Sunday, 26 January 2014

Adam Zagajewski and the City

Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) is a Polish poet. However, he was born in Lvov, now part of Ukraine, from where his family was expelled when he was a baby. Between 1944 and 1946, Poles living in what is called the Kresy region, to the East of modern Poland, were forced to move out as the map of post-war Europe was being redrawn. His parents resettled in Krakow. Critical of communism, one of his poetical bête noires, he left for Paris in 1982, and also lived in Houston and Chicago, having taught at the universities of these respective cities. He emerged as a poet around the 1970s and has become one of Poland’s most celebrated modern poets. He’s received numerous awards, including the Neustadt Prize (2004), the European Poetry Prize (2010) and the Zhongkun International Poetry Prize (2013). He’s also a major Nobel Prize contender. On top of writing poetry, he’s also the author of several books of essays: A Defense of Ardor, Two Cities, Another Beauty.  His work, for a foreign writer, has received a lot of exposure in English. My first book was Eternal Enemies, then I moved to Without End, a collection of books previously published, and last year I read Unseen Hand.


Out of the 500 pages of poetry currently available in English, one can read Zagajewski’s from many different angles. There’s the tourist always in transit, there’s the man in pursuit of his memories, there’s the ongoing drama of his father losing his mind, there’s the lover of painting, there’s the philosopher in dialogue with dead philosophers, there’s the poet writing tributes to other poets. These are all valid forms of writing about his work. But the first topic to come to mind is his attraction to the city, or town. Not a particular city or town – although these exist too, Lvov and Krakow, for instance – but an abstract, featureless, opaque space of reflection, sorrow, reminiscence and joy, and it’s right there on page 3 of Without End:


Oh my mute city, honey-gold,
buried in ravines, where wolves
loped softly down the cold meridian;
if I had to tell you, city
asleep beneath a heap of lifeless leaves,
if I needed to describe the ocean’s skin, on which
ships etch the lines of shining poems,
and yachts like peacocks flaunt their lofty sails
and the Mediterranean, rapt in salty concentration,
and cities with sharp turrets gleaming
in the keen morning sun,
and the savage strength of jets piercing the clouds,
the bureaucrats’ undying scorn for us, people,
Umbria’s narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,
and a certain hill, where the stillest tree is growing,
gray Paris, threaded by the river of salvation,
Krakow, on Sunday, when even the chestnut leaves
seem pressed by an unseen iron,
vineyards raided by the greedy fall
and by highways full of fear;
if I had to describe the sobriety of the night
when it happened,
and the clatter of the train running into nothingness
and the blade flaring on a makeshift skating rink;
I’m writing from the road, I had to see,
and not just know, to see clearly
the sights and fires of a single world,
but you unmoving city turned to stone,
my brethren in the shallow sand;
the earth still turns above you
and the Roman legions march
and a polar fox attends the wind
in a white wasteland where sounds perish.

This is basically the City, we’re going to walk through it again and again, with similar adjectives and sensations attached to it. It’s a city of no specified geography, it’s Umbria, Paris and Krakow all converging in his brain, a gray place, asleep, still, mute, unmoving and turned to stone. If I’m reading him correctly, each place he passes through – and Zagajewski’s a globetrotter – is the same place because his memory and creative power carry with him a single vision, which needs a whole different brand of poems for decoding, his poems on memory, for instance “In A Little Apartment,” where his father “works in the quiet apartment – in silence” in “a low block in the Soviet style that says all towns should look like barracks.” This is the city he carries with him everywhere, stuck in time, drab, dreary, scarred by the communist regime.

Also, this poem doesn’t make any sense. It starts with an if and you keep waiting for a then, and it just keeps adding ands and ands, and you think there’s going to be a big then at the end, and you’re having a hard time following all the incremental ands, but it’s going to be worth it and then he cuts it off with a semicolon, and moves on to something else. Where’s the payoff? This is why people don’t like contemporary poetry.

Anyway, I was talking about variations, but there’s also recycling. This “mute city” gets expanded into a whole poem with the same title in Unseen Hand:


Imagine a dark city.
It understands nothing. Silence reigns.
And in the quiet bats like Ionian philosophers
make sudden, radical decisions in mid-flight,
filling us with admiration.
Mute city. Blanketed in clouds.
Nothing is known yet. Nothing.
Sharp lightning cleaves the night.
Priests, Catholic and Orthodox alike, rush to shroud
their windows in deep blue velvet,
but we go out
to hear the rain’s rustle
and the dawn. Dawn always tells us something,

The poem seems to start on an aural metaphor, but it’s really visual. It’s all about light and darkness: the dark, the bats, the blanket metaphor, night-time. I guess this muteness is not so much about inability to speak but a deeper difficulty in transmitting or obtaining knowledge, a cognitive, expressive opaqueness, the limits of understanding perhaps. Did I mention he dialogues with Nietzsche in his poetry?

He works on the same themes a bit more in this poem:


Walk through this town at a gray hour
when sorrow hides in shady gates
and children play with great balls
that float like kites above
the poisoned wells of courtyards.
And, quiet, the last blackbird sings.

Think about your life which goes on,
though it’s already lasted so long.

Could you voice the smallest fragment of the whole.

Could you name baseness when you saw it.

If you meet someone truly living
would you know it?

Did you abuse high words?

Whom should you have been, who knows.
You love silence, and you’ve mastered
only silence, listening to words, music, and quiet:
why did you begin to speak, who knows.

Why in this age, why in a country
that wasn’t born yet, who knows.
Why among exiles, in a flat that had been
German, amid grief and mourning
and vain hopes of a regained myth.

Why a childhood shadowed
by mining towers and not a forest’s dark,
near a stream where a quiet dragonfly keeps watch
over the world’s secret wholeness

– who knows.

And your love, which you lost and found,
and your God, who won’t help those
who seek him,
and hides among theologians
with degrees.

Why just this town at a gray hour,
this dry tongue, these numb lips,
and so many questions before you leave
and go home to the kingdom
from which silence, rapture, and the wind
once came.

Actually I don’t have a clear idea what he’s talking about here, but that last stanza is about death, right? Or is he talking about some other kingdom?

Remember how in the first movie we had an “unmoving city turned to stone?” Well, there hasn’t been much progress:


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 a 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.

I like this poem, it unveils a bit of his passion for painting. The still life is one of the classic themes of painting, the rendering of inanimate objects, usually domestic or everyday objects, important in the history of painting for their rupture with traditional religious or mythical themes, bringing a new representation of reality into the painting. There’s nothing awkward about life turning into still life, in painting all life turns into still life, and I’d add a poem is also still life, holding it on the page, framed by one’s mouth.

And the adjectives for cities keep coming:


O unknown city, cool cradle
Snow falling on a map

The tenements’ green roofs
The windowsills where laughter rattles

Unknown city hidden away among
I don’t know how many gentle hills

What was ordinary isn’t possible anymore
A different wind turns the tin vane

In the imperial forest in the royal pantry
wild cherries waited so sweet and black
one could feed them to Leviathan

And fate gave into our hands the blood-filled
Star of Bethlehem whittled with a knife

This one is hidden away amongst hills, like the one “buried in ravines.” My geography is awful, is Krakow surrounded by hills? But moving on, next we have:


The faint, almost fantastic
scent of the Mediterranean,
crowds on streets at midnight,
a festival begins,
we don’t know which.
A scrawny cat slips
past our knees,
gypsies eat supper
as if singing:
white house beyond them,
an unknown tongue.

Which sounds a bit like this other poem:


In strange cities, there’s an unexpected joy,
the cool pleasure of a new regard.
The yellowing façades of tenements
the sun scales like an agile spider
aren’t mine. The town hall,
harbour, jail and courthouse
weren’t built for me either.
The sea runs through the city, its salty tide.
submerging porches and basements.
In the market, pyramids of apples
rise for the eternity of one afternoon.
Even the suffering’s not really mine:
the local madman mutters
in an alien language, the misery
of a lonely girl in a café
is like a piece of canvas in a dingy museum,
the huge flags of the trees, though,
flutter as in the place we know,
and the same lead is sewn in the hems
of winding-sheets, dreams, and the imagination
homeless, and mad.

Both are poems that show his penchant for travelling. Perhaps one day I’ll write about his tourism poetry, about visiting museums and churches and spending time in airports and train stations. The word homeless is telling. Is that how he sees himself? Homeless is a strong word, though, I’d prefer rootless, or cosmopolitan.

There are also the cities of memory and imagination, although all his city poems are that too, one way or another. But some are more evocative of these qualities than others:


The city is quiet at dusk,
when pale stars waken from their swoon,
and resounds at noon with the voices
of ambitious philosophers and merchants
bearing velvet from the East.
The flames of conversation burn there,
but not pyres.
Old chucks, the mossy stones
of ancient prayers, are both its ballast
and its rocket ship.
It is a just city
where foreigners aren’t punished,
a city quick to remember
and slow to forget
tolerating poets, forgiving prophets
for their hopeless lack of humour.
The city was based
on Chopin’s preludes,
raking from them only joy and sorrow.
Small hills circle it
in a wide collar; ash trees
grow there, and the slim poplar,
chief justice in the state of trees.
The swift river flowing through the city’s heart
murmurs cryptic greetings
day and night
from the springs, the mountains, and the sky.


I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
unchanging city
buried in the waters of the past.

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.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows
has touched my brow with his hand,

but still I’m guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.


Written while attending
A Herbert conference in Sienna

I dreamed of my distant city –
it spoke the language of children and the injured,
it spoke in many voices, rushing
to shout one another down, like simple people suddenly
to the presence of a great official:
“There is no justice,” it cried; “All
has been taken from us,” it wailed loudly;
“No one remembers us, not a soul”;
I saw feminists with dark eyes,
petty nobles with forgotten family trees,
judges wearing togas sewn of nettles
and devout, exhausted Jews –
                                               but slowly, relentlessly
the gray dawn drew near and the speakers faded,
dimmed, submissively went back to their barracks
like legions of toy soldiers,
and then I heard completely different words:

“Still there are miracles, not everyone believes,
but miracles do happen…” And waking, slowly,
reluctantly departing the dream’s bunker,
I realized that the arguments continue,
that nothing has been settled yet…

Finally, we have a poem which I think is a key for a lot of what he writes:


Poetry searches for radiance,
poetry is the kingly road
that leads us farthest.
We seek radiance in a gray hour,
at noon or in the chimneys of the dawn,
even on a bus, in November,
while an old priest nods beside us.

The waiter in a Chinese restaurant bursts into tears
and no one can think why.
Who knows, this may also be a quest,
like that moment at the seashore,
when a predatory ship appeared on the horizon
and stopped short, held still for a long while.
And also moments of deep joy

and countless moments of anxiety.
Let me see, I ask.
Let me persist, I say.
A cold rain falls at night.
In the streets and avenues of my city
quiet darkness is hard at work.
Poetry searches for radiance.

Poetry as the dispeller of darkness, blazing paths from the quotidian, revealing new states, wrestling with and rising above the negative human forces of despair, panic and sadness, finding an alternative. Zagajewski is a poet of small epiphanies, ensconced in a world of night-time, dead history and alienation.


  1. Because I've been curious myself about Zagajewski, I almost included him as one of my votes for the 10 works you'd asked us to recommend that you read this year. And I almost didn't read this post, thinking perhaps I should read a Zagajewski book first. But once I started to read the first poem, I was hooked. Is it possible, at the end of "Walk Through This Town," that the kingdom to which he refers is poetry, and that having experienced the town he now feels acutely aware of his vocation, of turning a walk at a grey hour into a poem? I'll hunt one of his books down at the library tomorrow. Thanks.

    1. It's a possible, of course. I'm glad you connected so quickly with his poetry.

      I just re-read the poem, and I'm even more convinced it's death. The walk through the town, for me, is a metaphor for life and reaching at the end of it, full of doubts - which is why the poet asks himself several questions - and wondering what was the point, before slipping back into oblivion. It's so much fun interpreting poetry.

  2. I did vote for Zagajewski, just to get this post, and perhaps more. He's a great poet, although I base that just on his old Tremors collection, which only contains two of the above poems and has obviously been supplanted in the last (let me check the publication date) 30 years.

    Maybe I should try to catch up some time.

    1. The voting is still ongoing and this post isn't part of it. But I figured it was time to show my love for Zagajewski. Indeed there's a lot to catch up. Having finished his poetry I'm going to delve into his non-fiction, which I'm sure will be equally rewarding.