Literary biographies tend to come in two flavors. First, there’s the big, fat, encyclopedic type—the kind that gets called “magisterial,” the kind that wins awards. Think of A. David Moody’s three-volume Ezra Pound biography, or J. Michael Lennon’s recent 960-page doorstopper, Norman Mailer: A Double Life. Then there’s another type: shorter, stranger, more distinctive in style and argumentation. This kind offers not an exhaustive combing through of a life’s minutiae (“and then, on December 3, Joyce had three pints and two shots of whiskey, followed by some fish and chips…”) but a particular angle of vision, a critic’s sense of how the life and work fit together, or how and when they don’t. Think of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Herman Melville or Muriel Spark’s Mary Shelley: A Biography—both slender works of brilliance in which we see a fit of sensibility between biographer and subject. Two recent books, Andrzej Franaszek’s Milosz: A Biography and John Irwin’s The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence, exemplify these two styles.


The first biography of the Nobel Prize–winning poet in English, Milosz: A Biography was ten years in the research and writing, another six in the translating. Czeslaw Milosz led a historically interesting—which is to say, a deeply tragic—life. Born in Lithuania in 1911, Milosz and his family fled the German army during World War I, living for short periods of time in Estonia and Belarus before settling in Wilno, where Milosz also attended university. There, he became involved, first excitedly and then uncomfortably, with left-wing literary movements. He witnessed anti-Jewish violence—“not far removed from a pogrom” Franaszek tells us—and bravely spoke out against it.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Milosz left Warsaw, where he had worked for Radio Poland, only to sneak back into the Nazi-occupied city in 1940. There he published underground poetry, witnessed the Warsaw Uprising, and moved from safe house to safe house, narrowly escaping capture on several occasions. After the war, he became a cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., then ran afoul of the Communist Party and had his passport revoked. He publicly defected, living in exile—first in France, then in America—for most of the remaining fifty-three years of his life. He returned to Poland only after he had won the Nobel Prize and the Iron Curtain had fallen. (His poetry served as an inspiration for the Solidarity Movement.) As I said, it’s a historically interesting life.

Once you start talking about Milosz’s life, it’s difficult to stop. There are just too many interesting events and telling details, and Franaszek offers them in abundance. Once during World War II, at risk of being discovered with a falsified passport, Milosz swallowed his documents. For years, he had a freewheeling correspondence with Thomas Merton. (In general, Franaszek is good on Milosz’s complicated but essential relationship to Catholicism. He’s less good on Milosz’s many affairs, some of which took place quite late in his life. Franaszek informs us, by way of extenuation, that in 1981 the poet’s testosterone level was 755, “whereas men over fifty could usually expect an average of 300.” Good to know.)

We also get details about the bit players in Milosz’s life: a classmate, Stanislaw Kownacki, was obsessed with “constructing shortwave radios and staying in touch with other enthusiasts worldwide”; a relative named Eugeniusz was so absentminded that he was a few days into a hunting trip before remembering that he had locked his wife in the pantry.

The problem with telling Milosz’s life isn’t finding good details. It’s knowing when to cut them.

The problem with telling Milosz’s life isn’t finding good details. It’s knowing when to cut them. On this score, Franaszek isn’t ruthless enough. Here’s a paragraph about a hundred pages in:

A neighbour at the hotel, Boleslaw Bochwic, who was preparing for his doctoral exam in chemistry, was fascinated by Milosz and introduced him to a large circle of interesting Poles living in Paris. Through his good offices, the poet met the talented young musician Zygmunt Mycielski, who later composed music for Milosz’s poems, and also the famous and feted composer, Karol Szymanowski. He resumed his acquaintance with Roman Maciejewski, who provided Milosz with access to a host of major Polish figures from the musical and artistic world.

The swirl of names is all but impossible to keep track of, especially since Bochwic and Mycielski don’t appear again. (Mycielski, Szymanowski, and Maciejewski do in very, very minor ways.) Remember Kownacki, the shortwave radio enthusiast? He doesn’t reenter the narrative for three hundred pages. And Eugeniusz, the scatterbrained relative? He’s never heard from again. Good biography, like good literature, lives by its details, but the details have to be integrated to some larger purpose. They have to mean something. Too often, Franaszek’s details don’t.

Milosz’s life was interesting, but it’s worth reading about at great length because that life was transmuted into art. So how does Franaszek measure the life against the work? Primarily through quotation. Indeed, you could compile a decent Selected Writings of Milosz just from the quotations that Franszek offers here. Most chapters begin with two or three long epigraphs from Milosz’s work. So do individual sections within these chapters. As befits an epigraph, these quotations aren’t contextualized; they just sit there, providing an implicit frame for the section to come. This can be a good strategy when you have lines of thematic clarity like this: “Endurance comes only from enduring. / With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope, / And climbed it and it held me.”

Most pages contain a long block quotation, frequently more than one, and Franaszek rarely slows down to interpret how and what these chunks of text mean. Such generous selections habituate us to Milosz’s music and imagery, but we don’t get a sense of what Franaszek makes of them—where he believes they succeed and where he believes they fail. Their subtle meanings, their felicities and imperfections, all are simply assumed. Franaszek quotes liberally but analyzes stingily.

The book’s introduction has an epigraph from Milosz’s The Witness of Poetry: “What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” Franaszek has thoroughly excavated the ruins of Milosz’s life. But what he has constructed out of the remnants does not illuminate the life; it merely records.

What if we consider Kees’s suicide as itself a kind of poetic act, a decision that needs to be read for its aesthetic justification and consequences?

Irwin’s The Poetry of Weldon Kees is as light as Franaszek’s book is dense, less a product of research than a labor of love. (To be fair, there’s a lot less research to be done: Kees died at forty-one after leading a relatively quiet life.) Kees was a great and versatile poet—Irwin calls him “the most interesting poet of his generation”—but his achievements in verse often have been overshadowed by his mysterious death. In July 1955, he told some friends that he was considering suicide and others that he was lighting out for Mexico. On July 19, Kees’s abandoned car was discovered near the Golden Gate Bridge. His body, however, wasn’t found, and where there isn’t a body there will be legends. Perhaps, some speculated, Kees was alive and writing under a pseudonym; Kees-truthers claimed to have spotted him in Mexico.

Irwin is less interested in what happened to Kees (his suicide isn’t really in doubt) than in how his poetry prepared the ground for such a vanishing act, and how that vanishing act might affect our reading of his poetry. Irwin makes a daring interpretive move: What if we consider Kees’s suicide as itself a kind of poetic act, a decision that needs to be read for its aesthetic justification and consequences?

So, like a literary detective, Irwin investigates the scene. Police found two books near Kees’s bedside, Dostoevsky’s The Devils and Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, both of which consider the philosophical and theological implications of suicide. What happens, Irwin asks, if we read these books as Kees’s suicide note? Irwin, after close-reading selections from both texts, offers this tentative conclusion: “Kees…placed the question of suicide between two poles: on the one hand, Unamuno’s attempt to recover for modern man the reality of a personal God, what he calls the ‘God-man,’ and on the other, Kirilov’s attempt to begin the creation of a future man-god.”

Irwin then continues his bizarre and thrilling “intertextual interpretation” of Kees’s death. First, he leaps to Nonverbal Communication, a book Kees cowrote with the psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch, then to a 1953 story from the San Francisco Chronicle, then to a 1951 letter in which Kees mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finally to the concluding paragraph of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Why end there? Because, Irwin tells us, in that novel’s final paragraphs, as the protagonist Dick Driver “mov[es] through a succession of ever smaller towns, he seems to vanish into the landscape until both narrator and reader lose sight of him…a situation in which we would be left to wonder whether Dick is still alive—and how would we know?” Fitzgerald’s melancholic ending, then, both rhymes with Kees’s own (like Dick, Kees’s particular way of vanishing leaves him stranded between life and death, present despite his absence) and completely departs from it (Kees doesn’t fade away but jumps out of the picture).

It’s all very weird and absolutely engrossing. Where Franaszek includes incidental details in order to give us a complete portrait of Milosz’s life, Irwin uses them as a chance to interpret, to imagine, to speculate. In another chapter, for instance, Irwin begins by remarking upon the “fearful symmetry” between the deaths of Kees and Hart Crane, the American poet who in 1933 drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico. In a late poem called “Robinson,” Kees first mentions a “mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,” which hauntingly “Reflects nothing at all,” and then begins his final stanza like this: “Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously.” Irwin notes that White Buildings was Crane’s first book of poems, then that the birds circling echo the end of Melville’s Moby-Dick, then that one of Crane’s best poems is called “At Melville’s Tomb”—a poem that anticipates Crane’s own death, beginning with an image of “the dice of drowned men’s bones” pummeled by the waves.

This isn’t source-hunting for source-hunting’s sake. It’s all in service of Irwin’s broader claim: that for Kees, as for Crane, a mysterious vanishing became its own form of presence. Or, as Irwin more baldly puts it, “such a mystery”—that is to say, such a death—“could kick-start a writer’s reputation.”

She can only measure the damage loss has left.

Eleanor Chai’s excellent debut collection of poetry, Standing Water, also investigates the relationship between absence and presence. The book’s narrative, refracted across twenty-five poems and through the lenses of mythology, photography, and sculpture, is one of primal loss. After Chai’s birth, her mother suffered from postpartum depression and was institutionalized—a fact revealed to Chai only years later, after she has been raised first by her grandparents and then her father, who coldly tells her, “With the boys, she was strange for a few months / …she got better. With you, she stayed strange.”

The loss is especially painful for Chai’s elder brother, who is old enough to be conscious of the rupture even if he doesn’t fully understand it. What he does know, and what Chai herself comes to know, is that rupture doesn’t result in obliteration: it’s not “as if all trace of her could be erased, / as if the void could be etched over.” The mother remains a “throbbing blankness, [a] human palimpsest.” Even for Chai, who didn’t know her mother and who doesn’t reunite with her until just before she dies, the lost mother becomes “the pull of the moon, the slide of the tow. / She holds me in the water with the arms of a ghost.”

Chai experiences guilt, illogical but deeply felt, endlessly rehearsing her “fault / in the dark matter of the Firstborn whose first // six years were erased when his mother and her infant girl vanished.” By “dark matter,” Chai primarily means something like “tragic story.” But she also suggests the cosmological sense of dark matter: that stuff, nearly 30 percent of the universe’s mass, that can’t be seen but can be measured by its gravitational effects, the throbbing blankness that invisibly shapes and distorts everything there is, including us. Chai dreams of calling forth her mother from her absence: “I thought I could do it: body you forth / create/make a formal being shapely enough // to restore you to some life.” But such attempts fail. She can only measure the damage loss has left.

In “Abandon of the Eyes,” Chai describes how lost objects, “her missing / pearl choker, her night / clothes,” point back to a lost person: “I imagine them where / she is, in a ruthless version of St. Augustine’s / storehouse for memory, a spreading / limitless room for the hoarded / —a camp at a border holding hostage / all I have forgotten.” For Augustine, interiority is so complex that it might be called limitless; it’s the site where we find God and ourselves. For Chai, loss is so complex that it might be called limitless; it’s the site where we make our identity, or find it already made.

In enjambed lines that flow into one another, Chai smudges any clear distinction between past and present. To see a photograph of her mother is to “drop / a homing device back in time to spy // into the landscape of my infancy.” To think of the myth of Persephone is to hear her own painful story: “There was no nymph to save us, no Cyane to try.” To see a sculpture by Rodin is to think of its deceased model: “I am long dead, but I survive.” Time is a palimpsest, haunted by that which came before and still abides.

Catholicism is messy, as the best poems here acknowledge.

Susan Miller’s first book of poems, Communion of Saints, also sees time as a palimpsest, though the past for her is less a haunting than a sustaining presence. It’s a deeply Catholic sense of time—a fact signaled by the book’s title, of course, but also by its four numbered sections:  three—“Faith,” “Hope,” and “Love”—are named after the theological virtues; the final, “Pax et bonum,” after the motto of St. Francis of Assisi. Throughout, Miller channels Catholic artists from the past, including Hopkins and his musicality (“he is lifted then too, / all sinew and soul thrilled in the high reaches / of Christ’s clutches, to whom all things / are light, and lifted, and lifting”), O’Connor and her peculiarity (“She’s good / with birds, Miss Flannery, as proved // when as a girl she taught her favorite / chicken to walk backward as a stunt”).

Chai’s poetry layers identity and time. In any given poem, she can be both herself and her mother; now can also be then: “Do we die with your are and still / am and is?” Such layering is even more explicit in Miller’s poems, as her titles indicate: “Portrait of Jess as St. Lucy,” “Self-Portrait as St. Christopher.” The ordinary and the sacred, the past and present, sometimes come together from a sensory perception, as when the speaker’s friend flickeringly mirrors the martyred St. Lucy: “I know it’s just a trick / of smoke, our dinner leftovers on a plate, but / for a minute I could swear she’s offering up her eyes.” At other times, the resemblance is more theological, as when the speaker, like St. John of the Cross, experiences a dark night of the soul, “the air howling in [her] ears, and then // darkness,” which yields to the reassuring presence of “that hand / that wraps itself around the human heart and presses gently / two times every second.”

Miller has great technical facility (no surprise, given that she studied with Marie Ponsot), and she’s comfortable working in many different forms. She also has a slight tendency toward the just-so ending, the affirmation of a religious comfort that isn’t cheap—her poems don’t turn away from poverty or bodily suffering—but does sometimes seem too tidy. “A Vision” ends with “every man / and woman, every child, clean and naked, / brighter than the glow of a thousand candles,” another with “Sister Carol, married to God…singing alleluia,” another with the speaker “say[ing] / pax et bonum to every monk and nun I pass.” Give me instead the wonderfully messy, pleasingly overloaded conclusion to “Portrait of Jess as St. Augustine,” in which a tattoo “needle vibrates. Its buzz like / a thousand thousand bees, turning in the side / of a blasted dripping overripe lopsided stolen pear.”

Catholicism is messy, as the best poems here acknowledge. In “Gerard Manley Hopkins Looks at a Cloud,” we get both the “gnarled root torn from its bed / and tossed onto the dung-pile” and “the drifting crowd / of clouds like steam opening the sky,” the exhilarating search for the right “words for the cirrus, / the cumulus, the nimbostratus” as well as the deadening sense that “There is no human friend. There is none.” It’s a faith of absence and presence, one that acknowledges the seeming limitlessness of loss but also asserts that all shall be well: “Would you // call it a miracle if you knew / that wherever you went, / someone provided for you?”

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the January 26, 2018 issue: View Contents
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