Polish poetry is one of the marvels of twentieth-century literature. As usually happens with work written in one of the less well known languages, its many riches were nearly unknown until fairly recently. Many minor French and Spanish poets were translated before Czesl/aw Milosz and Wisl/awa Szymborska became widely read in this country. Long before these two received Nobel Prizes for Literature in 1980 and 1996 respectively, however, there was an anthology, Postwar Polish Poetry, edited by Milosz in 1965. The book introduced a number of other fine poets, among them Aleksander Wat, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Tymoteusz Karpowicz, Jerzy Harasymowicz, and finally Zbigniew Herbert, who ranks among the greatest poets of the last century. Polish poetry has one rare virtue: it is very readable in a time when modernist experiments made a lot of poetry written elsewhere difficult, if not outright hermetic. Here’s a little prose poem by Herbert to show what I mean:
THE END OF A DYNASTY
The whole royal family was living in one room at that time. Outside the windows was a wall, and under the wall, a dump. There, rats used to bite cats to death. This was not seen. The windows had been painted over with lime.
When the executioners came, they found an everyday scene.
His Majesty was improving the regulations of the Holy Trinity regiment, the occultist Philippe was trying to soothe the Queen’s nerves by suggestion, the Crown Prince, rolled into a ball, was sleeping in an armchair, and the Grand (and skinny) Duchesses were singing pious songs and mending linen.
As for the valet, he stood against a partition and tried to imitate the tapestry.1
The accessibility of the poems may have something to do with the country’s tragic history. Between 1939 and 1945, both Germany and Russia occupied Poland at different times, its borders were redrawn, and its civilian population was gassed and massacred in large numbers. Afterward, there were more than four decades of communism with their own terrors. Most likely, the pressure of that stark reality made the language games beloved by the avant-garde sound too much like escapism. “There is no bottom to evil,” Aleksander Wat says in a poem. The knowledge of the cruelties human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings is always in the background in these poems, not in theory but as a real possibility. The poets in Milosz’s anthology could have been as easily killed as their neighbors were. “Here are people who refused to cheat, who eagerly sought out the truth and shrank from neither poetry nor terror, the two poles of our globe,” writes Adam Zagajewski in his memoir, Another Beauty. The surprise is not that these Polish poets know all about murder of the innocent but that their vision is often comic. They are funny, skeptical, and sly, as any citizen of a totalitarian country or a prisoner is likely to be.
Zagajewski was born in 1945 and thus missed out on the horrors of the Second World War but he grew up under communism in a country as dreary as the barracks, he tells us. What he shares with the poets of the previous generation is the country’s unhappy history of which he himself, too, is the product. “I lost two homelands as a child,” he writes. “I lost the city where I was born, the city where countless generations of my family had lived before my birth.” Lvov had become a part of Soviet Ukraine, and shortly after his birth his parents were repatriated to Gliwice, a small town in Silesia. He studied philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and made his debut in 1972 as one of the leading poets of what was then called the Polish New Wave. An active dissident during the years of the Solidarity movement, he emigrated to Paris in 1982. Since then his work has been translated into most European languages and there have been three well-received collections of poetry and three books of essays translated into English before the appearance of these two books. Zagajewski is now one of the most familiar and highly regarded names in poetry both in Europe and in this country.
He was not a good philosophy student, he informs us in his memoir. He could not apply himself diligently to the close study of the great works, could not refine a concept or elaborate a new subtlety on the basis of some already existing concept. Without quite realizing it, he was already a poet, happier to make things up as he went along. Teaching Plato and Kant in a police state was an extremely risky occupation. His teachers were mostly frightened men who tried to keep a low profile and only hinted now and then at what they knew. Despite the constraints put on them by the political system and his own diffidence about the subject he was studying, it is clear from Zagajewski’s memoir that the study of philosophy nonetheless had a great effect on him. In a poem entitled “Ode to Plurality” he writes:
touched philosophy is lost
and won’t be saved by a poem
…Who once learned a wild
run of poetry will not taste anymore
the stony calm of family narratives
…Who has once met
irony will burst into laughter
during the prophet’s lecture….
Despite their range of subject matter, both Another Beauty and Solidarity, Solitude, his earlier book of essays, are in truth notes of someone working out a philosophical position in the guise of writing about many other seemingly unrelated things. That a poet may be also a secret metaphysician may strike one as an idle boast, yet if he or she is serious, there is no choice in the matter. The dispute concerning the nature of reality has been a burning issue in both literature and painting at least since the Romantics—if not long before. For someone like Zagajewski, growing up in a country where all questions large and small had already been answered by the official ideology and where each person was obliged to forfeit his right to make up his own mind on any important subject, the search for truth was far more a pressing necessity than it is with us who may feel that we have all the time in the world. In his poetry and his memoir, he asks himself again and again and in a variety of ways about truth. Here is how he describes his predicament:
I’m not a historian, but I’d like literature to assume, consciously and in all seriousness, the function of a historical chronicle. I don’t want it to follow the example set by modern historians, cold fish by and large, who spend their lives in vanquished archives and write in an inhuman, ugly, wooden, bureaucratic language from which all poetry’s been driven, a language flat as a wood louse and petty as the daily paper. I’d like it to return to earlier examples, maybe even Greek, to the ideal of the historian poet, a person who either has seen and experienced what he describes for himself, or has drawn upon a living oral tradition, his family’s or his tribe’s, who doesn’t fear engagement and emotion, but who cares nonetheless about his story’s truthfulness.
Zagajewski goes on to argue that we are witnessing a revival of literature that serves this very purpose: writers’ journals, memoirs, poets’ autobiographies that revive an archaic tradition, the writing of history from the viewpoint of what he calls a “sovereign individual.” Among the models to emulate he mentions the autobiographical writings of Edwin Muir, Czesl/aw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky, the essays of Nicola Chiaromonte, and the notebooks of Albert Camus. His own memoir clearly belongs in that company, both for the way it is put together and for its high quality. Its clipped, collage-like aspect makes me think of the contents of a photographer’s wastebasket. One reaches down and retrieves the torn pieces of photographs one at a time. A life, especially of someone young and still unsure of his identity, does not make for a coherent narrative or picture. One gets at it—if at all—by piecing together fragments of a lifetime. Such loose chronology allows Zagajewski to skip from subject to subject as he pleases in his memoir. In Another Beauty there are reminiscences of teachers, friends, landladies, uncles and aunts, lyrical descriptions of Kraków, meditations on music, painting, and philosophical questions, together with short passages that read like prose poems and parables. His prose is dazzling and so is the translation by Clare Cavanagh. Here he is writing about blackbirds:
The blackbird’s song can’t be compared with art, with Bach’s arias; its sense eludes us completely, and if we listen too long, it may strike us as monotonous. For all this, though, it expresses us, it expresses human beings too. It’s a love song, and so it’s our song, the song of those who sleep and love, or loved once upon a time. What a pity that we sleep as they sing, that we aren’t there to hear it, that our ears are sunk in the pillows’ warm substance.
And to think that this frenzied concert, this extraordinary concert full of passion, provoking pity and envy, takes place each day at daybreak from March to June in every European city, London, Munich, Krakow, Arezzo, Stockholm. An unheard concert aimed straight at the sky, unreviewed, unattended, unrewarded, unpaid, with egoless artists.
The poor blackbirds sang most beautifully when no one could hear them except for policemen, milkmen (back when there were still milkmen), janitors scurrying to bureaus and offices, and of course insomniacs. Who knows, perhaps the inhabitants of those cities would be slightly different, a bit more generous, transformed somehow, if they’d heard this concert, which speaks to the human heart even though it’s intended in principle for the hearts of small songbirds alone.
When the concert had ended, as it always does, around sunrise, when daylight vanquishes the night’s intruders, silence fell, a moment of quiet, which then quickly filled with the following sound: the carefree, silly chattering of sparrows.
The most absorbing questions are the ones we cannot answer, he writes elsewhere in the book. There is something mysterious in the way the earth and things exist, he says. The nothingness that troubles certain thinkers is not their concern. They agree to every kind of light, every kind of weather so that they may seize each moment and exist. They have no time to bother themselves with our ever-changing theories of reality; being in that moment is serious enough of a task for them. Zagajewski has in mind something as ordinary as the sight of an apple on the table, except, as he says, there are no ordinary apples for those who open their eyes.
The earliest of his poems translated into English for this new volume are already notable for their polished surface. Most likely, he started out as a poet by critically picking and choosing from the work of his elders and discarding their false notes. If the aesthetic positions available to him ranged roughly from various Polish versions of realism, symbolism, or surrealism, Zagajewski makes home for them all. His poems have an air of composure that is rarely found in the poetry of the earlier generation.
A number of those poets were fond of striking a cynical, world-weary pose. Not Zagajewski. Still, when it comes to subject matter their influence is very much present in his work. For instance, I can’t think of another poetic tradition where there are so many poems about philosophers and their ideas, or poems about paintings and music. What is frequently an almost unfailing poetic recipe for cultural snobbery and irrelevance appears to have worked wonders in Poland. Zagajewski himself has poems about Husserl, Beethoven, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Van Gogh, Schubert, Nietzsche, Morandi, Bruckner, Weil, and a number of other thinkers, musicians, and painters. Again and again he surprises the reader. His philosophical probity and his wit make poetry out of what at first may sound like a mini-essay on an assigned topic. Here is a poem from Tremor (1985), his earliest collection in English:
It is small and no more visible than a cricket
in August. It likes to dress up, to masquerade,
as all dwarfs do. It lodges between
granite blocks, between serviceable
truths. It even fits under
a bandage, under adhesive. Neither customs officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.
It camps in the Rocky Mountains of the skull.
An eternal refugee. It is I and I,
with the fearful hope that I have found at last
a friend, am it. But the self
is so lonely, so distrustful, it does not
accept anyone, even me.
It clings to historical events
no less tightly than water to a glass.
It could fill a Neolithic jar.
It is insatiable, it wants to flow
in aqueducts, it thirsts for newer and newer vessels.
It wants to taste space without walls,
diffuse itself, diffuse itself. Then it fades away
like desire, and in the silence of an August
night you hear only crickets patiently
conversing with the stars.
We tend to assume that lyricism has solely to do with some overpowering emotion—and it does—but we forget that it is not only love, grief, or beauty that gives rise to powerful feelings. Abstract ideas can similarly engage the imagination and be a subject of a lyric poem, as Wallace Stevens often demonstrated. The mind in moments of exceptional clarity is where Zagajewski finds his epiphanies. That mind, as we saw already, is steeped in the history and culture of Europe. This may sound pretty obvious, but it turns out not to be. Poets like Rilke, who seem to be at home everywhere and of whom Zagajewski at times reminds me, are not typical. The great poets of any given country are more likely to be proud provincials. It is among the exiles that one usually encounters such a worldly outlook, although with them it is not a matter of choice but of necessity.
A woodpecker cables
an urgent report on the capture of
Carthage and on the Boston Tea Party.
“Man’s personality possesses something untamed, mysterious, divine, unhistorical, undomesticated, something that speaks quietly in art, in religion, in the search for truth and it is exactly this delicate something that is the hunted animal, preyed upon by Political Systems and their countless conformities…,” he writes in one of my favorite passages in Solidarity, Solitude. That seems to me as good a reason as I’ve ever encountered to read the philosophers, look at art, listen to great music, and write about them. Cultural allusions, which in an American poet like Ezra Pound often sound like a high form of tourism, come across as the most natural thing in Zagajewski. The knowledge of arts and music, one ends up feeling, is as much a part of his empirical self as eating bread and drinking water.
Even children ought to know, Zagajewski says, that at least two kingdoms exist and two rulers: history and spirit. In the early Middle Ages, he claims, Western monks occupied themselves intensely with the cultivation of wheat fields and grapevines in addition to contemplation. They were able to be, at one and the same time, mystics and husbandmen. That is the ideal he himself seeks. The poet is born centrist, he says. This concern on Zagajewski’s part for the concrete particulars is a curative against any temptation of pure art. As his poetry makes evident, even his experiences of the sacred come from encounters with things of this world. There are many beautiful poems in Without End that dramatize a moment when consciousness expands and time comes to a stop.
IT COMES TO A STANDSTILL
The city comes to a standstill
and life turns into still life,
it is as brittle as plants in a herbarium.
You ride a bicycle which doesn’t
move, only the houses wheel by,
slowly, showing their noses, brows,
and pouting lips. The evening becomes
a still life, it doesn’t feel like existing,
therefore it glistens like a Chinese lantern
in a peaceful garden. Nightfall, motionless,
the last one. The last word. Happiness
hovers in the crowns of the trees.
Inside the leaves, kings are asleep.
No word, the yellow sail of the sun
towers over the roofs like a tent abandoned
by Caesar. Pain becomes still life and despair
is only a still life, framed
by the mouth of one passerby. The square
keeps silent in a dark foliage of birds’
wings. Silence as on the fields of Jena
after the battle when loving women
look at the faces of the slain.
Mysticism for Beginners is the title of one of Zagajewski’s collections of poetry. How appropriate, one thinks. The poet and the reader are, indeed, both perpetual beginners. In spite of what the scholars tend to believe, the poet has no advance knowledge to impart. Today, certainly, he no longer plays the role of the Romantic or Symbolist seer for whom the heavens open and the vision of ultimate things comes into view. Zagajewski is suspicious of the rhetoric of visionary hype, which is more often a product of the imagination’s endless quarrel with reality than of a genuine experience of the sublime. He’s equally wary of poets who become poetry’s ironic persecutors because it cannot deliver what it promises. Woe to a writer who values beauty over truth, he writes—and woe to the one who only seeks truth, one may add.
“A writer who keeps a personal diary uses it to record what he knows. In his poems and stories he sets down what he doesn’t know,” Zagajewski observes in his memoir. That makes perfect sense to me. If that were not the case, how would one experience the world anew and stand still in astonishment before that apple on the table? He is very clear about the kind of meaning poetry expresses, if we compare it to history and philosophy. The difference is, he says, that poetry deals with new meanings. It calls to mind the image of a chestnut that has fallen from the tree and lost its husk, stunningly young, pink as a scar. This, if one is honest about it, is about all one can expect from a poem. Poetry never gives answers to philosophical questions, or if it does it can only do so through people and things by reminding us that they cast an odd shadow now and then.
We’d talked long into the night
in the kitchen; the oil lamp glowed softly,
and objects, heartened by its calm,
came forth from the dark to offer
their names: chair, table, pitcher.
At midnight you said, Come out,
and in the dark there we saw the sky of August
explode with its stars.
Eternal, unconfined, night’s pale sheen
trembled above us.
The world noiselessly burned,
white fire enveloped it all, villages,
churches, haystacks scented with clover
and mint. Trees burned, and spires,
wind, flame, water and air.
Why is night so silent if volcanoes
keep their eyes open and if the past
stays present, threatening, lurking
in its lair like junipers or the moon?
Your lips are cool, and the dawn will be, too,
a cloth on a feverish brow.
There are times in life when one has the feeling that one has partaken of some larger truth. Only a small part of it, of course, since the whole of it, as Zagajewski says, is mute. The poet can remind us of that experience, as he does in a number of poems. Although he confides to us about such extraordinary moments, we learn little about his private life. The voice of his poems, even when he speaks of works of art and musical compositions that may not be very well known to the reader, is, nevertheless, intimate. There’s some of Whitman’s magnanimity in this poet of almost classical elegance and reticence. I’m not telling you anything you already do not have within yourself, he seems to say, so sit back and listen.
I am unable to judge the quality of the translations since I cannot read Polish with confidence, but mostly they sound convincing to me. Zagajewski’s poems are visually rich and images as a rule can be translated from one language to another without appreciable loss. He is not the most innovative of poets; however, his images are often startlingly fresh. This is true of his prose too. He likes to spring a surprise on the reader by cutting—in a cinematic kind of way—from one image to another. A poet has to give the reader the impression that the image both came out of nowhere and is absolutely inevitable. If form is about exercising caution, the image is all about recklessness. It’s a gamble, a throw of dice. At the heart of every powerful image there is an incommunicable something that can only be conveyed by an image still to come.
The train stopped in a field; the sudden silence
startled even sleep’s most ardent partisans.
The distant lights of shops or factories
glittered in the haze like the yellow eyes of wolves.
Businessmen on trips stooped over their computers,
totting up the day’s losses and gains.
The stewardess poured coffee steeped in bitterness.
Ewig, ewig, last word. Song of the Earth,
it repeats so often; remember how we listened
to this music, to the promise that
we so longed to believe.
We don’t know if we’re still in Holland,
this may be Belgium now. No matter.
An early winter evening, and the earth hid
beneath thick streaks of dusk; you could
sense the presence of a canal’s black water,
unmoving, stripped of mountain currents’ joy
and the great amazement of our oceans.
Wolves’ yellow eyes were quivering with a nervous
neon light, but no one feared an Indian attack.
The train stopped at that moment when our reason starts
to stir, but the soul, its noble yearning, is asleep.
We were listening a different time to Schubert,
that posthumous quintet where despair declares itself
insistently, intently, almost insatiably,
renewing its assault on the indifference
of the genteel concert hall, ladies in their furs
and the reviewers, minor envoys of the major papers.
And once out walking, midnight, summer in the country,
a strange sound stopped us short: snorting and neighing
of unseen horses in a pasture. As though
the night laughed happily to itself.
What is poetry if we see so little?
What is salvation if there is no threat?
Posthumous quintet! Only music keeps on growing
after death, music and the hair of trees.
As if rivers gave ecstatic milk and honey,
as if dancers danced in frenzy once again…
And yet we’re not alone. One day some guitar
worn by time will start singing for itself alone.
And the train moves at last, the earth rocks
underneath its stately weight and slowly
Paris draws close, with its golden aura,
its gray doubt.
Poetry and thinking for Zagajewski have to do with learning how to see clearly. His poems celebrate those rare moments when we catch a glimpse of a world from which all labels have been unpeeled. I imagine he would agree with E.M. Cioran, who says, “We are born to exist, not to know; to be, not to assert ourselves.”2 That may not sound like much, but once one gets over the disappointment and takes stock of what is philosophically possible in a patient and reasonable way, as Zagajewski has, that may be all we can be sure of in the end. In the meantime, there’s the continuing mystery of presence and these two indispensable books to remind us of it.
Postwar Polish Poetry, edited by Czesl/aw Mil/osz (1965; University of California Press, 1983), p. 141.↩
E.M. Cioran, History and Utopia (Seaver, 1987), p. 42.↩