertov imagines reason as a “polished cell/reflecting our own faces.”

…God lives 

on the other side of that mirror, 

but through the slit where the barrier doesn’t 

quite touch ground, manages still 

to squeeze in — as filtered light, 

splinters of fire, a strain of music heard 

then lost, then heard again.

—‘Contraband’ (278)

Come stay awhile among these luminous things. Come experience something more.

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