Click on Book to Order
Adam Zagajewski. Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh.
At some point in my life I developed the habit of starting to read a new book somewhere close to
the end. In the case of Adam Zagajewski's most recent volume of poetry, Mysticism for Beginners,
I happened upon "Houston, 6 p.m."
Europe already sleeps beneath a coarse plaid of borders
As for the poet's present location, irony is not smaller nor less bitter:
I'm where there's friendship,
Suddenly, a casually read poem leads to reflection on poetry in general, and here we might hope for a light at the end of the ironic tunnel: "Poetry calls us to a higher life," but we are, of course, disappointed again: "but what's low is just as eloquent,/more plangent than Indo-European, /stronger than my books and records." Poetry, the sum total of the high and the low, something "more plangent than Indo-European," reaches back beyond articulation, civilization, literacy, and memory. Back of all the accouterments of culture, poetry is a desert island, and it also helps us face "the growing shadow." So the situation is quite complicated:
Poetry summons us to life, to courage
Out of harmless indolence, the Greece of books,
A critical moment, as the high task of poetry is reexamined and, immediately embroiled in the
topological and ironic maze, sinks into impossibility. The question, worse than rhetorical: "Can
you gaze calmly at the Earth like the perfect astronaut?" is asked from a position of such removal
and indifference that any answer ceases to matter. The indifference is that of "the perfect
astronaut," undoubtedly a corpse. The territory of poems is set against the main ingredients of
the West-(Hellenistic) knowledge and (Hebrew) memory-as an alternative, an other possibility, an
otherness. Still, this notion of poetry is too human, familiar, manageable: it will become peopled,
civilized-with the brutality customary in the times of Captain Cook.
There are no nightingales or blackbirds here
Not only missing the birds of his region but also bracketing the West's prevalent notion of poetry as modally complex song (nightingales, sad and sweet cantilenas), Zagajewski finds a new voice (within and around himself):
only the mockingbird who imitates
A slippery moment, as slippery as the points of reference on a revolving globe, as borders on geopolitical maps, as loyalties of friends, as the assurances of metaphysics, and as consolations of poetry. The circle, the diurnal orbit, the search and the poem all approach their completion:
Europe is already sleeping. Night's animals,
The circular movement of the poem, promising resolution, or at least a comforting return to a familiar, if worn out, beginning, offers "sleep," a descending darkness that, however, heralds not an end but a stirring of sorts, a subterranean groping vigilance without the light of consciousness. Intimation of doom? Perhaps. Inevitability? Certainly. But the modality of the stanza-"mournful and rapacious"-shows a new complexity of the mockingbird's purely imitative, unconscious poetry/poetry of the unconscious. The change can be sensed in the new role of metaphor. Formerly a device designed to elucidate or, at most, to counterbalance a discursive point, it now punctuates (punctures?) these points and marks them as lost by becoming increasingly autonomous. The metaphors-marvelously rendered by Clare Cavanagh-evolve, from independent pillars of the poem, into increasingly more independent, anarchic rafts, lifeboats, or buoys that levitate absent-mindedly over less and less important distant discursive harbors:
What are baroque churches? Deluxe
At first it seems that these poems enlarge the theme towards a general implication. In "Refugees," as he empathizes with Bosnian victims, Zagajewski registers the ever-recurring cruelty of history, the always lurking absence of country/homeland. "I Walked Through the Medieval Town," ostensibly a reflection on personal and cultural time, starts and ends suspended, without time reference, without choice, the time collapsed. But "Postcards," one of several mourning poems in the volume, suggests a different dynamics, in which reflection on death vanishes in a ghostly metaphoric spin:
We had nowhere to go
Or in "September": "The wind was full of air, the air full of oxygen,/the oxygen held memories of a trip beyond the sea." "Referendum" explains: "poetry tries to understand its own contemplative/figural operation, but this attempt leads to a contradiction between goal and stasis. As it advocates goodness, poetry must be ready to advise on the condition of paradise (what are we going to do in a perfect world?):
What comes after will be invisible
"On Swimming" acknowledges the contradiction, the fraudulence, the pia fraus, of poetic endeavor:
"‘Swimming is like prayer:/palms join and part,/join and part,/almost without end." Why "almost"?
Is it the fear of end, or the knowledge that poetry has ends (ends, goals), a fact that places
poetry squarely side by side with, say, wood chopping? A similar dilemma controls the poem
contemplating a work of art ("Dutch Painters"). Zagajewski observes the contemplative aura of a
moment arrested on the canvas, pondering the mystery/surface grid so typical of modern aesthetics.
Then he asks, uneasily anticipating the answer: "Tell us, Dutch painters, what will happen/when the
apple is peeled, when the silk dims,/when all the colors grow cold./Tell us what darkness is." The
"darkness," "the horizon's razor" ("A Quick Poem") is the prize discovery of this volume. Coming
with many names, it apparently signifies the common, equalizing terminus of the practical and the
contemplative, the efficient and the useless, the conscious and the unconscious, the mundane (low)
and the aesthetic/mystical (high).
Lose yourself, go blind from ecstasy,
Perhaps the main poem of this volume is the "Sisters of Mercy," a Wordsworthian hymn to childhood,
placed immediately before "Houston, 6 p.m." It is a memory recovered mainly though sensations and
images not remembered but rather relived in unceasing repetition, in vividness far more powerful
than recollection, the initial imprints that remember themselves in us. This is why the childhood
is remembered with a recollection as if belonging to someone else-the same distance can be sensed in
"Airport in Amsterdam," written in memory of the poet's mother. Both poems mourn, that is, they
recollect with a vividness generated by the image, not by the mourner. The sense of separation,
then, comes not from emotional distance but from the externality and the autonomy of the origin, of
"the deeper memory." It is this memory, the object itself that spins the runaway metaphors. What
generates the metaphors? Moving towards HÖlderlin's origin, "Da ich ein Knabe war," Zagajewski asks
"Why is childhood ... our only origin, our only longing?" ("Tierra del Fuego")
We exist between the elements,
Although death is amply present in the volume, the condition is "descriptive" of death, made from a
position before or after death; in it, Zagajewski becomes "a rock, a mineral." In perhaps the most
profound change characterizing this volume, the quality of numb existence, reducible neither to the
human nor to the inanimate condition, qualifies the genre of poems on art that have consistently
received special attention in Poland's modern poetry ("Vermeer's Little Girl," "Cello," "Robespierre
Before the Mirror," "The Thirties," "Degas: The Milliner's Shop," "Dutch Painters," "Anthology,"
"Chinese Poem," "Self-Portrait"). (Also Czeslaw Milosz's "No More.") This new quality is announced
in the volume's title. Initially, I looked for the change in the word "mysticism," and saw it in a
fresh play of epiphany that pushes poetry into a new territory. Later, however, the "beginning"
took precedence, as an even bigger epiphany of a new role for poetry, or of an entirely new poetic
practice, of "the syllables, the sounds, and the intervals between them" ("Out Walking").