So This Is It…So This Is It

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Adam Zagajewski’s work is both a course in Mysticism for Beginners and a record of Eternal Enemies.

“Writing poems is a duel / that no one wins,” Adam Zagajewski tells us in his latest book, Unseen Hand—“on one side / a shadow rises, massive as a mountain range / viewed by a butterfly, on the other, / only brief glimpses of brightness, / images and thoughts like a match flame.” Material stone and soulful butterfly, worldly darkness and poetic light; such oppositions have long characterized Zagajewski’s writing. On the one hand, he is the most spiritual of poets, his work unabashed in an allegiance to “ardor” and a belief that “miracles do happen.” On the other hand, he is the most political of figures, his work overt in its references to the chronicle of suffering that is the history of his native Poland. The gorgeous “To Go to Lvov,” for example, which appears in his early volume Tremor, is not just the conjuration of a lost paradise but also his tribute to a birthplace that has been repeatedly renamed on the brutally shifting maps of war and occupation. In the words of two previous titles, then, Zagajewski’s work is both a course in Mysticism for Beginners and a record of Eternal Enemies; “January 27,” from the current collection, fittingly considers a date that is both “Holocaust Memorial Day / and Mozart’s birthday.” That double charge, Zagajewski writes, means that “memory was perplexed” and “imagination lost its bearings,” but his work nevertheless would bring the powers of memory and imagination together. It refuses to forget terror or dismiss transcendence.

This effort is specific but universal—since the question is not so much the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz as it is the faith in beauty during any lifetime of suffering and pain. Lvov is “everywhere,” Zagajewski concludes in his 1985 poem, and so it is still. In the post-Cold-War world, as we only begin to understand the interdependent strands of historical experience that made up the ongoing atrocities of our world, Zagajewski’s exiled attention to a particular landscape has only widened in its empathy. We are all, perhaps, like those on “Joseph Street in Winter,” a lovely lyric in Unseen Hand, in which oblivious civilians are compared to a gardener who “leans / against his shovel handle, dreaming, / and doesn’t see that war / has unexpectedly erupted / or that the hydrangea has bloomed.” Zagajewski urges his fellow “pilgrims” to bring our attention more keenly to bear on the details of both a blossom and a battle.

Indeed, Zagajewski’s new book demonstrates such attention in its moments of metaphoric brilliance: faces “like an empty secondhand bookshop,” for example, or others “like the torches of welders, who mend / steel in clouds of sparks at night.” Or a sun which, “like a worried first-grader, / diligently colors in the shadows.” Or European nations which “exhausted after many wars…lay serenely in their marriage beds / vast as the Danube river basin.” Zagajewski’s transfiguring vision can imbue straightforward description of ordinary scenes, too; in “The Last Tram,” for example, the poet remembers how “nothing happened, nothing, / the driver ate a roll with cheese, / two old women talked quietly / about prices and diseases.” It is only fitting that he once wrote a tribute to a Vermeer painting.

There are flatter moments in Zagajewski’s new book. He has never been afraid of a bare statement of creed, and at times these can seem bland rather than pure—as in one poem that ends when “a short-lived certainty appears / nearly faith,” or another, “Music of the Lower Spheres,” that concludes: “Strawberry ice cream melts on the asphalt. / If I could only open my heart.” Certain musings proffer too-easy wisdom, as in a meditation on the name Metasequoia: “Have even the plants begun to draw upon / the arcane jargon / of certain academic sages?” And others are overly explicit: in “Not Thinking about Aesthetics,” Zagajewski imagines that when his father “copied out / my poem ‘To Go to Lvov’ for friends,” he was not “thinking about aesthetics, / metaphors, stresses, deeper meanings.” In the past, though, it is just this worry over “aesthetics” and “deeper meanings” that has spurred some of his best poems—as in the early “New World,” for example, which reminds itself not to “let poems lull you / just don’t read them you haven’t got time….”

And if later work often misses the restless energy of such lines, in which high-stakes self-questioning propels writer and reader into large philosophical questions made pressingly, personally relevant, a similar rhythm does course through some of the best work in Unseen Hand. In “Vita Contemplativa,” for example, a very active mind wonders how to know what “we do not know,” and when the poet repeats his mistrusting-but-effortful phrase “So this is the vita contemplativa,” or reiterates “so this is it….so this is it….,” his insistence manifests the difficult attempt to catch experience as it passes. In an even better poem called “Swifts Storming St Catherine’s Church,” Zagajewski’s clauses join the risky flight of the swallows, with their “mad, haphazard, grand / attack on the Gothic structure,” and achieve the ecstasy of faith through sheer desire to do so. Adjectives, here, seem representations of activity; the poem ends in “ceaseless, / unsated curiosity, what’s coming next”—before “the day’s shutters bang closed / (and I’ve already said too much).”

Such work unleashes the energy that has quieted, though not expired, in the most touching of Zagajewski’s calmer lines, and it shows his truest inspiration to lie in a solitary, meditative observation: though Unseen Hand includes several tributes to other writers, including one on the death of the “great poet” Milosz and one “written while attending a Herbert conference,” Zagajewski’s poems of address or elegy often lack the power in his poems of reflection or description. “What’s the use, I’m an introvert,” he admits in “If I Were Tomaž Šalamun.” The duel of poetry, and its effort to combat history with beauty, is in the end a fight within one’s own “heavy head”—to use a phrase from “Self-Portrait in an Airplane.” In this poem, a “tired” poet describes himself “seen from outside” as “immobile, almost dead,” and in another work, Zagajewski admits that he sometimes even envies “the dead poets,” those whose “doubts vanished with them” even as “their rapture lives.” Zagajewski’s “self-portrait” affirms, though, that within the burden of one’s thoughts “a poem is being born,” and Unseen Hand throughout shows that the preservation of doubt is inextricable from the pursuit of rapture. The result affirms the gravity of aesthetic beauty: poetry, for Zagajewski, must be a butterfly as heavy as a stone.

Siobhan Phillips is an assistant professor of English at Dickinson College. She is the author of The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Southwest Review, Literary Imagination, Hudson Review, Yale Review, and other journals. More from this author →