Monday, May 31, 2010

Around the world in 300 poems

A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry Whom would you find to be a better poetry teacher than a poet whose work you love and admire? You shall consider yourself fortunate when such a poet leaves behind a book that is nor a textbook neither an anthology but a bit of both and a little extra.
"A book of luminous things" is equally Czeslaw Milosz's personal selection from the world's greatest poetry and precious teaching material since Milosz adds insightful comments to most of his choices. The reader is charmed at first by exquisitely crafted poem. Than as she sinks deeper beyond the poetic form, she starts learning as well and returns many times to rediscover a poem.

As Wang Chien allows us a glance at the traditional Chinese he is also teaching us about the delicate craft beyond poems that are "very vivid and evocative, able to convey a complex relationship in a few lines .

The New Wife

On the third day she went down to the kitchen,

Washed her hands, prepared the broth,

Still unaware of her new mother's likings,

She asks her sister to taste." [1]

Judah Al-Harizi, a middle age Hebrew poet from Toledo, succeeds to capture the secret of lighting -one of the best I read - with this "slightly jocular"[2] quatrain:

"The Lightning

And the lightning laughs at the clouds,

like a warrior who runs without growing weary or faint.

Or like a night watchman who dozes off,

then opens an eye for an instant , and shuts it." [3]

The anthology includes poems  from all around the world and poets from times unknown to the 20th century. The carefully handpicked poems are organized under eleven themes, each choice stressed by Milosz in a short introductory essay . Some of the thematic choices are very familiar such as "Nature", "History", " Situations" , "Epiphany" ,"The Moment" or "Travel". A couple are more original but not quite surprising : "The secret of the thing" or "Nonattachment".

The thematic choice that intrigued me most and ,in a short time,  became a favorite "Woman's Skin". The chapter is dedicated to women as poets who, by writing about their own flesh, were able to step beyond cannons and express their own femininity. Milosz regards the poems chosen for this theme as love poems because the reader cannot help but fall in love with these women . Such is one Sanskrit poem re-created for us in English by Steve Kowit: " In the morning,/holding her mirror,/the young woman/ touches/her tender/lip with/her finger &[....]"[4]. But after the death of the beloved, the skin of the now lonely woman withers and looking in the mirror is a sorrowful experience :


When I look in the mirror

My face frightens me.

How horrible I have become!

When Spring comes back

Weakness overcomes me

Like a fatal sickness.


I am filled with bitter embarrassment

When I see on the curtains

The shadows of two swallows making love"[5]

Poems about  the old woman, past her ages of romance, are rare "as if there were a tendency to relegate her to the realm of half-existence. "[6] But Anna Swir, a twentieth century Polish poet, captures the renewed beauty of a sixty old single woman as she re-lives a great love story:

"She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,

her hair streams in the wind.

Her dear one says:

"You have hair like pearls.""[7]

I hope that the few poetry fragments I quoted here are going to entice you towards purchasing the book, or at least borrowing from your local library. Even if you do not take my word on that "A book of luminous things" offers us an unique opportunity to learn a few important things about the craft of reading and writing poetry from one of the best poets of the twentieth century. Not only that you will find at least one of your favorite poems or poets included in this anthology, but you will probably find a few more poems or poets to add to the list of favorites.


[1] Czeslaw Milosz, A book of luminous things, p 192. translation by J.P. Seaton

[2]idem p.58

[3] idem p. 58 . translation by T. Carmi

[4] idem, p.215. A fragment from "In the morning", published by Kowit in Passionate Journey. Poems and Drawings in the Erotic Mood.City Miner Books (July 1984)

[5]idem, p.218 . The poet is LiCh'ing-chao, who was once as famous as Li Po and Tu Fu among men, speaks about her own experience as an widow by using a conventional poetic voice for the Chinese poetry - the abandoned concubine. translation by Kenneth Rexroth.

[6] idem, p.219

[7] Fragment. translation by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan of" The Greatest Love" . One of my favorites, the image of a woman letting her  hair to be blown free by the wind as her age and status of single (maybe widowed) woman with grown children had freed her from convention and she can now experience the greatest love.


Anonymous said...

this is a wonderful review
and i think i will enjoy that book. thank you for bringing it to my attention..

Ana said...


I am glad that my review brought this book to your attention - you will definitely find a few poems you will enjoy in it.