Jun. 30, 2004

What We Miss

by Sarah Manguso

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Poem: "What We Miss," by Sarah Manguso, from The Captain Lands in Paradise. © Alice James Books. Reprinted with permission.

What We Miss

Who says it's so easy to save a life? In the middle of an interview for
the job you might get you see the cat from the window of the seven-
teenth floor just as he's crossing the street against traffic, just as
you're answering a question about your worst character flaw and lying
that you are too careful. What if you keep seeing the cat at every
moment you are unable to save him? Failure is more like this than like
duels and marathons. Everything can be saved, and bad timing pre-
vents it. Every minute, you are answering the question and looking
out the window of the church to see your one great love blinded by
the glare, crossing the street, alone.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of English playwright and poet John Gay, born in Barnstaple, England (1685). He's best known today for his ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera (1728).

It's the birthday of Ann Taylor, born in Islington, England (1782). She wrote many books of poetry for children, including Rhymes for the Nursery (1806). That book contains her most famous poem, "The Star," which was set to music and became "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

It was on this day in 1936 that the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was first published. Mitchell had been working as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal, and Gone with the Wind was her first and only novel. Gone with the Wind broke all publication records, selling more than fifty thousand copies in one day, a million in six months, two million in a year. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Booksellers' Association award in 1937.

It's the birthday of poet Czeslaw Milosz, born in Szetejnie, Lithuania (1911). He grew up in a Polish-speaking family. His father was an engineer for Tsarist Russia during World War I. The family traveled all over the country as his father helped rebuild roads and bridges. Milosz was fascinated by all the different religions in that part of Russia—Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Protestantism, Judaism and pagan mysticism. The family eventually settled in Poland. Milosz studied law there and in 1931 he co-founded a literary group that was so pessimistic about the future it was nicknamed the "Catastrophists." The group predicted a coming world war, but nobody believed them. He worked for Polish Radio for a while, but he got fired when he let Jews broadcast their opinions on the air. Another radio station sent him to cover the invasion of Poland by Nazi forces in 1939. After the invasion, he found a job as a janitor at a university, secretly writing anti-Nazi poetry for underground publications. He witnessed the genocide of the Jews in Warsaw, and was one of the first poets to write about it in his book of poems Rescue (1945).

After the war, Milosz got a job working as a diplomat for communist Poland, though he wasn't a party member. One night in the winter of 1949, on his way home from a government meeting, he saw several jeeps filled with political prisoners, surrounded by soldiers. He later said, "It was then that I realized what I was part of." He defected in 1951, and made it to Paris even though his passport had been confiscated. Most intellectuals in Paris were pro-communist at the time, and they thought of Milosz as either a traitor or a madman for leaving Poland. The poet Pablo Neruda attacked him in an article called "The Man Who Ran Away." In 1953, Milosz published a book about communism called The Captive Mind, in which he argued that people were too ready to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of an imaginary future.

He moved to the United States and began teaching at the University of California at Berkley in 1960. He had mixed feelings about the United States: He wrote, "What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy!"

He kept writing poetry in Polish, even though almost no one was reading it. His books had been banned in Poland, and his poems weren't translated into English until 1973. Then, in 1980, he got a phone call at 3:00 in the morning telling him that he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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