Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Days

Château de Amboise, Where Leonardo Is Buried

King François I of France invited Leonardo Da Vinci to move to Amboise, where he lived in a splendid house within walking distance of the Chåteau de Amboise. Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem musing on Leonardo’s last act on the Loire in France.

Leonardo

He lives in France now,
calmer and much weaker.
He is the jewel in the crown. Favored
with the monarch’s friendship.
The Loire rolls its waters slowly.
He considers the projects
he left unfinished.
His right hand, half-paralyzed,
has already departed.
His left would also like to take its leave.
And his heart, and his whole body.
Islands of light still
stand sentry.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

Polish Poet Adam Zagajewsky (1945-2021)

We lost another great poet last year when Adam Zagajewsky died in Kraców, Poland. He is one of a handful of Central and Eastern European poets whose work I have come to love, poets like Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Anna Szymborska, and Boris Pasternak. This is one of my favorites among his works:

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

The translation is by Clare Cavanagh.

“Lot’s Wife”

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Every once in a while, the Nobel Prize Committee makes a correct choice, and Polish poet Wisława Szymborska is certainly one—one of the few in recent years who is deserving of the honor. Here is a poem entitled “Lot’s Wife,” about a woman who, while fleeing with her husband Lot from the destruction soon to overcome Sodom, was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back:

They say I looked back from curiosity.
But I could have had reasons other than curiosity.
I looked back from regret for a silver bowl.
From distraction while fastening the latchet of my sandal.
To avoid looking longer at the righteous neck
of Lot my husband.
From sudden certainty that had I died
he would not even have slowed his step.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Alert to the pursuit.
Suddenly serene, hopeful that God had changed His mind.
Our two daughters were almost over the hilltop.
I felt old age within me. Remoteness.
The futility of our wandering. Sleepiness.
I looked back while laying my bundle on the ground.
I looked back from fear of where next to set my foot.
On my path appeared serpents,
spiders, field mice, and fledgling vultures.
By now it was neither the righteous nor the wicked—simply all living creatures
crept and leapt in common panic.
I looked back from loneliness.
From shame that I was stealing away.
From a desire to shout, to return.
Or just when a sudden gust of wind
undid my hair and lifted up my garment.
I had the impression they watched it all from the walls of Sodom
and burst out in loud laughter time and time again.
I looked back from anger.
To relish their great ruin.
I looked back for all the reasons I have mentioned.
I looked back despite myself.
It was only a rock that turned back, growling under foot.
A sudden crevice that cut my path.
On the edge a hamster scampered up on his two hind feet.
It was then that we both glanced back.
No. No. I ran on.
I crept and clambered up,
until the darkness crashed down from heaven,
and with it, burning gravel and dead birds.
For lack of breath I spun about repeatedly.
If anyone had seen me, he might have thought me dancing.
It was not ruled out that my eyes were open.
It could be that I fell, my face turned toward the city.

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Perhaps Szymborska’s beloved and much beleaguered Poland was that Sodom, unjustly punished by history for being positioned between two ogres that alternately and in combination devoured it for no good reason.

 

The Phantom Lands of Eastern Europe

Map of Galicia

If you’ve read any of the literature of Eastern Europe, you will see names of provinces and whole countries that you have difficulty in locating on a map. Names like Galicia (not to be confused with the Galicia region of Northwest Spain), Bukovina, Volhynia, Moldavia, Moldova (this one’s currently a country in its own right), Wallachia, and Silesia—just to name a few.

Most are pawns in the endless historical struggles between Russia, Poland, Germany, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Balkans. Most of the time, they were absorbed into an adjoining larger country (such as Wallachia into Romania), or split between countries (such as Galicia going to Poland, Russia, Austria, or the Ukraine). Only Moldova, the former Moldovan SSR ( Soviet Socialist Republic), is an independent nation today—at least for the time being.

Much of the problem is in the shifting borders affected by the partitions of Poland and the vagaries of fortune of the Ukraine, which was in recent history a political football between Poland, Germany, and Russia.

When one thinks about it, there are only a relatively few countries in the area that have maintained their independence, albeit with constantly shifting borders and political affiliations, over the centuries. Germany and Russia are two examples of relative stability, with just about everyone else being stretched, shrunk, or absorbed multiple times.

Much of the Eastern European emigration to the United States, Canada, and other Western countries is a result of this constant instability. It would be difficult for me to walk down certain streets in Los Angeles without encountering the children of immigrants from these phantom lands of Eastern Europe.