“Tomber amoureux. To fall in love. Does it occur suddenly or gradually? If gradually, when is the moment “already”? I would fall in love with a monkey made of rags. With a plywood squirrel. With a botanical atlas. With an oriole. With a ferret. With a marten in a picture. With the forest one sees to the right when riding in a cart to Jaszuny. With a poem by a little-known poet. With human beings whose names still move me. And always the object of love was enveloped in erotic fantasy or was submitted, as in Stendhal, to a “cristallisation,” so it is frightful to think of that object as it was, naked among the naked things, and of the fairy tales about it one invents. Yes, I was often in love with something or someone. Yet falling in love is not the same as being able to love. That is something different.
— Falling in Love, Czeslaw Milosz
I was urging my husband to try on a pair of suede saddle shoes when I made my most recent discovery about men: “adorable” is not a word they want to be associated with. Perhaps the word calls up embarrassing memories of the last time they let their mothers dress them.
But there’s not a better label for a man carrying a poem in his wallet, so at the risk of offending the owner of the thumb in the picture above and all carriers of wallet poems, I say, is this adorable or what? Adorable that the poem means so much to this man that he carries it close to his person, and from the looks of it and the date the poem was first published in the New Yorker (2004), he has carried it around for years.
Here he is with his wife, my friend Lynn. I won’t say the offensive word, but how can you not think it when you look at the two of them together, beaming after 24 years of marriage?
I spoke with Marc at a book reading of another friend (you can link to her site here), and while we were discussing my poem-elfing habits (I swear I’m not such an insufferable bore that I brought it up), he lifted this delicate, creased paper from his wallet to show me. What he was most taken with was the end:
Yet falling in love is not the same as being able to love.
I can see why the line deserves wallet space. It’s almost an aphorism and could serve as a mirror, a compass or guideline. I can’t follow the whole of this prose poem—I’m lost on the frightfulness of the object as it was and what it means to submit to Stendhal’s crystallization–but I can trail close enough behind to arrive at Milosz’s destination:
falling in love is not the same as being able to love. That is something different.
After the feverish list of all the objects and people Milosz has fallen in love with in his life, the calm certainty of the final lines settles and focuses the whole piece.
Here’s an entertaining exercise: list everything you’ve ever fallen in love with, and notice that falling in love with people and falling in love with things are in the same category, as in Milosz’s list. The manmade silly love objects like a plywood squirrel, and the lovelier natural things like a forest seen from a cart, are on the same level as falling in love with a person. Falling in love with either people or things happens passively. We’re struck by whimsy, charm or beauty, and we fall. While I have never fallen in love with a ferret, just yesterday I met a beautiful young girl at a café and fell in love with her name: Sophia Cinnamon (This could be a phonetic spelling, but I prefer it.) Nothing is required of me in my enjoyment of her name. Sophia Cinnamon! But being able to love is a quality that will require action.
The perspective that comes from separating falling in love from being able to love comes as a relief. It’s a relief to let superficial feelings come and go. This perspective reminds me of conversations I’ve had with my teens about their moods and love dramas. Don’t worry so much about it, I say. Things pass. It’s normal. Milosz has a Zen-like, meditative sensibility that allows swooning feelings but doesn’t invest in them.
Although Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was born in Lithuania, he considered himself a Polish writer, Polish being the language his family spoke for centuries. He grew up under Csarist rule, and later under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally under Stalinist rule before becoming an American citizen. Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.”
Milosz is considered one of the great minds and poets of the 20th century. Fluent in five languages, he translated the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Whitman into Polish, taught Slavic languages at Berkley, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His face has been put on a Polish postage stamp. He’s honored in a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has a poem inscribed on a memorial to shipyard workers killed by Communists in Gdansk.
Most relevant to this poem, however, is the fact that he was married to his first wife for 42 years before she died. He was married to his second wife for ten years before he was widowed again.