Review of Adam Zagajewski, Without End: New and Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002)
I love Adam Zagajewski‘s poetry. The more I read him—and like all writers who are any good he invites repeated visits—the more convinced I am that he is as magical and important as Heaney, Simic, Walcott, and Murray, a truly international poet like they are, with a big but easy-going voice and a cautious affection for human life. His work reminds us what it’s like to live in a lonely, uneasy, dispersed and globalized world, but he also has an eye for the local and particular and personal. He is an intimate historian whom, chances are, you will like, if you read him. You will need no special training. This poetry isn’t hard to decipher; in fact, “decipher” is far too harsh, and fails to suggest the immediate pleasures of reading Zagajewski—he’s one of those artists who gives life some shape without seeming to try.
New and Selected Poems was published by FSG nearly eight years ago; the paperback version is more than six years old, and the poems in it go back to 1970. So this is by no means a review of new material, even though Zagajewski will be new to most English speakers  and is in most ways an obviously modern poet. Probably the first thing you’ll notice is that his voice is conversational and subdued even when what he’s saying is bleak (the fact that he doesn’t capitalize the first letter of each new line encapsulates this casual tone). As such he is a lot like Cavafy, the great Greek Modernist. Reading him is like sitting around listening to a very smooth, thoughtful talker, because he doesn’t make you stumble over his language.
That said, his rhythms and images are luxurious. Zagajewski is by no means an austere writer; rather, he keeps spareness and wealth in balance. You won’t encounter any Dylan Thomas flourishes, but there aren’t many two-syllable lines either (he uses those judiciously). The authority of his voice—his ability to be intimate without sounding like a drama queen—consists mainly in how he locates his speakers’ experiences within a careful formal structure. This restrains the animal force of the personal and “democratizes” it, without erasing the particularities which make the poetry a believable record of a life or lives. Unlike your average crudster, Zagajewski doesn’t spew emotion, impression, and memory in sprawling prosy lines (or jagged, over-abbreviated ones—both styles which remain popular with American poets). Instead, he contains them within fairly regular stanzas and a loose iambic meter, the beat which usually gets misidentified as “free verse.”
Most of the poems are composed of sentences which are logically and syntactically tidy (he rarely uses fragments, and when he does, they express coherent moments of experience) and have the declarative intensity of a voice confident in what it is saying. Finally, his line breaks—another aspect of poetic syntax, one which distinguishes the language of poetry from that of prose—are built to guide the reader’s experience rather than confuse or overtly challenge her or show off the writer’s avant-garde bona fides. Although Zagajewski uses both enjambment and end-stops, he usually breaks at the end of clauses (or the significant parts of clauses, e.g. after the main verb), and he frequently rhymes. This too makes the poems smooth to read—it’s the difference between “he usually breaks / at the end of clauses / or significant parts of clauses” and “he / usually breaks / at the / end / of / clauses / or significant parts of / clauses.” The literate mind thinks in coherent syntactical segments when reading (they are the building blocks of textual meaning), and breaking lines around these segments is a good way to keep a poem crisp and direct.
These days, the kids are all about the visual culture. Luckily, Zagajewski is also a visually intense poet. While you could never accuse him of using stale or repetitive scenes and objects, his images are highly patterned, almost cinematic (those tidy line-breaks are like steady camera motions). You will notice, for instance, a lot of attention to rooms, light, vegetation, and travel, to clothing and furniture and human movements. He isn’t given to metaphysics. Take the beginning of the early poem “Apartment for Scholars”:
The apartment for visiting scholars holds
a bookshelf with a dozen weary novels in a language
not spoken by your kin, a sleepy Buddha,
a mute TV, a battered skillet bearing traces
of Saturday night’s dismal eggs,
a drab teapot that whistles in every idiom.
That’s the best dorm-life poem I know of (the detail about the eggs is so good). He loves the experience of physical spaces, both for themselves, as the places lives happen in, and because space can be figuratively mapped onto the self, which has in turn a messily wonderful architecture. When a poem does that, inner helps illuminate outer, and vice versa, almost to the point that those two terms don’t make sense as opposites. Nature often provides a most powerful outer; it is absolutely typical of all people to be attracted to the more-than-human environment, and poets differ only in their habit of calling our attention to the fact. This inner/outer dialectic also provides a net for his speaker’s confidences: set within recognizable, nominally ordinary spaces, they hover between the confessional and the universal, becoming visceral for the reader who is not Mr. Adam Zagajewski. Here—even on a first reading you’ll probably sense what’s he’s talking about.
How unattainable life is, it only reveals
its features in memory,
in nonexistence. [. . .]
Unattainable. The simplest
apple inscrutable, round.
The crowns of trees shake in warm
currents of air. Unattainably distant mountains.
Intangible rainbows. Huge cliffs of clouds
flowing slowly through the sky. The sumptuous,
unattainable afternoon. My life,
swirling, unattainable, free.
(That is nearly two-thirds of the poem, so if you are put off by long things, don’t be scared of him.)
Lyric poetry, which is what Zagajewski writes, is by definition short-ish. When I started this, I meant to give a brilliant concise history of the genre, but instead I’ll just keep it to this: not only are lyrics fairly brief, sometimes as brief as “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough,” they are also the type of poetry which fights most openly and consistently against death. They always lose, of course, sort of; people, including writers, keep dying, but sometimes poems get preserved. Lyrics are like snapshots in that they preserve an instant of experience from the slipstream of life, which terminates you-know-where. This is why Dante Gabriel Rossetti calls a sonnet (the most famous type of English lyric) “a moment’s monument.”
The monument, however, wouldn’t mean much if it were a purely personal memorandum. Nobody, save perhaps the writer herself, would read a lyric if it did not somehow bind the reader to the text, make him feel as if the poem had some crucial relevance to his life. Lucky for us, in addition to the formal techniques touched on above, lyric has two basic attributes that help it commune with the reader. First, it is assumed that because the experience of loss is common to all people, reader and writer are always already on shared ground. Second, although lyric poems are spoken by one person and as such are solitary, each poem’s utterance is like a “script” for the reader to follow and place himself in.  In other words, the genre works by having one person speak intimately to, and through, another. This, said Proust, is why we read: it lets us hear the thoughts of others within our own.
Of course, lyric is not closed off from history. No art is. Nothing is. The real, historical world contains the moment’s monument, and Zagajewski’s world, both at the beginning of his life and after he emigrated to the United States, is mainly Poland. Even when he isn’t writing “about” Poland (and he often isn’t), the bleak tenor of its history inflects the poetry. In a god-awful century, Poland was arguably the European country that got the worst of things: the Nazis sited the core of their industrial extermination project there (the Final Solution itself an extension of centuries of pogroms), and then there was the fifty-year nightmare of Soviet empire, under which Poland was a vassal police state. Zagajewski, though, is less historically specific than Joseph Brodsky or Czeslaw Milosz, both fellow exiles and the latter the greatest Polish poet of the generation before his. He rarely mentions individual events. History is a background thrum for him, a kind of ambient music; as in Charles Simic’s work, it is a general shadow at the edge of all things, all the more terrifying for being amorphous. These passages are from, respectively, the beginning and end of “Postcards”:
It was All Saints’ Day
but we had nowhere to go.
Our dead don’t dwell in this country,
they pitch their tents in other dead men’s memories,
in the fruits of hawthorn and lead.
[. . .]
Our dead don’t live in this country—
they’ve been traveling for years.
The address they give on yellowed postcards
can’t be read, and the nations engraved
on the stamps have long since ceased to exist.
Having some context undeniably helps: knowing that Zagajewski is Polish and that he fled Poland in the early 1980s sharpens the paired images of wrecked nations and private mourning. But even without that information it is pretty easy to grasp the speaker’s fundamental mood and existential position, and these contribute more to a poem’s success or failure in affecting the reader than specific historical resonances do. We exist with him (or her) in a history without knowing the exact contours of it—poetry advances an oblique kind of knowledge, and here that knowledge is mortality.
As Zagajewski has it, history as well as one’s own life are problems of attention. If your existence is an examined one like Socrates wanted, then you always struggle not to forget things and to become more fully aware of the present so as to retain at least some of it later on. Unsurprisingly, attention is a big aspect of poetic creation and the theme of a great many individual lyrics. Poems coalesce in unbidden moments of attention to the world—unbidden, but these moments of inspiration or transport or whatever (pick your term) have to be nurtured. A poet has to somehow remain in a state of openness and sensitivity, concentrating loosely until a poem’s beginnings come. Only then can he start hammering it into final shape. But as writers know, the trouble with concentration is that it often sputters out and frequently summons nothing of interest even when you do manage to hold onto it:
The room I work in is a camera obscura.
And what is my work—
flipping pages, patient meditation,
passivities not pleasing
to that judge with the greedy gaze.
I write as slowly as if I’ll live two hundred years.
I seek images that don’t exist,
and if they do they’re crumpled and concealed
like summer clothes in winter
when frost stings the mouth.
I dream of perfect concentration; if I found it
I’d surely stop breathing.
Not incidentally, this is addressed to another poet, Derek Walcott. Anyone who attempts any kind of creative endeavor—this goes for car detailing as much as, say, painting landscapes—takes a risk every day, because even the most productive work session has its bare stretches. And often one goes weeks without a productive moment. They suck, the droughts, but one has little choice but to be patient and try to keep limber. Many artists turn to to drink or drugs or Warholian self-parody (or, like Warhol, all three) out of impatience. Unsatisfied with the daily, often boring, frustrating practices which prepare the ground for occasions of real work (the hour at the desk, the piano scales, the volley drills), they exchange conscious attention for the vulgar exaltation of chemicals (please don’t be mad at me, Drugs) or the celebrity that sometimes comes with being too prolific. Just look at all the crap John Ashbery has written since his pre-mid-80s glory period.
All this is to say that while we “dream of perfect concentration,” we’re waiting. Unless you’re a meditative master, you will do a lot of it, and, to paraphrase Tom Petty, it’s rarely pleasant. All the more ironic, then, that this pain is the foundation of two powerful pain relievers, artistic creation (preceded by “the long afternoons when poetry left me” [“Long Afternoons”]) and sexual love:
I wandered through the town and turned
slightly invisible, out of habit,
from despair. I walked to myself.
An airport, a train station, a church
shot up at the end of every street.
Travelers spoke of fires and omens.
I looked for you everywhere, everywhere. (“Summer”)
Even if you haven’t personally felt the terror of words not coming or wandered “everywhere, everywhere” in search of a lover, chances are something else has supplied you with a very comparable experience. Change a couple words and one sees how the gnaw of “Transformation” is an absolutely ordinary one, which for poets happens to take a particular form: “I haven’t written a single poem / in months. / [. . .] / I’ve taken long walks, / craving one thing only: / lightning, / transformation, you.”
The other painful thing is that even when we are able to concentrate, memories as well as the present still dissolve. There’s too much of it. If we’re sensitive to this, we end up like the speaker of “In May,” who “walked at dawn in the forest” with one question in mind:
. . . I kept asking where you are, souls
of the dead. Where are you, the young ones
who are missing, where are you,
the completely transformed?
His initial consolation is nature—“I heard the green leaves dream” and “Then, slowly, birds joined in, / goldfinches, thrushes, blackbirds / on the balconies of branches”—which, being indifferent to human pain, fosters a second, deeper, moreanxious realization:
I realized you are in singing,
unseizable as music, indifferent as
musical notes, distant from us
as we are from ourselves.
That is to say, Heraclitus trumps Plato, everything is in flux. We are to be content with the fact that music keeps playing, even if it and what it represents are ultimately unseizable. Cold comfort, maybe, but still better than the warm glow of sentiment. Or that’s what I’m told.
Zagajewski’s poems strike me as those of a lonely man; then again, most poets are lonely; then again, so are most people. Over and over, they point up one of those fundamental adult life-truths you keep hearing about: however you live your life, it holds in store plenty of isolation, confusion, dissatisfaction, boredom, fear, and cruelty (the bulk of it self-inflicted) whether you want it or not and regardless of any present happiness. Yet he doesn’t scutter into the kind of drab, monochrome nihilism that has damaged Mark Strand’s writing for years now (and which occasionally sneaks into Simic, good as he is). There is something very grown-up  about Zagajewski’s willingness not just to confront loss and evil but to see them as part of a world that still contains plenty of nicer things.
Poetry being modeled on “real life,” loss—waiting, trying to concentrate, sometimes doing that successfully, owning up to love and forgetting—is the bassline of New and Selected. Nevertheless people go on reading and writing, because although poetry can’t banish loss, neither can loss kill poetry. The birds “In May” continue singing. These poems, they sing their way into your bloodstream, so if you have fifteen bucks and you celebrate a certain holiday that’s coming up and you happen to know someone who reads, get on this.
1. Born in Poland in 1945, Zagajewski emigrated to Paris and then the United States in the 1980s and now teaches at the University of Houston. Yeah, I know. Weird that that city has that poetry program.
2. I have the great Helen Vendler—specifically her book The Given and the Made—to thank for this insight.
3. A better adjective would be “manful,” but it is pretty much impossible to divest that one of its nasty gendered history.