"Second Space" is a collection of thirty-two poems on religious themes by Czeslaw Milosz (1911 -- 2004) written when the poet was in his 90s. The poems are heavily autobiographical in tone, meditative, and reflective. They deal with Milosz' struggle for religious, and in particular Catholic, faith in a world of secularism, mechanism, and suffering. They also describe the conflict in Milosz' own life between the call to the religious life and the lure of the world, with its natural beauty, and human sexuality. Milosz tries to reconcile the tensions among these two polarities.
The book is dense and richly detailed with allusions to Polish poets, to Milosz' relatives, particularly to his cousin Oscar Milosz (1877-1939) a French poet and diplomat, and to the mystical thinkers Jacob Boehme and Emmanuel Swedenborg, who have deeply influenced Milosz and his approach to religious questions.
The book is divided into five parts. The first part consists of a series of short poems discussing the poet's struggle for religious meaning. In many of these poems, Milosz revisits and reflects upon his life. The title of the book "Second Space" derives from the first poem of the collection in which Milosz laments the difficulty of conceiving of a "second space" in our modern world -- the space of both heaven and hell. Milosz writes in a clear style with many striking figures and phrases. Thus, he concludes his poem, "The Old Women" with the benediction: "May the day of your death not be a day of hopelessness,/ but of trust in the light that shines through earthly forms."
The second part of the book is a series of eleven interior monologues by "Father Severinus," who describes himself in the first poem as "a priest without faith". In these poems, Father Severnus meditates on the importance, mystery, and difficulty of a spiritual life as he describes his own internal struggles and the struggles of some of the people who come to him for help.
The third part of the book is in Milosz' own voice and consists of 23 poems forming a "Treatise on Theology." These poems are in the voice of the layperson -- the poet himself -- rather than of Father Severnus, but the themes and preoccupations are the same. They are epitomized in the final poem of this group, "Beautiful Lady" in which Milosz describes his responses to the appearances of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes and Fatima.
The fourth part of the book, "Apprentice", is the poet's tribute to the work of his cousin, the French poet Oscar Milosz. This poem is richly personal and allusive, and Milosz accompanies it with extensive notes. I found it helpful to read the poem first with the notes followed by a reading straight through without the notes -- which tend to interfere with the text.
The book concludes with what to may mind is its best section, a brief retelling of the "Orpheus and Euridice" legend in modern garb with Milosz himself as the protagonist. Orpheus in this retelling struggles with the loss of religous conviction as much as with the loss of his beloved. There is an eloquent pasage in this poem in which Milosz describes the goal of his poetic endeavor:
"He sang the brightness of morning and green rivers,
He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
Of feasting on a terrace above the tumult of a fishing port,
Of the tasts of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
Of a dignified flock of pelicans above a bay,
Of the scene of an armful of lilacs in summer rain,
Of his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness."
"Second Space" is a moving valedictory volume by a great Twentieth Century poet.