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Poetry of Light

Illuminating the darker corners of humanity.

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By IAN MARCUS CORBIN
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Zagajewski is keen to defend the possibility of inspiration: that our grasping after truth can bring us into contact with something larger than ourselves; our understanding of reality can be more than a projection of desires and fears. These are unfashionable opinions in many cultural precincts. The epigraph to “June in Siena” is a quotation from the postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty, declaring, with characteristic breeziness, that we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves. Zagajewski’s gentle riposte begins, Flat days came to pass, when doubt governed, / days of obvious accord. He then presents a short series of everyday vignettes that show how even mundane experience is freighted with precisely the sort of eros that Rorty would have us eradicate. The poem ends with these lovely lines: the brown city quivered like troops before a battle. Dry lips waited for rain. Of course, this is nothing like a logical refutation of Rorty’s position but an invitation to linger for a moment, or maybe a lifetime, before demanding the excision of a vast and venerable part of the human story. 

This breadth and generosity of vision emerges from a sure, unembarrassed sense of the self’s own breadth. But Zagajewski fights off the blinders of solipsism through careful attunement to our smallness in the larger scheme of things. And so we find him ending “Self-portrait” with this:

in a winter day’s quiet, it is I, bored, resigned,

unhappy, haughty, it is I, daydreaming

like a teenager, dead tired like the aged,

I in the museum, at the seashore, on Krakow’s main square,

yearning for a moment that won’t show, that hides

like mountain peaks on cloudy afternoons, brightness

finally arrives, and I suddenly know all, know it is not I.

Adam Zagajewski’s radiant poetry is a gift. It offers a chance to ponder the vagaries of human experience in the company of a uniquely sensitive, patient, hospitable companion, who maintains a capacity for childlike wonder in concert with maturity. His work is also an example of what art can achieve now, in defiance of theorists who insist that poetry is no longer an authentic possibility, that we are each trapped in our own small, stifling self.

Ian Marcus Corbin is a writer in Boston.

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