The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

“To Go to Lvov” depicts an imaginary journey, a dream journey, to Lvov, the city of poet Adam Zagajewski’s birth. Lvov was in a district that was appropriated from Poland by the Soviet Union after World War II; in consequence, Zagajewski’s family moved into western Poland where the poet grew up. This poem thus involves looking backward into the lost world of childhood, but it implies that everyone possesses such a landscape that is simultaneously lost and always available in memory. The poem consists of eighty-three lines of free verse in one long stanza. The lines have roughly ten syllables, although many are longer and the last five are noticeably shorter than the rest of the poem. In its translated version, it has no metrical pattern. Instead, its organization rests on its consistent tone and on certain elements that are repeated in the course of its descriptions of Lvov.

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The poem begins with the speaker’s invitation to the reader to make the journey to Lvov, although from the very beginning it hints that Lvov may not exist at all except in dream. That is why the poem seems uncertain about whether this journey is taking place in September or March and even about which station is the right one “for Lvov.” The speaker goes on to describe the natural landscape of Lvov with its poplars and ash trees. In line 18, the speaker introduces an architectural element of the city: the Roman Catholic cathedral “as straight/ as Sunday.” It is one part of the city’s religious heritage that also includes Russian Orthodox Christians as well as Jews. The details that describe the cathedral are embedded in other pictures of the gardens and botanical life of the city, including weeds, Queen Anne cherries, and forsythia. In line 25, the speaker says that “there was always too much of Lvov,” an idea that becomes a sort of refrain in the central part of the poem.

In line 42, the speaker begins to describe memories of his family, his aunts and their family servants, and his philosophical uncle; he also includes fragments that hint at their home life. Once again the speaker asserts that “there was too much/ of Lvov” and that it constantly overflowed every attempt to contain it, but, in line 59, the speaker modifies the refrain: There may have been “too much of Lvov” in the past, but “now/ there isn’t any.” It has been cut away just as a child cuts out a paper figure, leaving all its inhabitants to bid farewell and to die and leaving its exiles to feel like Jews seeking Jerusalem. However, the speaker asserts at the end that Lvov survives as a place to which one may travel at any time.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

The logic of childhood memories, like the logic of dreams, is often built on surprising associations. The poet who is attempting to recapture some of the sense of childhood’s landscape often uses those associations as an organizational technique. In this poem, the speaker first establishes that the journey being described is not to be taken literally. “Which station/ for Lvov,” he wonders and then says one can make the journey “only if Lvov exists,/ if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just/ in my new passport.” Such a statement is relevant only if it is possible that the city does not exist. From that point, the poem piles on images in the confused way one’s mind might call them up when one remembers a place from one’s childhood. The images are interwoven, but they form several strands. One concerns the plant life of the area, another details the religious setting of the city, and a third pictures the speaker’s family.

Botanical imagery permeates the poem almost from its beginning. The speaker thinks of the poplars and ash trees that stand like lances and breathe aloud “like Indians”; he thinks of the burdocks and weeds in the city’s gardens, the plants that the Jesuits “baptized,” and the roses, forsythia, soft ferns, and Queen Anne cherries. The wealth of detail suggests rich growth in a city where there is “always too much.” The religious detail forms another strand of imagery. Lvov is the home of a Roman Catholic cathedral and nuns whose cone-shaped headdresses let them sail “like schooners.” It is also the home of a Russian Orthodox church with its own silence, different from that of the cathedral. References to Lvov’s religious life flicker through the poem as they flicker through the memory of the speaker.

It is the people, however, who form the most vivid of the speaker’s recollections. He recalls his aunts who “couldn’t have known/ yet that I’d resurrect them” in a poem. He recalls the servants and an uncle who “kept writing a poem entitled Why,/ dedicated to the Almighty.” He thinks of the small events that formed their lives, recalling a visiting lecturer, a family Bible reading, and someone sleeping “on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug.” In the end, the speaker acknowledges that Lvov has been snipped away from reality as neatly as a child might cut out a paper animal, keeping to the dotted lines. The scissors cut away “fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors/ cut the body and the wreaths.” The same passion for detail that loaded the town with greenery and relatives now lists a variety of cutting implements, but all of them lead to the same result—the speaker’s permanent loss of those who have been sliced away.

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Themes