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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Czeslaw Milosz, "Campo de' Fiori" (1943)

The Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz
A friend we toured with in Rome a couple of years ago sent us this poem, "Campo de' Fiori."  We were unfamiliar with the poet, Czeslaw Milosz, and with this poem, which is one of his better known pieces.  Milosz was born in Lithuania (1911) but lived in Poland and wrote poems and prose in Polish (the poem is translated). He spent World War II in Warsaw, then under a Nazi-imposed government.  Strongly anti-Communist, Milosz defected to the West in 1951 and became a U.S. citizen in 1970.  He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

As Milosz has explained, the poem was not written inside the Warsaw ghetto, but it was written in Warsaw in 1943, not long before the 1944 uprising against the Nazis and the subsequent deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to extermination camps.

In this poem, Milosz describes a moment in the history of the Campo de' Fiori in order to understand the horrific events in wartime Warsaw.  The heretic mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo de' Fiori in 1600, the victim of the Catholic Church and a "mob" mentality, but in Milosz's poem it's as if the event barely happened: "Before the flames had died the taverns were full again," he writes. Something similar--something that reminds us of our inhumanity--he suggests, happened to Warsaw's Jews, who went to their deaths as "the crowds were laughing on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday."


      Campo de' Fiori

In Rome on the Campo de' Fiori
baskets of olives and lemons,
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
Statue of Giordano Bruno, Campo de' Fiori

with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.

On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died                                
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors' shoulders.                          

I thought of the Campo de' Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs' pyres.

Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,                                    
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo de' Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet's word.


Unknown said...

The Milosz poem brings us back to a visit to Warsaw where we visited the still largely abandoned Jewish Cemetery, sealed off by the invading German Army in September 1939. A walk through this site with its overturned burial stones and unkempt gardens conveys a sense of violation and forced abandonment. The poet's words surely also apply to the cemetery, a place frozen in time where an act was committed that led, in a very short time, to the construction of the great walled-in ghetto.

Ron Johnson

Chani said...

On the ground of the piazza at Campo de Fiori is a brass plaque that reads (In Italian and Hebrew): In this place on September 9 1553 the Talmud and Jewish books were burned." The Inquisitors had gathered cartloads of Hebrew texts and burned them.