Adam Zagajewski's poems put us in the presence of great mysteries. They deliver us to something deep and strange and perhaps even unlimited within ourselves. They have a strong kinship to prayer, a paradoxical feeling for truth, a fiery sense of quest and a keen longing for radiance:
God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride -- before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.
Zagajewski's poems are everywhere shadowed by death, and extremely conscious of human cruelty. They recognize the savageries -- the charnel house -- of history. Like all Polish poets in the 20th century, Zagajewski understands what human beings are capable of doing to one another. "It could be Bosnia today,/ Poland in September '39, France/ eight months later, Germany in '45,/ Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt," he writes in his poem "Refugees." "In the Parc de Saint-Cloud . . . I pondered your words," he writes to the painter Joseph Czapski: "The world is cruel; rapacious/ carnivorous, cruel."
Yet Zagajewski's poems are also filled with splendid moments of spiritual lucidity. They are spirited by what he calls "festive proclamations." "I was impaled by sharp barbs of bliss," he writes in his poem "Cruel." "I know I'm alone, but linked/ firmly, to you, painfully, gladly," he declares in "Presence." "I know only the mysteries are immortal." For him, even the action of swimming becomes like prayer: "palms join and part,/ join and part/ almost without end." I've been reading Zagajewski's poems for nearly 20 years now, and I continue to marvel at the way they transport us into a realm that is majestic, boundless and unknown.
Adam Zagajewski was born in 1945 in the medieval city of Lvov ("There was always too much of Lvov," he writes, "no one could/ comprehend its boroughs") and grew up in the ugly industrial city of Gliwice. These two places, so finely described in his prose book Two Cities, form two sides of his imagination: "Two cities converse with one another," he confesses. "Two cities, different, but destined for a difficult love affair, like men and women." The third formative city of his experience is Krakow, where he was a student and awakened to poetry, music and philosophy. These student years are the subject of his luminous prose work Another Beauty, which Susan Sontag calls "a wise, iridescent book" that "dips in and out of many genres: coming-of-age memoir, commonplace book, aphoristic musings, vignettes, and defense of poetry -- that is, a defense of the idea of literary greatness." Poetry for Zagajewski delivers us to what is highest and most exalted in ourselves. Like music, it momentarily saves us.
The collection Without End: New and Selected Poems brings together Zagajewski's three major books in English: Tremor (1985), Canvas (1991), and Mysticism for Beginners (1997). It also includes previously unpublished early work and a sublime group of new poems. Zagajewski started out in the early 1970s writing under the sign of the newborn opposition movement in Poland. He had a strong sense of the writer's social responsibility and a clear idea that "the collectivity (the nation, society, generations) is the chief protagonist and addressee of creative, artistic works." Since the mid-'70s, however, he has increasingly given sway to another side of his nature. He has given vent to the aesthetic, committed himself to the (permanent) values of art. Or as he puts it: "I have discovered there is also a 'metaphysical' part of myself that is rather anarchic -- not interested in politics or in history but in poetry and music."
Zagajewski has never forgotten the importance of addressing communal concerns, the necessity of civitas, and yet he has also learned the fundamental value of privacy, of the morality of speaking only for oneself. His poem "Fire" marks one turning point in his evolution from a dissident poet:
Probably I am an ordinary middle-class
believer in individual rights, the word
"freedom" is simple to me, it doesn't mean
the freedom of any class in particular.
Politically naive, with an average
education (brief moments of clear vision
are its main nourishment), I remember
the blazing appeal of that fire which parches
the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns
books and chars the skin of cities. I used to sing
those songs and I know how great it is
to run with others; later, by myself,
with the taste of ashes in my mouth, I heard
the lie's ironic voice and the choir screaming
and when I touched my head I could feel
the arched skull of my country, its hard edge.
The rival claims on Zagajewski's attention have increasingly given way to deeper aesthetic and even metaphysical divisions. He is a poet of compelling dualisms ("The world is torn. Long live duality! One should praise what is inevitable," he wryly proclaims). A powerful dialectic operates in his work between reality and imagination, between history and philosophy, between the temporal and the eternal.
"Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony," Zagajewski writes in Two Cities. "The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt." Zagajewski gives weight to both elements, and yet his deepest impulse is to try to praise the mutilated world, indeed to praise the mysteries of -- and even beyond -- the world itself. He is in some sense a pilgrim, a seeker, a celebrant in search of the divine, the unchanging, the absolute. His poems are filled with radiant moments of plenitude. They are spiritual emblems, hymns to the unknown, levers for transcendence.
A Quick Poem
I was listening to Gregorian chants
in a speeding car
on a highway to France.
The trees rushed past. Monks' voices
sang praises to an unseen God
(at dawn, in a chapel trembling with cold).
Domine, exaudi orationem meam,
male voices pleaded calmly
as if salvation were just growing in the garden.
Where was I going? Where was the sun hiding?
My life lay tattered
on both sides of the road, brittle as a paper map.
With the sweet monks
I made my way toward the clouds, deep blue,
toward the future, the abyss,
gulping hard tears of hail.
Far from dawn. Far from home.
In place of walls -- sheet metal.
Instead of a vigil -- a flight.
Travel instead of remembrance.
A quick poem instead of a hymn.
A small, tired star raced
and the highway's asphalt shone,
showing where the earth was,
where the horizon's razor lay in wait,
and the black spider of evening,
and night, widow of so many dreams.
(The poems "A Flame" and "A Quick Poem," translated by Clare Cavanagh, and "Fire," translated by Renata Gorczynski, appear in Adam Zagajewski's "Without End: New and Selected Poems." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski.)