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Mysticism for Beginners

Adam Zagajewski. Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh.
Farrar Straus Giroux. 1997.

Piotr Parlej

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."
A methodical yet frantic attempt to find (its) place, the poem at each turn tries to look at something from another place, constantly shifting the position and the object. First, the wide world. The whole history of Europe, tragic in its simplicity, the Hapsburg dispensation and the ethnic curse, is told succinctly in a tableau of bottomless paradox and irony:

      Europe already sleeps beneath a coarse plaid of borders
      and ancient hatreds: France nestled
      up to Germany, Bosnia in Serbia's arms,

As for the poet's present location, irony is not smaller nor less bitter:

      I'm where there's friendship,
      but no friends, where enchantment
      grows without magic,
      where the dead laugh.

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
      in the face of the growing shadow.
      Can you gaze calmly at the Earth
      like the perfect astronaut?

      Out of harmless indolence, the Greece of books,
      the Jerusalem of memory there suddenly appears
      the island of a poem, unpeopled;
      some new Cook will discover it one day.

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.
So the poem continues its search for an image of this archaic condition that, it now becomes somewhat clearer, evokes and constitutes poetry but also provokes and deconstitutes its elocutionary mastery. Back in Houston:

      There are no nightingales or blackbirds here
      with their sad, sweet cantilenas,

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
      and mimics every living voice.

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,
      mournful and rapacious,
      move in for the kill.
      Soon America will be sleeping too.

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
      health clubs for athletic saints.
      They did not want to help me.


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
      although the day was empty
      like a sleeve buoyed by the wind.
      Cemeteries swarmed with elegant,
      unseen guests,
      like a ballroom at dawn
      when dreams pale.

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
      and easy.
      Whatever is hesitates between irony
      and fear.
      Whatever survives will be blue
      as a guillotine's eye.

"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).
The breakthrough to this region is occasioned by events, sensations, and contemplative moments (but see the caveat on praxis above). An epiphany like this occurs in "The Greenhouse."

      Lose yourself, go blind from ecstasy,
      forgetting everything, and then perhaps
      a deeper memory, deeper recognition will return,

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")
The threshold at which this epiphany becomes possible is the unfamiliar, anesthetic circumference of everything we call life:

      We exist between the elements,
      Between fire and sleep.
      Pain chases
      Or outstrips us.


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").
The new, mystical dimension is without name: "I listen to music a lot: Bach, Mahler, Chopin, Shostakovich./I see three elements in music: weakness, power, and pain./The fourth has no name" ("Self-Portrait"). Similarly, the traditional appeal of the cello is moved aside in favor of insomnia ("Cello"). And in "Degas: The Milliner's Shop," the figures disappear behind the eloquence of colors. Like Rimbaud in his "Vowels," Zagajewski responds to colors not simply to assign one code to another, preexisting one, not simply to impose a new meaning on an old one, but to probe the appearance, or rather the appearing, of meaning. And not simply the appearing of meaning to him but its appearing as such, to/for itself. In this pure sensation, pure epiphany, the viewer himself achieves the condition of self-expression in a register devoid of personal signature.
In "Chinese Poem," Zagajewski understands the work of the old Chinese masters, in the timelessness of their poems, as no longer the expression of their authors' individual existence. After having practiced the Western lyrical option, which combines modalities ("sweet, sad cantilenas"), Zagajewski moves within sight of an Oriental, Hölderlinian option that excludes modalities, allowing tones without key, "poems/neither happy nor sad" written by one who, like a mockingbird, "imitates and mimics every living voice." This minuscule logical difference, between the high lyric of modal synthesis and the new poiesis of modal dispersal, announces a completely new lyrical quality in Zagajewski, a beginning, and so far just a beginning, of a mysticism fueled, as in Rimbaud, by a "thirst [that] exceeds the ocean" ("The Room I Work In").