Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Lvov You: In Praise of Adam Zagajewski

Walt Whitman has an eponymous rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike. Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth century poet, has an imposing bronze statue in the center of Krakow.
I'm not saying the Polish value poetry more than Americans do, but...

Adam Zagajewski is a Polish poet. He was born in Lvov in 1945, but as Penelope Gilliatt writes in her book, To Wit, Poland "is an excellent country, but badly located." Zagajewski's family was expelled from Lvov by Ukrainian forces and he has spent much of his life in France, Germany, and the United States.

Unsurprisingly, then, exile and foreignness occupy much of Zagajewski's work. His poems, though, do not follow in the lachrymose school of exile poetry, but are instead marked by curiosity, generosity of spirit, and openness. He celebrates others and even his own sense of displacement in a divided world. This is from "Luxembourg Gardens," in the collection Unseen Hand:

Foreignness is splendid, a cold pleasure.
Yellow lights illuminate the windows on the Seine
(there’s the real mystery: the life of others).

The reviewer Joachim T. Baer noted that Zagajewski’s themes “are the night, dreams, history and time, infinity and eternity, silence and death,” but such deeply profound motifs are balanced by a lightness of touch, an appreciation for the concrete detail and a total absence of self-pity or absorption.

Just because it's so good:  

Tierra del Fuego
Adam Zagajewski (Clare Cavanagh, trans.)
You who see our homes at night
and the frail walls of our conscience,   
you who hear our conversations   
droning on like sewing machines   
—save me, tear me from sleep,   
from amnesia.

Why is childhood—oh, tinfoil treasures,

oh, the rustling of lead, lovely and foreboding—   
our only origin, our only longing?
Why is manhood, which takes the place of ripeness,   
an endless highway,
Sahara yellow?

After all, you know there are days   
when even thirst runs dry   
and prayer’s lips harden.

Sometimes the sun’s coin dims   
and life shrinks so small
that you could tuck it
in the blue gloves of the Gypsy   
who predicts the future
for seven generations back

and then in some other little town   
in the south a charlatan
decides to destroy you,
me, and himself.

You who see the whites of our eyes,   
you who hide like a bullfinch
in the rowans,
like a falcon
in the clouds’ warm stockings

—open the boxes full of song,
open the blood that pulses in aortas   
of animals and stones,
light lanterns in black gardens.

Nameless, unseen, silent,   
save me from anesthesia,   
take me to Tierra del Fuego,   
take me where the rivers
flow straight up, horizontal rivers   
flowing up and down.

Zagajewski has published several collections, but I favor Mysticism for Beginners (1997) and Unseen Hand (2011). Clare Cavanagh is a beautiful translator.

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