She sits on the mountain that is her home / and the landscapes slide away. One goes down / and then up to the monastery. One drops away/ to a winnowing ring and a farmhouse where a girl / and her mother are hanging the laundry. / There’s a tiny port in the distance where / the shore reaches the water. She is numb / and clear because of the grieving in that world. / She thinks of the bandits and soldiers who / return to the places they have destroyed. / Who plant trees and build walls and play music / in the village square evening after evening, / believing the mothers of the boys they killed / and the women they raped will eventually come / out of the white houses in their black dresses / to sit with their children and the old. / Will listen to the music with unreadable eyes.
From A BOOK of LUMINOUS THINGS, ed, Czeslaw Milosz p. 127
FRAME of REFERENCE Polemos [war] is the king and father of all things for Heraclitus, but there is a logos that runs through all things, a universal intimate in the course of things. But where is such a logos in Nietzsche? Deeper than logos is chaos. More intimate than the universal , logos itself at bottom is chaos. Nothing one reads in Nietzsche seems to have resources rich enough to prevent, finally, the collapse of the difference between “eros ourranios” [heavenly eros] and “eros tyrannos.” WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 374f.
Evil is hard to think about. The imagination calls on the apocalyptic traditions in its efforts to do so. That risks the charge of self-indulgence, or worse, the charge of the manipulation of the emotions of woe and wonder to gain power over a helpless audience. Because of its minor role in the human economy, lyric offers ways of contemplating this most difficult theme.
In his headnote to this poem in A Book of Luminous Things, Milosz, who among modern poets was no foreigner to the themes of evil, mentions almost in passing that the poet Linda Gregg was aware of the prominence of evil in her setting, a landscape in modern Greece. The tone of this remark defies description.
Enigmatic might do it. The value of the poem is the failure of monstrosity to defeat the artist. Gregg makes excellent use of the lyric narrative. With roots in many world cultures, the lyric narrative flourished in Ancient Greece, as readers of this column are aware. Gregg makes no use of ancient myth. Her mode is quiet objective description before it develops the deeper voices.
Quiet it is not quite: the long, almost casual lines unfold a syntax both musical, physical, and impersonal. The subject “she” seems purely instrumental. Within a few short parallel constructions it focuses on a domestic, mother-daughter scen, then the background in the distance: a tiny port where the shore reaches the water. It’s as if reaching the water was the point all along.
And the poem turns inward. “She” sits on her mountain doing something women are often seen doing in art and life, so the poem suggests. But the quality of her detachment is not a personal excellence but a response to what she sees. She is “numbed” by what she sees as she looks down her mountain, but is also “clear.” She’s not excited or confused by it.
She “thinks.” Nothing poetic, she just sticks to the facts about the people involved, the bad actors as we say now— bandits and soldiers. But thinking is still paying attention to them in terms of what they do not what they know. The reader, carefully preparared by the narrative’s inward turn, may fail to see the bandits and soldiers for what they have become.
Returning to the places they have destroyed they build it back. Plant trees. Build walls— trees and walls being targets of past destructions. And now they fill the evenings with music they make, filling the new-made village with the sounds of normal, creative, human life. And they believe in the redemptive power of good works and patience. The poem suggests a difference between humans and walls and trees but only suggests by invisible or rather inaudible but growing gaps in the narrative.
But “she” as narrator becomes less numb and less clear now. Her detachment has given way to truths less given to description and quiet syntax. As practiced readers of lyric we expect by now a shift in point of view. The five lines of the closing section have the long relaxed lines of the body of the poem but they are charged not with recognition and acceptance but with disbelief.
Lyric pushes us beyond what we are used to. We are not used to seeing past and present in terms of the unspeakable nature of Evil. The woman on the mountain, we now know, only exists because of the poem. Her very human voice has become the voice of truth in the poem. Yes, numb and clear, but not only that.
Finally the pretense of syntactic calm gives way to the violence of its theme. A sentence fragment ends with a poetic figure, a figure which just barely contains the unspeakable and only does so because we will it, because we pause in the end to contemplate the infinite (unbounded) meaning of what is the Other — “The unreadable”— to the poem itself.
We have come to expect this as the unfinishable way lyric ends, but we never expect THIS opening so strangely before us now in the absence of words.