November 2011

Greer Mansfield


"Dawn Always Tells Us Something": On the Poetry of Adam Zagajewski

Poetry, Shelley wrote, “reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being... It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.”

For four decades now, Adam Zagajewski has been making poetry (and idiosyncratic essays) out of the tension between “the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration” and those fleeting moments when a person stumbles across the “wonder of our being.” Not just “our” being, but the being of city streets, birds, trees, the sea, and the voices calling to us from art, literature, music, and history. His poems capture those epiphanies that wake us from the tired, tiresome habits of thought and language that we fall into; they allow us to see our “common universe” afresh and alive with meaning.

Not that Zagajewski deprecates the ordinary and the everyday. His poems instead ask us to see the wonder in, say, a market stall where “pyramids of apples/ Rise for the eternity of one afternoon.” Or in a suddenly-stopped train:

We don’t know if we’re still in Holland,
this may be Belgium now. No matter.
An early winter evening, and the earth hid
beneath thick streaks of dust; you could
sense the presence of a canal’s black water,
unmoving, stripped of mountain currents’ joy
and the great amazement of our oceans.

The train stops at that moment when our reason starts
to stir, but the soul, in its noble yearning, is asleep.

The immediate setting of much of his poetry is modern Europe: the everyday world of cellphones, express trains, newspapers, laptops, and kiosks selling water bottles next to museums and cathedrals. These surroundings are always shadowed by the recent past, especially in Zagajewski’s native Poland: the Holocaust, the depredations of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, and the decades of Communist rule are constant presences in his poetry and prose. The beauty of rivers and the splendor of music (Zagajewski seems to have a particular affinity for Schubert and Mahler) must share the world with concentration camps and totalitarian regimes.

His early poems were angry, frazzled, filled with a nervous, sleepless energy. They raged against the Communist regime that kept Poland under lock and key (in essays, later on, he would call it a “false theocracy” and a “soulless bureaucracy”) throughout his younger decades. During the 1970s, in underground magazines, he was publishing poems like this:

Stop deceiving us philosophers
work is not a joy man is not the highest goal
work is deadly sweat Lord when I get home
I’d like to sleep but sleep’s just a driving belt
transporting me to the next day and the sun’s a fake
coin morning rips my eyelids sealed as before
birth my hands are two Gastarbeiter and even
my tears don’t belong to me they participate in public life
like speakers with chapped lips and a heart that’s
grown into the brain
Work is not a joy but incurable pain
like a disease of the open conscience like new housing projects
through which the citizen wind passes
in his high leather boots

This disgust with Communism’s obliteration of the inner life would later deepen into an unending dialogue between the responsibilities of the public realm (Zagajewski took part in the resistance movement and wound up an exile, first in Berlin, then in Paris, before returning to Poland in recent years) and the need to attend to what he often calls the “spiritual life.” His mature poetry has always moved back and forth across the boundaries between history and revelation, ecstasy and irony, this world and some mysterious other world. It is a poetry that accepts the world’s manifold nature, and takes account of both atrocities and sublimity. In what has become his most famous poem (“Try to Praise the Mutilated World”), Zagajewski writes:

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.

Zagajewski alternately questions and delights in the things of this world, but his poetry has a further dimension: a realm of “mute cities,” dialogues with the dead (“Franz Schubert: A Press Conference,” “A Talk with Friedrich Nietzsche”), rivers that flow into eternity, and mysterious goings-on in a “Castle”:

The guards cried out incomprehensibly
in a mountain tribe’s guttural dialect.
Venetian windows opened and closed.
Long limousines arrived and left.
Someone seemed to be dying in the palace.
A black banner unfurled,
then drew back like a grass snake’s tongue.
Swallows, psalms, grew frantic with worry…
But who could it have been,
since the castle had been empty for so long,
given up to bats and irony?
Still everything seemed to indicate
that somebody was dying in the palace.
One couldn’t over look the signs of life.

In his newest collection of poems, Unseen Hand (published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux last May), one poem observes a “Mute City”:

Imagine a dark city.
It understands nothing. Silence reigns.
And in the quiet bats like Ionian philosophers
make sudden, radical decisions in mid-flight,
filling us with admiration.
Mute city. Blanketed in clouds.
Nothing is known yet. Nothing.
Sharp lightning cleaves the night.
Priests, Orthodox and Catholic alike, rush to shroud
their windows in deep blue velvet,
but we go out to hear the rain’s rustle
and the dawn. Dawn always tells us something,

One wonders if this is the same mute city as the one in “To See,” the majestic poem that opens Zagajewski’s 2002 collection Without End: New and Selected Poems:

O my mute city, honey-gold,
buried in ravines, where wolves
loped softly down the cold meridian…

There are a few motifs in Unseen Hand: a cycle of poems about the Garonne River (inspired by lines in a Holderlin poem: “But go now and/ greet the lovely Garonne”), a series of wry sketches of the “vita contemplativa,” and a series of “self-portraits.”  

In one, he finds himself in a museum gazing at, and being gazed at by, a painting of Christ:

A swarthy Christ watched me
From small trecento paintings;
I didn’t understand his gaze,
But I wanted to open up before it.
A rapt, dark-haired Christ,
Unswervingly attentive,
Bounded by Byzantium’s golden frame,
Watched me while my thoughts were elsewhere--
I followed, with growing vexation, an elderly couple, French:
In the quiet museum, nearly empty,
He read out loud, too loud,
From the appropriate page in the guidebook.

One of Zagajewski’s most valuable and refreshing qualities is that, in his notes on the places he visits and the works of art he encounters (cathedrals, paintings, poetry), he often feels himself observed by the places and works of art. They examine and question him as much as he examines and questions them.

Another of his great qualities: his poems show, again and again, the value in being still, waiting, simply listening. The sublime and the transcendent, they seem to say, never arrive on command, and crowds and noise tend to scare them away. The emptiness and sheer banality of the loudest and most prominent voices in modern society (the slogans of politicians, the clichés of journalists, the chirrups of ringtones and computers) drown out what Zagajewski calls the “music of the lower spheres.”

Zagajewski remains devoted to the work of Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, those two great Polish poet-essayists who are clearly his most immediate influences and models. Like Milosz, Zagajewski has a metaphysical (perhaps even religious?) imagination that searches for transcendence without ever being certain just what transcendence means. He is a partisan of Milosz’s spacious style, because of its greatness and because Milosz wrote a kind of poetry that’s been banished, for the most part, from modern European and American poetry. “Those who do read his poetry,” Zagajewski writes of Milosz, “sometimes attack its lofty, hymnic tone. These days one should write only flat, ironic poems and wait for better times.”

Like Herbert, Zagajewski insists on paying attention to things in their specifics and peculiarities, and favors clarity over opulent rhetoric. Like both Milosz and Herbert, he tries to find meaning amid the burned city-ruins of history and makes his poetry into a quiet hymn (sometimes of despair, sometimes of ecstasy).  

The “meaning” Zagajewski tries to (and sometimes, fleetingly, does) find is never spelled out in any obvious and literal way. It can only be seen in suggestive glimpses, metaphors of birds and rivers, and even these Zagajewski paints with an ironic and skeptical eye. Not a corrosive or nihilistic irony that refuses to grant anything to the world, even though it takes full account of the world’s horrors and torments. It’s more an irony that accepts uncertainty as humankind’s lot, and even takes delight in the fact that we find ourselves in a constant state of unknowing. And as Zagajewski says in his essay on the Polish painter Josef Czapski, “what is not-knowing but thought?”

In another essay, “Against Poetry” (a black sheep cousin to defenses of poetry like Shelley’s), Zagajewski writes:

Why do contemporary poets---those hundreds and thousands of poets---agree to spiritual tepidity, to those small, well-crafted, ironic jokes, to elegant, at times rather pleasant, nihilism?

…I’m not entirely opposed to a free, wise, splendid poetry that manages to link near and far, high and low, the earthly and the divine, a poetry that manages to transcribe the soul’s motions, lovers’ quarrels, the scene on a city street, and can, at the same time, attend to history’s footsteps, a tyrant’s lies, that won’t fail in the hour of trial. I’m angered only by small poetry, mean-spirited, unintelligent, a lackey poetry, slavishly intent on the promptings of the spirit of the age, that lazy bureaucrat flitting just above the earth in a dirty cloud of illusion.

In his “Ode to Plurality,” Zagajewski writes:

A poem grows
on contradiction but it can’t cover it.