by Adam Zagajewski
translated by Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pp., $23
Adam Zagajewski’s 2008 collection of poems, Eternal Enemies, includes a piece entitled “Poetry Searches for Radiance.” However true this may be of poetry writ large, it is eminently true of Zagajewski’s poetry. He is a writer of profound, lucid verse that seeks and finds shimmers of radiance all over the map of human experience.
Much to his credit, this search ranges fearlessly over terrain that often seems tinged, or even saturated, with darkness. Most American readers will know him best for his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which the New Yorker printed on its back page two weeks after 9/11. Always a poet both cosmopolitan and deeply Polish, Zagajewski enjoys international prominence; he currently splits his time between Kraków and the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, where he teaches (among other things) a course on the work of his friend and mentor Czeslaw Milosz.
Unseen Hand is Zagajewski’s sixth book of verse to be translated into English, and in it, Zagajewski, now in his mid-sixties, takes up themes of mortality and eternity, loss and preservation, with particular poignancy. Many of the poems here treat the machinations of time with a mild, elegiac sadness. And yet, the sadness is often leavened by hints of some durable, preserving elements—memory, beauty, eternal life, God—that lie under the surface of worldly flux, unseen by human eyes. If the epiphanies in this collection are more subdued than ecstatic, Unseen Hand is nonetheless an insistently hopeful book. It demonstrates that even when radiance is most shrouded, great poetry keeps searching, and great poets keep waiting.
In “Like the King of Asini,” Zagajewski borrows the image of an absent king from a poem by George Seferis (1900-1971), writing of his own long search for “the absent,” and ends with
Like the King of Asini in Seferis, I thought—
nothing beneath the gold mask, a living absence—
but that void may be filled
at any moment, it may happen
that the king will suddenly return and gold will shine triumphant.
Damp gooseberry bushes rustle in the garden,
the wind stirs. Know that we’re waiting.
We’re still waiting.
This messianic note fits comfortably in Zagajewski’s larger oeuvre, where persistent religious longings mingle freely and continually with persistent, solvent doubts. The graceful handling of this unresolved tension exemplifies Zagajewski’s most distinctive poetic virtue: the sense of an inner life that is marvelously composed, gently gathering potentially dissonant tendencies into a single harmonious self. Throughout his work we find Parnassian aspiration married to self-effacing irony, a profoundly historical consciousness married to zen-like presence in the moment, a commitment to particular people, things, and places married to a penchant for abstract reflection. These marriages shift and slip—all free, unforced marriages do—but the overall impression that the reader takes away from Zagajewski’s work is that of a poet who means to approach the world, and his poetry, as a whole person, rational, emotional, physical, instinctual, and everything else that we are. When the poetry does slip, on occasion, towards some extreme—the sentimental or self-pitying, say—it simply seems like further, unnecessary evidence that a rich inner life is an imperfectible balancing act.
If none of this sounds particularly revolutionary, it is not, nor is it meant to be. Zagajewski stands firmly in the humanistic tradition crystallized in Terence’s famous statement that “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me.” But of course, different contexts can make different human things seem alien, and our context is no exception. On the few occasions when Zagajewski turns his critical irony outward, it is often aimed at the reductionist tendency in contemporary thought, a certain world-weary sophistication that denigrates human aspirations to heroism, sainthood, inspiration, and the like as fantasy, masks for our “real” interests (power, sex, money).
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.