Jun. 30, 2010

The Reunion

by Jack Ridl

The last time I saw them we were young.
Ginny was a cheerleader. Ben was getting
A's in trig. Tonight we glance at nametags.

Around the cheese tray we say, "Of course
I remember you." "Yes, four years ago.
Things are better now." "No, she never
graduated, moved. I don't know where."

We look good. The food is just fine. The music
brings it all back and we dance the latest steps
across our brain's prom floor. It's all the same.

And nothing is. We're still dumb kids, just gray
and tame. If we had to do it again, we'd get it
right. Some are sure they got it right the first

time. They ask for another Manhattan, dry
martini, scotch on the rocks. They glisten
in their tans. They watch the rest of us,

the ones with comb-overs, two divorces,
the ones who look for lower gas prices,
a good night's sleep, group tours.

"The Reunion" by Jack Ridl. Reprinted with permission of the author.

It's the birthday of poet and dramatist John Gay, (books by this author) born in Barnstaple, England (1685), best known for his play The Beggar's Opera. When John Gay died in 1732, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His epitaph, written by Alexander Pope, is followed by two lines that Gay himself composed: "Life is a jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, and now I know it."

It's the birthday of the man who defined poetry as "the passionate pursuit of the Real": Czeslaw Milosz, (books by this author) born in Szetejnie, Lithuania (1911), when it was still part of the Russian Empire. In 2002, he wrote Milosz's ABCs, a book of alphabetical entries dealing with people Milosz knew and admired, historical events, abstract ideas, his own characters and poems, and relevant places or happenings in his own life. One of the entries is for "Szetejnie, Ginejty, and Peiksva," the hamlets around where he was born. He wrote: "A traveler journeying across that plateau today will not be able to intuit what once was on it. Smoke from the hamlets has vanished, along with the creaking of well pumps, the crowing of roosters, barking of dogs, people's voices. There is no longer the green of orchards embracing the roofs of the cottages — apple trees, pear trees, plum trees in every farmyard, between house, barn, and granary, so that the village streets were framed in trees. People loved trees there, and they also loved whittling away at wood: carved window shutters, symbols and letters chiseled into beams, stools of a prescribed shape, frequent roadside crosses linked with the radiant symbol of the sun and an inverted crescent moon, or little chapels in which sat a mournful Jesus."

He moved around Russia with his family while his dad served as an engineer in the army during World War I. Then he went to high school in Wilno, which was then part of Poland but is now the capital of Lithuania. He worked for Polish radio at the outbreak of World War II, and chose to stay in Warsaw through the war. Afterward, he worked as a political attaché for Poland, with assignments in New York, Washington, D.C., and Paris. In 1951, while Milosz was working in Paris, he found out that if he went back to Poland he would be arrested for not being Communist enough. So he sought political asylum in France, and from there he published fierce critiques of Stalinism, and more volumes of poetry. Finally, he grew tired of the leftist intellectual culture in France, and all the people who idealized Communism without really understanding what it was like to live under Communist rule. So he left for California, and lived in Berkeley for many years, teaching at the university there.

In 1981, he was finally able to return to Poland. A year earlier, one of Milosz's poems had been inscribed onto a monument in Gdánsk, Poland, for shipworkers who were killed by the government in a protest. At the base of the monument was a line from Psalm 29, translated by Milosz: "The Lord will give strength unto his people." When he went back to Poland the following year, members of the trade union put up a banner that said: "The People Will Give Strength Unto Their Poet."

In 1980, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. He published many collections of poetry, including City Without a Name (1969), Chronicles (1987), and The Second Space (2002), and many books of essays, like The Captive Mind (1953), about the behavior of intellectuals under repressive regimes. He died in 2004 at the age of 93.

Milosz said, "If I were asked to say where my poetry comes from I would say that its roots are in my childhood in Christmas carols, in the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and in the Bible.''

And he wrote: "To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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