The central events of Adam Zagajewski’s public life establish a lens through which the reader inevitably sees his writing. Born in Lvov, Poland, he moved with his parents to western Poland when Russia annexed the eastern part after World War II. In adulthood, Zagajewski was involved in the political protest which resulted in Polish independence in the 1990’s, protest which led to his leaving the country. He presently lives in Paris and Houston, Texas. The sense of exile from a lost homeland permeates Zagajewski’s poems, although loss itself is rarely the explicit subject of his work. Additionally, his poems embody a European sensibility which is difficult to define but which sets its tone apart from that of contemporary American poetry.
“Long Afternoons,” from Mysticism for Beginners, illustrates Zagajewski’s skill in using rich details to establish an emotional stance—in this case, creative paralysis. The long afternoons of the title describe a time when the speaker was unable to write. To the solitary poet, the world of the city—Paris, in this case—went along as usual, but with a sense of empty futility. Even the mannequins in shop windows seemed hostile. Newspapers brought unsettling news to a heedless public, even “Professors left their schools with vacant faces,/ as if the Iliad had done them in.” The poet finally saw himself as a stranded traveler at the train station, burdened with a shabby suitcase tied together with string. The poem concludes with an apostrophe to an unnamed audience: Perhaps it is the city which has become an “opaque demon”; the speaker’s plea is that he learn to cure himself of irony and silence.
Silence, however, is a major part of Zagajewski’s vision. His landscapes, cities, and rooms are more than likely to be empty of people or inhabited only by solitary or detached figures. It is not surprising that images from the visual arts frequently inform his work, such as the title of his second volume: Canvas. In “Dutch Painters,” for instance, another poem from Mysticism for Beginners, Zagajewski pictures the props of Dutch art: the bowls and fruit of still life paintings, the girl who reads a letter which the viewer cannot decipher, the woman who peels an apple, the chairs, brooms, and curtains. The poet says that these scenes lack mystery; he calls them “The painting of a land/ without secret police” and claims that Rembrandt alone hints at the unknown. In fact, here, as in many of Zagajewski’s poems, the details of ordinary life—letters, apples, brooms, and stranded travelers—become freighted with the unknowable when they are viewed with the poet’s passion for solid detail, when they are seen through his attentive eyes. The contents of the letter or what will become of the traveler or even who will use the broom are unknowable, and it is only because of the poet’s attention that the reader comes to wonder about them. Like paintings, they invite the reader to pry into the rooms and streets of strangers.
In “The Room I Work In,” Zagajewski pictures the furniture of his room: His writing table has “a stubborn peasant’s profile”; his teapot displays a “pouting Hapsburg lip.” He notes the simple scenes of daily life which he observes from his window, the light source that makes his room a “camera obscura.” The inside of a camera is an appropriate place for the poet to wait for the images he needs, to wait as if he has all the time in the world, although he admits his awareness of time’s encroachment, “the first snow hissing.” The poem ends with an acknowledgment of the disparity between the poet’s intention and his accomplishment: “I drink from a small spring,/ my thirst exceeds the ocean.”
Zagajewski’s evocative examination of the world’s furnishings is seasoned by the wit that salts many of his poems. In “My Aunts,” he pictures women who spent their lives dealing with the pragmatics of housekeeping; “theory,” he says, “was for Plato.” However, their devotion to practical detail was unsettled when someone died, an event which “happened in even our family, alas” the poet notes ironically. In “Dead Sparrow,” Zagajewski uses just eight lines to picture the dead bird as the commonest object in the world. “Even a...
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