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MILOSZ, Czeslaw

A Book in the Ruins

A dark building. Crossed boards, nailed up, create

A barrier at the entrance, or a gate

When you go in. Here, in the gutted foyer,

The ivy snaking down the walls is wire

Dangling. And, over there, the twisted metal

Columns rising from the undergrowth of rubble

Are tattered tree trunks. This could be the brick

Of the library, you don't know yet, or the sick

Grove of dry white aspen where, stalking birds,

You met a Lithuanian dusk stirred

From its silence only by the wails of hawks.

Now walk carefully. You see whole blocks

Of ceiling caved in by a recent blast.

And above, through jagged tiers of plaster,

A patch of blue. Pages of books lying

Scattered at your feet are like fern-leaves hiding

A moldy skeleton, or else fossils

Whitened by the secrets of Jurassic shells.

A remnant life so ancient and unknown

Compels a scientist, tilting a stone

Into the light, to wonder. He can't know

Whether it is some dead epoch's shadow

Or a living form. He looks again

At chalk spirals eroded by the rain,

The rust of tears. Thus, in a book picked up

From the ruins, you see a world erupt

And glitter with its distant sleepy past,

Green times of creatures tumbled to the vast

Abyss and backward: the brows of women,

An earring fixed with trembling hand, pearl button

On a glove, candelabra in the mirror.

The lanterns have been lit. A first shiver

Passes over the instruments. The quadrille

Begins to curl, subdued by the rustle

Of big trees swaying in the formal park.

She slips outside, her shawl floating in the dark,

And meets him in a bower overgrown

With vines, They sit close on a bench of stone

And watch the lanterns glowing in the jasmine.

Or here, this stanza: you hear a goose pen

Creak, the butterfly of an oil lamp

Flutters slowly over scrolls and parchment,

A crucifix, bronze busts. The lines complain

In plangent rhythms, that desire is vain.

Here a city rises. In the market square

Signboards clang, a stagecoach rumbles in to scare

A flock of pigeons up. Under the town clock,

In the tavern, a hand pauses in the stock

Gesture of arrest — meanwhile workers walk

Home from the textile mill, townsfolk talk

On the steps—and the hand moves now to evoke

The fire of justice, a world gone up in smoke,

The voice quavering with the revenge of ages.

So the world seems to drift from these pages

Like the mist clearing on a field at dawn.

Only when two times, two forms are drawn

Together and their legibility

Disturbed, do you see that immortality

Is not very different from the present

And is for its sake. You pick a fragment

Of grenade which pierced the body of a song

On Daphnis and Chloe. And you long,

Ruefully, to have a talk with her,

As if it were what life prepared you for.

—How is it, Chloe, that your pretty skirt

Is torn so badly by the winds that hurt

Real people, you who, in eternity, sing

The hours, sun in your hair appearing

And disappearing? How is it that your breasts

Are pierced by shrapnel, and the oak groves burn,

While you, charmed, not caring at all, turn

To run through forests of machinery and concrete

And haunt us with the echoes of your feet',

If there is such an eternity, lush

Though short-lived, that's enough. But how ... hush!

We were predestined to live when the scene

Grows dim and the outline of a Greek ruin

Blackens the sky. It is noon, and wandering

Through a dark building, you see workers sitting

Down to a fire a narrow ray of sunlight

Kindles on the floor. They have dragged out

Heavy books and made a table of them

And begun to cut their bread. In good time

A tank will clatter past, a streetcar chime.