The title of Adam Zagajewski’s latest volume of poetry, Eternal Enemies, comes from his poem “Epithalamium,” a poem to celebrate a wedding, in which he notes that despite the difficulties of sharing one’s life with another, it is only in marriage that love joins with time to let partners see each other “in their enigmatic, complex essence,/ unfolding slowly and certainly, like a new settlement. . . .” Many reviewers have noted Zagajewski’s concern with time in earlier volumes. Because the poet’s life has been a witness to political upheavals, and since political upheaval often results in exile, as it did for Zagajewski, it is not surprising that in these poems time is inextricably bound with place. “The sovereign of clocks and shadows,” the poet says, referring to how time has intervened between a loved place and the young man, now considerably older, who once loved it
Indeed, the collection’s first poem, “Star,” recounts a return to a lost home, and its second poem, “En Route,” in its fourteen short stanzas is a sort of travelogue from Belgium to Mont Blanc to Sicily. Other poems name streets in the poet’s home cities of Lvov and Krakow; Rome and Syracuse are settings for some poems; the United States (where Zagajewski spends part of each year teaching) is the setting for others. Some of these are intended to evoke a sense of the place described. In “En Route,” for example, the great Greek temple at Segesta, Sicily, is called “a wild animal/ open to the sky,” suggesting its isolated location as well as its lack of a roof. In “Stagliano,” Zagajewski compares the memorial statues of professors, lawyers, children, and even dogs in the famous Genovese cemetery to the fossilized remains of Pompeii, another place where tourists may meet the past. Ironically, Zagajewski notes in “Syracuse” that tourists run the risk of being “imprisoned in our travels.” The poet’s Polish homeland frequently informs these poems. (That Zagajewski writes in Polish is a measure of how deeply he claims his national heritage.) In “Evening, Stary Sacz,” he describes nightfall in the modern town that has emerged from ancient roots. The time of day is marked with the usual tea kettles and television sets, but it also harbors the memory of angels that once inhabited its skies, though now they have been replaced by a policeman on a motorcycle. Even the knife that slices bread for the evening meal seems to recall episodes in the town’s more violent past.
Zagajewski is skilled at using details such as the tea kettle and bread knife to evoke both place and emotion, a fact the reader experiences frequently in these poems. Often the mood is melancholic, characteristic of the East European voice. In “Rainbow,” for example, he looks at Long Street and Karmelicka Street in Krakow, the ancient university city where the poet himself was educated. The streets are filled with “drunks with blue faces,” with used bookshops, and with “rain, rats, and garbage.” It is a city where childhood “evaporated/ like a puddle gleaming with a rainbow of gasoline.” Even the university appears to its long-departed alumnus as a clumsy seducer of naïve youth. In “Camogli,” a brief sketch of an Italian fishing village in November, the details of houses, cats, fishing nets, and pensioners seem innocuous, but behind them the sea’s relentless waves suggest a past in which lofty goals have been lost like youth and dreams. In “Bogliasco: The Church Square,” the sea seems to wash the minor events of the day into “oblivion.”
The cities and towns of Zagajewski’s native Poland are logical places for him to confront his personal past as well as the past of his nation. Similarly, the cities of Sicily, with their rich legacy of Greece lying alongside their modern stones, invite the poet to examine the relationship between past and present. Zagajewski, however, is often more concerned with art and artists than with the simple artifacts of history. For some poems, artists are the subject matter; for others they appear as allusions. Many will be familiar to English readers of poetry. “Brodsky,” for example, offers a brief biography of Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, who, exiled in the United States, became the U.S. poet laureate in 1991. It...
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