A Stupid Man: Rufi Thorpe on the Influence of Czesław Miłosz and Writing While Female


Rufi Thorpe in LA Review of Books:

I FIRST HEARD a Czesław Miłosz poem in a lecture hall in Vilnius, Lithuania. The room was long and a little too warm; dust motes were swimming in the shafts of light let in by arched Gothic windows, but otherwise the room was dim. I was deeply and profoundly hungover. The speaker that day was Ed Hirsch, a poet who manages to exude a frank, earthy kindness. I don’t know if Hirsch really said this or if I have confabulated it over the years, but I remember him stopping suddenly and declaring, “I am a very stupid man.” There was a laugh from the audience, but he went on, serious. “No,” he said, “I mean that. I struggle with my stupidity.” There was a feeling in the room that he was playing a game with us — we all knew he wasn’t stupid; he was and is, in fact, quite brilliant. I felt, though, I knew what he meant.

I was in Vilnius as part of a writing program at a time when I could barely see straight. I was 26. I had completed my MFA, but failed to get anything published, which felt like a failure. I had recently lost about 40 pounds and was exercising with the fervor of a religious convert. I had body dysmorphia — I couldn’t tell whether I was skinny or fat anymore (I was a size four). I couldn’t tell whether I had any talent as a writer. I couldn’t tell what I should be doing with my life. When I tried to look at things, they swayed and buckled. Nothing in the world was clear to me.

And there I was, in Vilnius, with its Baroque churches like fantastical wedding cakes and its narrow winding streets; Vilnius, with its multiple histories, erased, rewritten, statues erected and taken down, as the city became first part of one country and then the next; Vilnius, with its many tongues, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, and English spoken on the streets; Vilnius, with its tragedies, with its buried bodies, its KGB torture rooms, its Jewish ghettos. No place but Vilnius could possibly have impressed on me more quickly how stupid I was.

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