To call this excellent collection of poems an "international" anthology is a bit presumptuous. The bulk of the poems were written by poets whose native language is American (88), Chinese (53), Polish (35) or French (16). The selection, however, aptly reflects the geographical stations in the life of the Nobel Prize winner of 1980, Czeslaw Milosz. Born in 1911, he lived in Poland until 1951 when he emigrated to France. In 1960, invited by the University of California, he moved to Berkeley where he lived and worked until his death in August 2004. During the Second World War he lived in Warsaw, writing for the underground presses - which probably explains why only one German poem (by Rilke) appears in this book. To put this in perspective: poetry in German ranks on the same level as Inuit poetry here, one poem each.
But never mind. After swallowing my national cultural pride, I admit that "A Book of Luminous Things" is my favorite anthology of poetry. By a wide margin. Milosz did not simply compile a "best of" collection; he created a very personal, intimate book. The poems collected in this anthology are as much about the joy of living as they are about the awareness that old age may bring. What they teach are attention to the particular and appreciation of the transitory. Milosz's proposition for the collection was to present poems, "whether contemporary or a thousand years old, that are, with few exceptions, short, clear, readable and, to use a compromised term, realist, that is, loyal toward reality and attempting to describe it as concisely as possible. Thus they undermine the widely held opinion that poetry is a misty domain eluding understanding."
Milosz titled the last chapter of his anthology "History." At first, I found it a strange choice to conclude such a personal book with a chapter of poems that for the most part deal with the inhuman crimes perpetrated in the 20th century. A strange choice in particular because the preceding chapter titled "Non-attachment" would have given the book a final note of calm and serenity. Eventually, however, I considered the last chapter quite appropriate for a poet like Milosz who was committed to realism and political activism. As much as Milosz may have admired the attitude of non-attachment - illustrated with ultimate skill by the Chinese poets in this anthology - the formative experience of his life were the unspeakable deeds of cruelty committed by Germans in his home country.
A Book of Luminous Things begins with a very short chapter titled "Epiphany." Epiphany, Milosz explains, is an unveiling of reality. What in Greek was called 'epiphaneia' meant the appearance, the arrival, of a divinity among mortals or its recognition under a familiar shape of man or woman. Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things or persons. This definition of epiphany informs Milosz's understanding of realism. It is in fact an understanding that goes back to Heraclitus in European intellectual history and to Chuang Tzu in Chinese intellectual history - although admittedly the poems in this anthology are more easily accessible than most of the fragments of Heraclitus and Chuang Tzu.
It is difficult to praise this book highly enough. Indirectly, surreptitiously it is a wonderful portrait of the old Czeslaw Milosz who was in his mid-eighties when he compiled it. It is also an intimate guided tour through poetry, with introductions to every chapter and short, illuminating comments on almost every poem. It is full of unexpected discoveries, especially when it comes to some contemporary female poets like Wislawa Szymborska (1923- ; Nobel Prize for Literature 1996), Denise Levertov (1923-1997), and Anna Swir (1909-1984). And finally, A Book of Luminous Things is one of the most impressive and inspiring documents of the plentiful harvest that can come with experience and age:
THE GREATEST LOVE (by Anna Swir)
She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.
She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."
Her children say: