Unseen Hand by Adam Zagajewski. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 112pp., $23.00.
A mature but not elderly gentleman sits in a sidewalk café or on a park bench in a European city, perhaps Paris or Krakow, book in hand—Gottfried Benn, Under the Volcano, Giorgos Seferis. He is thoughtful, cultured, reflecting on History and private histories, and alternately despairs and exalts, doubts, and believes. He’s no man of action or preening roué, but neither is he a cloistered aesthete. Rather, he’s that emblematic figure of our age, the exile, one of the fortunate ones who, at last, can return to his homeland which has changed forever. The recurrent speaker in Adam Zagajewski’s poems, recognizably a version of the Polish poet, is a less enervated cousin to Henry James’s “poor, sensitive gentlemen.” In “Luxembourg Gardens,” from Unseen Hand, Zagajewski’s seventh collection of poems to be translated into English, he writes:
Foreignness is splendid, a cold pleasure.
Yellow lights illuminate the windows on the Seine
(there’s the real mystery: the life of others).
I know—the city no longer holds secrets.
But there are plane trees, squares, cafes, friendly streets,
and the bright gaze of clouds that slowly dies.
Much of Zagajewski’s charm, his characteristic sense of pathos spared from self-pity by wit, curiosity and generosity of spirit, is distilled inside the parenthesis: “(there’s the real mystery: the life of others).” His man on the bench in the Luxembourg Gardens observes the tourists, and considers the residents of nearby apartment houses, and the eminent dead who once strolled here—Mickiewicz and Strindberg—and wryly revels in his “cold pleasure.” He is a man among men, not a beatified Poet, for whom the personal lyric is no descent into narcissism, though it remains a risky undertaking. For a front-line veteran of twentieth-century history, a dissident in pre-Solidarity Poland, even the first-person can usefully engage “the life of others.” That Zagajewski celebrates otherness and even his sense of displacement in a fragmented world, is remarkable given his origins. In her book on “the skin and bones” of comedy, To Wit, Penelope Gilliatt writes:
One of the first times I went to Poland, in 1954, a Polish friend explained the Polish Problem to me in full: “It is an excellent country, but badly located.”
So it was for Zagajewski. He was born one month after the end of World War II, at the epicenter of what historian Timothy Snyder has called the “Bloodlands,” in Lvov, then part of Poland, now part of Ukraine. The city was a hub of Polish and Jewish culture, ravaged by Hitler and Stalin in turn. In the first two days of Nazi occupation, in June 1941, more than 2,500 Jews were murdered in Lvov, most by their neighbors with enthusiastic German approval. Lvov was the birthplace in 1924 of Zagajewski’s poetic father and fellow Polish cosmopolitan, Zbigniew Herbert. In another new poem, “I Dreamed of My City,” with the epigraph “Written while attending a Herbert conference in Siena,” Zagajewski writes: “I realized that the arguments continue, / that nothing has been settled yet.” Here we recognize the mordant, skeptical, Herbert-like voice that distinguishes Zagajewski’s poems from most written by his American contemporaries, dwellers in historical and poetic vacuums. In a remembrance of Herbert from his 2002 prose collection In Defense of Ardor, Zagajewski writes:
In Herbert, we hear irony, humor, and that humanist serenitas that so rarely graces twentieth-century literature—but there’s also despair and mourning.
This might serve as Zagajewski’s own poetic self-judgment. This poet is never shrill or hectoring. For him, a poem is a serious occasion, part formal, part intimately confiding, and even his anger and humor are muted. He never forsakes the humane virtues much scorned by others in the name of fashion. Here, from Unseen Hand, is “Lost”:
Lost, lost in gray hallways.
At night the lightbulbs hiss like signals of sinking ships.
We read books forgotten by their authors.
There is no truth, wise men repeat.
Summer evenings: festivals of swifts,
peonies erupting in the suburbs.
Streets seems abbreviated
by the heat, the ease of seeing.
Autumn creeps up surreptitiously.
Still sometimes we surface for a moment,
and the setting sun sometimes gleams
and a short-lived certainty appears,
Irony, humor, serenitas—and a wistful sense of hope. Is the city Krakow or Houston (where Zagajewski taught for many years)? “Lost” reads like an elegy, but for what? Not a mythical Golden Age, surely. Zagajewski is too intelligent, too tempered by his nation’s history, to indulge such fancies. Rather, for a time when “wise men” sought truth and certainty, even faith, rather than self-serving nihilism. In a word, civilization, hard-won, always imperiled.
A typical Zagajewski poem, if such a thing exists, begins with a dream, memory, or anecdote, and moves into reverie. The risk, of course, is whimsy, the last refuge of the tired poet, and Zagajewski isn’t always successful in resisting the temptation. In “May, the Botanic Garden,” for instance, he writes:
. . . all the plants, vast
trees and tiny ferns
rush to put on
their finest outfits
as if heading out to take
This is merely silly, Billy Collins-like, and unworthy of Zagajewski’s best work. The poet is well served by his longtime translator, Clare Cavanagh, who has also rendered poems by Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska for English-speaking readers. That Cavanagh is an ideal collaborator for poets from this “excellent country” is suggested by something she once told an interviewer: “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the Polish language. I’m actually Irish. I specialize in depressed alcoholic Catholic countries.”
There’s nothing depressing or grimly Slavic about Zagajewski’s poems. If asked to “Tweet” a précis of his work for a first-time reader I might write: “Lyrical poems from Poland recounting moments of wonder in daily existence, with the ghosts of history always imminent, laughing or crying.” How appropriate that a poet from a history-ravaged Catholic nation in Central Europe, with Polish forebears always close at hand, should, almost alone, channel the voice of Western Civilization. In the final lines of “Vita Contemplativa” he writes:
Dream with waking, world and mind. Joy.
Composure, focus, the heart’s levitation.
Bright thoughts smoulder in dark walls.
So this is it. What we do not know.
We live in the abyss. In dark waters. In brightness.
The poem’s Latin title can be translated as “Contemplative Life,” the prayerful mode of a monk, in contrast to the “vita activa,” the practical workaday life. The poet Zagajewski dwells in both realms and reminds readers that the distractions of quotidian existence need not drown out the quieter, more essential values. His best poems, crafted from scraps of learning and much contemplation, are something new in the world and remind us of the newness of the old world. In Another Beauty (2000, translated by Cavanagh), a culling from Zagajewski’s notebooks, he writes:
What kind of meaning does poetry express–if we compare it, say, with philosophy and history? The difference might be defined as follows: poetry deals with new meanings, fresh meanings. It calls to mind a chestnut that has fallen from the tree and lost its husk; stunningly young, pink as a scar.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, Washington, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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