And the city stood in its brightness when years later I
And life was running out, Ruteboeuf’s or Villon’s.
Descendants, already born, were dancing their dances.
Women looked in their mirrors made from a new metal.
What was it all for if I cannot speak.
She stood above me, heavy, like the earth on its axis.
My ashes were laid in a can under the bistro counter.
– Czesław Miłosz, “And the City Stood in Its Brightness”
To return, you must first leave a place, or it must leave you.
Autumn in Berkeley. Dusk. Not far from the university where Czesław Miłosz taught, I wind up paved streets with E. We ascend into a dusty eucalyptus grove, only somewhat talking. A child in a red coat (which must be stifling) cries and cries and cries. The smell of growth. Some jasmine. When we can see the San Francisco bay, we halt. Stop. Full stop. Human industry, factories, cars, houses, emits its pollution. We could chart matrixes in the lights, astrologies in all shades of yellow. A few stars emerge like piercings in the flesh of sky.
The next day, I find a book at my mother’s house, in a cabinet cut from mango wood. It is a 1981 edition of Czesław Miłosz’s Selected Poems with an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth. It is white, black, grey, and green, the palette of a northern winter. Inside, he has signed his name in pen.
Born in what is now Lithuania in 1911, Miłosz lived in the United States from 1960 until 1993, returning to Poland for the last 11 years of his life. I don’t know when he encountered this copy of his poems, or even how it came into my family’s possession. But it was after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, which was 9 years after my mother’s birth. Lineage.
My mother is the daughter of a Polish man who was born in London under bombs.
Miłosz referred to language as a homeland. He wrote in Polish.
My mother never learned hers. Neither did her sister. Neither did I.
There is grief for home and grief for artefacts and grief for language, which is also grief for memory or for the people who nest within that memory.
I return to one poem – “And the City Stood in Its Brightness”– again and again. An unnamed narrator returns to a city that was once, presumably, their home, which is both familiar and rendered strange by distance and time. Its Parisian-ness is hard to ignore, with the reference to mediaeval poet Villon and humorist Ruteboeuf, the bistro, and a dual reverence and self-consciousness (Paris was a place of refuge and exile for Miłosz). A traveller, the narrator is witness and is witnessed. On display (to be gazed upon, reciprocated), a voyeur and a flâneur, transient and wayward.
Miłosz – who witnessed oppressive regimes, conflict and exile – wrote through a tragic yet playful view of history, the archival, the lost. His work, and this poem in particular, captures the atemporal, affective, even aesthetic currents of loss.
Places I have carried the poem: California, Maine, New York. An apple orchard, a Bronx-bound Subway, a rented car. Morocco. A man’s formica kitchen counter. A public bathroom, a bench. A black leather bag with no brand, lined in floral silk. An apartment. A hotel. A house.
This could also be read as places the poem has carried me.
Miłosz held this book, my book, an object, an artefact, though I don’t know when. I imagine the traces of his body, dead skin or a hair caught beneath the dust jacket. His impression, a haunting. I oscillate between wonder and despair.
“I am here,” wrote Miłosz in the opening to his book Visions from San Francisco Bay. The words echo. I am here. I am here. I am here.
To be here, now, is to be on a planet that is warming at an unprecedented rate.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht first used the term solastalgia to articulate the grief he witnessed in communities whose environments had been permanently altered or destroyed by some aspect of the climate crisis. The word is a combination of the Latin solacium, meaning comfort or solace, and the Greek algia, meaning pain. It is distinct from trauma. In English, it has become rather ubiquitous in discussions of environmental grief.
We’ve started longing for impossible things. Perhaps our houses, if they have been taken from us, through natural disaster or eviction or sea level rise. We are sad in new ways.
Solstice. At my father’s house, in a northern state, snow weights our houses to the earth. I watch from the living room, orange as citrus pulp and full of windows. In muscular masses, the snow against the holly, the neighbour’s trashcans, their red car. Against the brown fence, the telephone pole, the cedar.
I returned to this city after a long absence. And it stood in its brightness, which was streetlights polluting the night.
Could this environmental grief become a permanent condition of living on an Earth convulsed by new and harsher disasters, rising and acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, disappearing species, widening economic disparity, drought, famine, toxic water, toxic waste?
I want to ask the poet how to write an elegy to my sinking city.
I want to ask how to write warning signs for future people who may not speak our languages. How to say Danger, this is radioactive. How to signal Landfill.
I want to ask how to write what cleans.
I want to ask how to write what is electric, bleeding, alive when I am so sad.
I want to understand the elegance of this disaster, how not to cry.
“And the City Stood in Its Brightness” is a speculative adventure and a speculative answer. Time serves as the vanishing point. The poem – the present – lives at that vanishing point. It performs traffic control at the intersection of epochs.
They observe artefacts and space like a museum exploded into a gelatinous bath and everything stopped, strewn and suspended, beneath the surface. Objects listed in the poem: mascara, alabaster vials, the menstruation girdle of an Egyptian princess, the narrator’s own ashes.
It is both apocalyptic and utterly unconcerned with apocalypse – whatever it is, was, or could be.
New York, February. It has been three months since E and I climbed the Berkeley hillside. I text him: Is there a word for nostalgia for a temporary home? He does not reply.
I send him a photograph of the grey-white snow in the street. It is windy so the snow isn’t falling, it is coming from everywhere.
The trick to gathering snow is that you cannot clutch too hard or peer too closely. Your heat and your breath – translations of the phrase I am stubbornly living – are menaces. Is this the trick to the climate crisis, to not look too closely? What is the labyrinth we have built for ourselves? Do we fetishize the orbiting, spiraling, tumbling motion towards an end?
I fear the conservative underpinnings of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be nationalistic, discriminatory and White-supremacist when tied to a desire towards a history of homogeneity that never even existed.
Still, solastalgia can be understood as a new kind of nostalgia or homesickness: for lost environments. Thus, something impossible.
In this new city. I slow down when I pass the psychics, never stopping. Road salt eats the zipper on my boot, so I wear it unzipped.
I see an astrologist. She reads my natal chart while we gaze into each other’s faces on the computer screen, unable to sense. She shows me an amethyst, a soda bottle and a Russian doll.
I try to transcribe on my hands, but she is talking too fast. Afterwards, only what is on my thumb is legible: We write towards impossibilities, we scrape the intestines of the possible world for DNA samples, we imagine. We seek what is lost (and thus what is past, what is future).
The apex of a wave is called the crest. The poet lives, sweaty and restless, on the crest of sanity/insanity, legibility/illegibility, fertility/fate.
I found the book months, maybe years ago now in a house my mother no longer inhabits. There is randomness and ugliness and grace to possessing and in turn being possessed.
I (am) possess(ed by) this book as a talisman.
The book contains futures not yet forcefully commodified (as seeds were by Monsanto).
What can poetry do for us, something mutable and hybrid, multiple and unbound? Can we return to language its (wildness)?
Rain. New York. I go to the museum with a friend. We walk 50 blocks to save money. We spend our time as if we are rich in it. We are silent then boisterous then quiet again on our pilgrimage.
The trouble is that the museum – an archive of many, multitudes – resists the associative. It is brittle and static. Yet Miłosz, in the generous gesture of verse, rips the table cloth from beneath an ordered arrangement of someone else’s dead objects. He gives them their names and their menstruation back. He lets them be filthy.
A few years ago, I found a book by an author whose language my tongue had forgotten but the rest of my body still knew. The radio humming in my mother’s kitchen. Talk of dust storms, refugees in the Mediterranean.
A few years ago, we were younger but ancient still.
I remember winter, storming. Decay. If I were Marguerite Duras, I would say my face was devastated even though I was technically teenaged. Nice day, we nod with our neighbours in agreement, the snow melting to run-off around our sneakers.
We will long for a cold that we cannot have, one that freezes our spit to our lips. We will hunger for our skin to dry out and crackle. We will want things we don’t yet know how to want.
To face it. To be faceless against time. To witness the faces of the prism, as they catch the sun, the moon, headlights.
We might ask: What if home hasn’t happened yet? What if it was centuries ago?
We must ask: How do we hold (onto) the home(s) we are losing?
Without suggesting comparison to the fast brutality of militarism, hunger, natural disaster and war, I wonder if poets who have lived through their own generation’s traumas might ease our environmental frustrations, at least by giving us words and images to construct our own nests, altars and funeral pyres.
I keep a dried rose on my window sill. It is a genetically-modified flower, an artefact.
I am just trying to capture this solastalgia, this slow kind of grief, something insidious and magic, so quiet we can turn away from it and trick ourselves into believing the comforts of living a life presently, perhaps fully. What happens if we turn to face it?
Click to read the translation of this essay.
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