by Czeslaw Milosz
What is good? Garlic. A leg of lamb on a spit.
Wine with a view of boats rocking in a cove.
A starry sky in August. A rest on a mountain peak.
What is good? After a long drive water in a pool and a sauna.
Lovemaking and falling asleep, embraced, your legs touching hers.
Mist in the morning, translucent, announcing a sunny day.
I am submerged in everything that is common to us, the living.
Experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh.
Walking past the vague outline of skyscrapers? anti-temples?
In valleys of beautiful, though poisoned, rivers.
“In Common” starts out like a Philosophy 101 lecture. “What is good?” the tweedy professor asks. Into the hall bursts Zorba the Greek with an answer. Dancing down the aisle, he sings about the pleasures of our non-cerebral regions—food, wine, sex, sun, sleep—and eventually leads the class in a communal dance.*
But this is no hedonist manifesto. The pleasures in the poem are communal, that’s the point. Lamb on a spit is for a group, not one person; lovemaking necessarily involves two people; skyscrapers are built to house many. What is good is what we have in common, and in the poem these commonalities begin to feel as physical as an ocean or a particle wave that passes through every human alive and dead. I am submerged, the speaker says, in everything that is common to us, the living.
The pronouns in the poem reflect that amorphous feeling. The speaker moves from second person (your legs touching hers) to first person singular (I am submerged) to first person plural (us, the living), and back again to first person singular, taking as object third person plural. This last shift is perplexing. The them in experiencing this earth for them distances the speaker from the great mass of other people even as the words in the phrase claim inter-connection. Perhaps the shifting perspective allows the reader to experience the speaker’s dual existence: his awareness of being a singular being even as he dissolves, joyfully, into otherness.
Onto this bliss Milosz splatters two big heaping piles of dung—anti-temples and poisoned rivers. What exactly is an anti-temple? (My answer: if a temple is a public space to worship the great Other, an anti-temple is a place to worship the self. Think clothing stores, salons, spas, gyms, yoga studios, or any space devoted to consumerism.) And what does it mean that the beautiful rivers are polluted? Perhaps that the rivers have been poisoned by people, careless, selfish or ignorant people. Still the speaker claims river as good. Good because we hold it in common.
Milosz includes these potholes in his gratitude list so we know he is talking about real life, not a photo-shopped version. He is absolutely enraptured by sharing the earth with fellow humans, the flawed and the beloved alike, the bad with the good. It all belongs, as my friend and resident wise man Tom MacGrath would say.
As we emerge from pandemic isolation and find that the things and people we most longed for irritate us or are difficult to acclimate to, the way expectations so rarely live up to reality, “In Common” is a good poem to keep on hand.
Here’s a bio of Milosz from a previous post:
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 lived under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally survived 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.
*If you’re wondering what’s with the Zorba the Greek reference: I’ve long been obsessed with his dance. There’s something ancient and soulful about men dancing with other men—Zorba’s dance in particular is an enchanting display of masculine emotion and joy. Link here for the original and here and here for other examples.