Adam Zagajewski came to prominence in his native Poland during the 1960s as his country was suffering under the oppression of the Communist-controlled government. He and other Polish poets spoke out against the totalitarian system through their work, which was eventually censored, forcing many of them to emigrate to the West. As he and other Polish artists worked at a distance to free their country from political oppression, Zagajewski declared that art should focus on social realities rather than lyrical abstractions. Poetry then would be an informative vehicle that could engender change. After Zagajewski immigrated to the West in the late 1970s, however, his artistic attitudes shifted. He no longer believed that poetry should be subordinated to a political agenda and argued that it should instead reflect the individuality of the poet. The finely crafted poem "Self-Portrait," which appears in Mysticism for Beginners (1997), reveals the poet's shift in aesthetics in its focus on artistic expression at odds with historical experience. One of the most personal poems in the 1997 collection, "Self-Portrait" shows the difficulties inherent in the struggle to find a clear sense of individuality separate from the external world of experience. As he details the objects in his world and his response to them, the speaker presents a moving portrait of loss and a stubborn insistence on his own distinct voice.
The title of Zagajewski's "Self-Portrait" suggests that the focus of the poem is the speaker's attempt to define himself. In line 1, the speaker identifies himself as a writer, as someone who spends half of his day writing with "a computer, a pencil, and a typewriter." In line 2, he makes a vague reference to time, when he notes, "One day it will be half a century." He does not say whether he means that one day he will be fifty years old, suggesting that he is approaching that milestone, or whether the half a century will mark the period of time that has passed since a particular important event. The event might be the date the speaker left his home and traveled to the first in the series of "strange cities" to which he refers in line 3. The repetition of the word "strange" in lines 3 and 4 implies that the speaker feels alienated in the places in which he now lives, among "strangers" with whom he discusses "matters strange" to him.
The speaker listens to music "a lot," and his preference is for classical composers—Bach, Mahler, Chopin, and Shostakovich. Still, the music does not seem to soothe him. The speaker finds weakness, power, and pain to be the main elements of the music. He declares that a fourth element of music is unnamable and turns to his interest in poetry and philosophy. The speaker gains more from poets, from whom he learns "tenacity, faith, and pride." He admits that he has a difficult time understanding the "precious thoughts" of "the great philosophers."
In lines 12-20, the speaker moves from descriptions of his personal tastes to descriptions of objects he sees during his walks. Paris is presumably one of the strange cities in which the speaker lives, and he declares that he likes to take long walks on the city's streets. He observes his "fellow creatures" there and determines that they are driven by the emotions of "envy, anger, desire." In lines 14-16, the speaker suggests that these emotions are inspired by materialism as his focus shifts to a "silver coin / passing from hand to hand." He refers to the fading emperor on a silver coin, which may imply that loyalty to country is often supplanted by greed.
In lines 17 and 18, the speaker recognizes the perfection of nature in the form of green trees but suggests that he cannot articulate his relationship to it, because the trees are expressionless and "indifferent." The darker tone of nature emerges in lines 19 and 20, in which the speaker describes black birds pacing "like Spanish widows" waiting for something, possibly death. Zagajewski...
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