Today, in criticism, it’s unfortunate that when you describe a poem – let alone an entire collection of poems – as “beautiful” without stipulating the complex reasons why it is so, you’d be dismissed by many for being unsophisticated, too simplistic, or plainly disingenuous, so it’s not without a certain level of caution that I say that Adam Zagajewski’s collection of poetry, Eternal Enemies, is exactly that: beautiful. And more: it’s enchanting, luminously pellucid, lyrically melancholic, but altogether without the easy pop style of grim cynicism that, in comparison to this, you can readily attribute to the work of perhaps lesser poets.
In writing this I am all the more cautious because, impressed as I am, I can neither speak nor read in Polish, thus my appreciation of Zagajewski’s work (and the works of all Polish writers for that matter) must be limited, provisional. In this case I am left with no option but to guess. My guess is that Adam Zagajewski has a much greater, more profound impact to native Polish speakers than to those of us who can only read Clare Cavanagh’s English translation, and for that I can only envy them.
This is my introduction to Adam Zagajewski, and it’s something that will certainly lead me to the works of other Polish writers, such as those of Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz (I am presently searching for Kindle editions of Milosz’s Orpheus and Eurydice and The Second Space). For such a slim volume, it covers a lot of ground: the importance of music; musings on Marx and his contemporaries; elegies to other poets; contemplative train trips and strolls through a multitude of cities, in Krakow, Italy, Houston, and New York. It contains striking, imagistic recollections of his childhood in postwar Poland as well as glancing snapshots of life on the move: intimate reflections on place, language, time, and history – here the poet’s internal eye is perpetually roving, yet always returning to the past. In my reading journal I have written: Zagajewski all at once manages to evoke your emotions – a mixture of pathos, faith, and doubt – in that his poetry possesses physicality appealing to one or more of your senses. He speaks directly to you in a distinctive, unique voice, and stays grounded in the concrete, tangible materiality of his past even when reaching for the abstract and philosophic – his is a voice that opens outward, to a timeless, borderless, universe. It’s a difficult tightrope act to have all of these emotions condensed in a slim volume of poems, let alone in one poem, but Zagajewski manages to do so.
This collection contains some powerful, memorable verses. I believe its richness comes, to some extent, from the poet’s Polish heritage, the war-ravaged landscapes of his youth, from a “… childhood, which evaporated / like a puddle gleaming with a rainbow of gasoline,” which haunt these pages. What ought to be anger and rage and nihilism is absent, however. It’s as if they have softened to an acceptance of the momentous past, but one that still pushes against the present. But for Zagajewski, the past – his past – is an electrical current that tempers his sensibilities and informs his language as he walks the streets of Europe’s once-great cities still recovering, still reeling from its weighty memories.
Cities are focal points in these poems, and Zagajewski gives special attention to settings where human lives cross and overlap, to places where history is measured against an individual life. In the opening poem, Star, an ode to remembrance wherein the poet returns to the “unchanging city / buried in the waters of the past,” Zagajewski reminds you that this journey to one’s past, the purposeful recollection it, is far more than a ritual – it is a metaphysical meditation so yearning it almost feels like a prayer. It’s a short sketch – only four stanzas of four lines each – but in many ways it’s the archetypal poem of the collection, and the one that pops out the most. Zagajewski writes:
“… I’m no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity,
I’m not the young poet who wrote
too many lines
and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions …”
Many of the other poems take on this mode of misleading simplicity, where seemingly pithy associations lead to sophisticated suggestions. The poet is a master at making these types of phrases, his lines full of stunning similes and compact metaphors. In Stolarska Street he writes of how his homeland prevails: “… it remains concealed / in my heart like a starving deserter / in an abandoned circus wagon.” In The Swallows of Auschwitz, the twittering of birds compels the poet to ponder, “Is this really all that’s left / of human speech?” His painting of scenes is so masterful, you’d almost wish that he’d limit himself to that. There are instances where he will reach for some profound, abstract truth and then wrap up with an outward cliché: “The future cries in us,” he writes in Describing Paintings, “and its tumult makes us human.” Elsewhere, a Billie Holliday song leads to a meditation on death and pain.
Also here are dense, private moments – lovers idly driving in a car, cities illuminated in a rare afternoon light through solitude and a nostalgic reverie – revealed, as only can be done, in poetry. Even in poems without such historical undertones, the poet stretches through and arrives at the expected, finding the personal, for instance, in a public discourse: “Yes, defending poetry, high style, etc. / but also summer evenings in a small town. …” Matters of art and matters of the self aren’t far removed, and this tension becomes the impulsion for several poems. It’s inspiring to watch a poet, any poet, of considerable prominence contend with such abstruse subject matter as the natures of art or poetry. In one instance, poetry for him is “the kingly road / that leads us farthest.” In another, reading poetry becomes an elegy for the poets who wrote them. In Butterflies, you see the perfect convergence of Zagajewski’s poetic sensibilities, past and present uniting under the auspices of art, and offering you a guide of sorts to the stark, essential beauty he continues to give us: “I read poems, listen to the mighty whisper / of night and blood.” How quaint that what’s supposed to be a manifesto on prewar and postwar Poland can sound so much like happiness.