Summary

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Lines 1-4

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.

Lines 5-11

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."

Lines 12-20

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 may be referring to the image of Spanish widows, "waiting patiently" for their sailors to come home from the sea.

Lines 21-30

In lines 21-30, the speaker shifts the focus back to himself. Perhaps thinking of his own death, the speaker notes that he is "no longer young" but then states that others are closer to death than he is. The image of death is carried over into line 22, in which the speaker admits that he enjoys "deep sleep, when I cease to exist." This sense of disconnection from the world is reinforced in lines 23 and 24, in which the speaker expresses fondness for "fast bike rides" on which objects around him disappear "like cumuli [clouds] on sunny days."

The speaker enjoys art, as he does music, poetry, and philosophy, when he feels a connection to it. He notes his love for "gazing at [his] wife's face." In...

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lines 28-30, the speaker expresses loyalty to his father and his friends, although he does not appear to gain pleasure through his contact with them.

Lines 31-39

In the poem's final section, the speaker writes of his feelings about his country. He is probably referring to Poland, Zagajewski's homeland, Communism being the "evil" from which it "freed itself." The speaker hopes for another liberation, without identifying the type, and wonders what his role may be in this process. Refusing to make any commitment, the speaker insists that he is "not a child of the ocean," as Antonio Machado defined himself to be. (Antonio Machado y Ruiz was a Spanish poet and a member of the Generation of 1898 in Spain, a literary group that encouraged a link between politics and poetry, much as the Generation of 1968 had done in Poland.) Zagajewski's later poetry pulled away from the political themes of his earlier works, unlike that of Machado, whose focus was more consistently political. The metaphor of the ocean suggests this consistency. The speaker sees himself as separate from "the ways of the high world" to which Machado belonged. He is instead a combination of "air, mint and cello," objects that reflect a more personal taste. The poem ends with the assertion of the importance of the speaker's sense of individuality.

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Themes