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Zagajewski's poetry of the cosmic world and the human face


"Poetry summons us to life, to courage/ in the face of growing shadow./ Can you gaze at the Earth/ like the perfect astronaut?" writes Adam Zagajewski in "Houston, 6 p.m." from his collection Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002).  This creative tension between engagement and reflection--the sense of holding up a darkened mirror to the transfigured world--has made Zagajewski one of the most admired contemporary poets in Europe and North America.    
 
Zagajewski, the acclaimed Polish language poet (born in the city of Lvov in what is now the Ukraine), essayist, novelist, and 2004 winner of the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literaturewill visit Buffalo to deliver the 33rd annual Oscar Silverman Memorial Reading at 8 p.m. this (Friday) evening in 250 Baird Hall on the UB North Campus.
 
A member of eastern Europe's dissident "Generation of 1968," he moved back to Krakow in 2002 following two decades in exile in Paris.  During the time of his exile, his writing also migrated from primarily political to expressly more universal themes. “I have the urge to become a dissident from dissidents,” he wrote in his first collection of essays Solidarity, Solitude, published in Paris in 1986.
 
Beginning in the mid-1980's, he also took up part time residence in the United States, teaching for nearly two decades in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston, and currently as a faculty member on the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought.
 
Although a reputation as his generation's successor to the tradition of great post World War Two Polish language poets that included Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz preceded him to America (Milosz, for instance, in his 1985 introduction to To Go to Lvov  referred to Zagajewski as "a major poet emerging from a hardly differentiated mass of contemporaries and taking the lead in the poetry of my language"), it was a single, much-circulated poem, "Try to Praise The Mutilated World," that appeared in the first issue of The New Yorkermagazine following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, that won Zagajewski tens of thousands of new readers and his first turn in the American literary spotlight.
 
"...You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. /You should praise the mutilated world," the poem read:

Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
 
Without referring to any one specific instance of carnage,  Zagajewski's poems find the aesthetic moment within the larger tragedy, the oblique details that personalize it, the mortal consequences that are resolved in tranquility.  “Human life and objects and trees vibrate with mysterious meanings, which can be deciphered like cuneiform writing," he has written.  "There exists a meaning, hidden from day to day but accessible in moments of greatest attentiveness, in those moments when consciousness loves the world.”  
 
"I will never be someone who writes only about bird song, although I admire birdsong highly - but not enough to withdraw from the historical world, for the historical world is fascinating. What really interests me is the interweaving of the historical and cosmic world. The cosmic world is unmoving - or rather, it moves to a completely different rhythm. I shall never know how these worlds coexist. They are in conflict yet they complement each other - and that merits our reflection," he observes in one of his essays from Another Beauty (2000). 
 
"I seem to be one of the last authors, not counting theologians, to refer now and then to the notion of a 'spiritual life," Zagajewski wrote recently in Dangerous Considerations, an essay for Poetry Magazine:
 
In our day, we confine ourselves at the best of times to discussing the imagination. The word “imagination” is beautiful and vast, but it doesn't hold everything. Some people look at me suspiciously for this very reason; they think I must be a reactionary, or a double-dyed conservative at the very least. I open myself to ridicule. Progressive circles condemn me, or at least look at me askance. Conservative enclaves likewise fail to understand what I'm talking about. Poets a generation younger keep their distance. Only a certain young Spanish poet told me in Barcelona that my essays perhaps signal that postmodern irony may yet be conquered one day. But what is the spirit, the spiritual life? If only I were up to defining such things! Robert Musil says that the spirit synthesizes intellect and emotion. It's a good working definition, for all its concision...

In the case of poetry and literature, it's simpler to say what the spirit isn't. It's not psychoanalytic any more than it is behavioral, sociological, or political. It is holistic, and in it are reflected, as in an astronaut's helmet, the earth, the stars, and a human face... 
 
“Nothing could take the reader in a direction more contrary to today’s cult of the excitements of self than to follow Zagajewski as he unspools his seductive praise of serenity, sympathy, forbearance; of ‘the calm and courage of an ordinary life,’" the late Susan Sontag wrote in her introduction to Another Beauty.  For English speaking readers eager to discover Zagajewski's work in translation, perhaps the best places to begin are with his most recent collection Eternal Enemies: Poems (2008, translated by Clare Cavanagh), Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002, translated by Cavanagh, Benjamin Ivry, and Renata Gorczynski), or Mysticism for Beginners (1999, translated by Cavanagh).
 
Readers interested in Zagajewski's essays will want to look at Another Beauty and A Defense of Ardor: Essays (2005), both translated by Clare Cavanagh, and the earlier Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (1995), translated by Lillian Vallee.
 
 
--R.D. Pohl
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