Topical Weekend Verse: Adam Zagajewski, “At Daybreak”

Four years ago, when I was just a wee blogger, I wrote an embarrassingly fulsome review/appreciation of Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet whose work exists in a fantastic English translation. Read the ancient post if you dare; it isn’t very good, being far too emotional and impressionistic in terms of how it treats the writer’s themes, although the coverage of his form and style is not entirely stupid.

Fortunately for all of us, good poetry survives its readers, even ones who were green with fantasies of being a literature professor someday. I still ride hard for Zagajewski. If you read him, there is a good chance you will end up doing the same.

Like any writer worth one’s time, Zagajewski seems to actually think about the experience of his readers. While his poems—many of them not longer than a page—are by no means facile, they are intelligible: an attentive reader will be able to grasp the situation to which the lyric utterance responds, because unlike a lot of well-published living poets, Zagajewski is not taken with his own linguistic density or philosophical heft. (Google some Jorie Graham and try not becoming confused, then exasperated, then nauseated, then just bored.) Snobs and hacks go in for performative, intentional Difficulty, barfing out poems that elucidate nothing of the bewildering universe we inhabit because they mistake incomprehensibility for complexity. Poetry like that can win awards and endowed professorships. It also makes the world ugly. It piles aesthetic confusion upon a Lebenswelt that is already plenty confusing.

Zagajewski’s best work is conversational. Because this often involves “overhearing” a lone speaker thinking, he might remind you of C.P. Cavafy or the T’ang dynasty masters. His favorite pronouns are “I” and “you” (“Only in the beauty created /  by others is there consolation, in the music of others and in others’ poems. / Only others save us”). At least in translation—I don’t speak Polish—his lines shift between loosely iambic meters and prosier “free verse,” not intensely musical but based on a quiet lyrical hinging of clauses spread over line-breaks that generally don’t try to unsettle the reader (unlike the / work / of many poets these / days of /ours). That said, he isn’t above using strange enjambments here and there, and the man knows how to deploy internal rhymes and half-rhymes. His speakers are meditative without being impressed by their own minds or arrogant about their ability to concoct a decisive answer to some existential question; as such they come off as fundamentally decent men and women. His texts are visually rich, albeit not photographic, shaped by his incredible gift for metaphorical reconfigurations of the seen: you run across “the savage lamp of the jasmine” and a muggy summer sky that “hung above me like a circus tent,” you encounter “A black rooster” who resembles “a hot, black banner of blood,” you watch how “Memory will open, with a sudden hiss / like a parachute’s.” And he is heart-deep in the history of his native country yet avoids ideological score-settling or didactic lamentations about what happened in Poland during the past century.

The conversation between text and reader derives from, and reproduces, the conversation between poet and world. His speakers’ field reports on cities, on the local nature we encounter in populated areas, on travel (especially solitary travel), on reading and looking, are the core of his best poems. From 1991, this is “At Daybreak”:

From the train window at daybreak,
I saw empty cities sleeping,
sprawled defenselessly on their backs
like great beasts.
Through the vast squares, only my thoughts
and a biting wind wandered;
linen flags fainted on towers,
birds started to wake in the trees,
and in the thick pelts of the parks
stray cats’ eyes gleamed.
The shy light of morning, eternal
debutante, was reflected in the shop windows.
Carousels, finally possessing themselves, spun
like prayer wheels on their invisible fulcrums;
gardens fumed like Warsaw’s smoldering ruins.
The first van hadn’t arrived yet
at the brown slaughterhouse wall.
Cities at daybreak are no one’s,
and have no names.
And I, too, have no name,
dawn, the stars growing pale,
the train picking up speed.

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