The Last Poem I Loved: “The Bells” by Adam Zagajewski


My maternal grandparents emigrated from Poland in 1924 after experiencing the horrors of World War I. They arrived here with pockets full of hopes and dreams and little else. I never met them; they died before I was born. I know them only through Mother’s stories and the handful of cherished items left her: three Catholic prayer books, written in Polish; a thread supposedly from the robe of the Black Madonna, a Polish saint; and a crucifix for last rites crafted in Germany. These almost inconsequential facts have had a disproportionately large but positive impact on my life’s direction and scope.

When I was seven, my family moved to a house on a leafy street directly across from a Catholic school. Naturally, my mother, the good Catholic, promptly enrolled me.

The church and school were modern in design. Instead of the typical steeple attached to the church it was built as a separate structure located near the street just steps from my house. The steeple contained five church bells of different sizes. Our lives to some degree were ordered by the Angelus bell. Each morning, noon and evening the bells would toll in a regular and dignified manner, then end with a clamorous, rapturous explosion of peals, as if every cathedral bell in Krakow were calling the faithful to worship. Even after the bells stopped, every insect, every leaf, every structure, every person and even the very air continued to ring.

I find myself drawn (perhaps, not surprisingly) to the postwar Polish poets: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Hebert, Wislawa Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski. Zagajewski, the youngest of the group, studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. In Another Beauty, a book of essays, Zagajewski presents Krakow as being possessed of vast numbers of bells.

The air quivered frantically, and our bodies quivered with it. The MIddle Ages suddenly returned, a late medieval afternoon, and the totalitarianism of bells, fear and joy, every molecule and cell, was vibrating: get to church, time for church, or so some historians would read this sound. But ringing bells aren’t pragmatic, and shouldn’t be reduced to commands or requests alone. This ringing merely makes the air’s latent, inner trembling both immanent and audible. It divulges the air’s hidden nature.

He also wrote that Krakow’s bells woke him to the possibility of a higher life, enabled him to understand greatness exists, and gave him moments of happiness.

In “The Bells,” dedicated to C. K. Williams his friend and fellow poet, Zagajewski begins:

We’ll take refuge in bells, in the swinging bells,
in the peal, the air, the heart of ringing.
We’ll take refuge in bells and we’ll float
over the earth in their heavy casings.

He then uses anaphora, a rhetorical device, to emphasize the celestial nature of the bells and to give the poem a liturgical cadence:

Over the earth, over meadows
and a single white daisy, over the bench on which love
carved its imperfect symbol, over a willow
obedient to the will of cool wind,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

over the Tatras’ green lake, over crying
and mourning, over binoculars shining
in sun,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Over the border, over your attentive gaze,
over the pupil of somebody’s eye, over a rusty cannon,
over the garden gate which no longer exists,
over clouds, over rain drinking dew,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

over the town park where a Swiss Army knife,
lost lifetimes ago, lies hidden still.

He closes the poem with these graceful lines:

When the night comes, we’ll take refuge
in bells, those airy carriages,
those bronze balloons.

(Translated by Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry and C. K. Williams)

Zagajewski’s bells float midway between heaven and earth, and their sonorous voices rain down onto ordinary things. They don’t rain on those moments traditionally heightened by church bells. They don’t rain on moments of contemplation and prayer, on the grand weddings and grand funerals, on the occurrence of fire in the village, on hostilities beginning, or on the celebration of hostilities ending. They rain instead on a meadow with a single white daisy, on a bench on which love carved a heart, on binoculars shining in sun, on a Swiss Army knife lost long ago.

In his poem, “Canvas,” Zagajewski furthers the conceit: “and my chilly imagination/is the tongue of a bell/alive only when swinging.” The poet’s swinging tongue, from which the peal of poetry flows, can soften our hearts; and when our hearts soften, we can sense the greatness that surrounds us; a greatness that exists in each moment of our lives, even in those moments that we perceive as broken, lost or mournful; and in this greatness, where we find the “heart of ringing”, we can take refuge.

Mark Starling lives and works in Louisiana. More from this author →