From early childhood, Adam Zagajewski has been on the move. Decisions made at the Yalta Conference forced his family out of Lvov, Poland. They left on cattle cars for the grim industrial city of Gilwice, formerly of Germany. To the young poet, growing up in the shambling, destroyed corner of Europe, Lvov became a lost place, a magical city—the architecture of memory itself. The nearly twenty books Zagajewski has published in various languages as he moved to Krakow, then in exile to Paris, then again to Houston, all attempt to walk the streets of this lost city. But the best of his work does more than meander in mourning.
“Some poems and pictures will live on,” he wrote in his 2000 memoir, “Another Beauty”: “But who will revive the moments and hours?” This has been the task Zagajewski set himself as a poet. “Eternal Enemies,” his latest collection to be translated into English by Slavic language scholar Clare Cavanaugh, shows he is still one of the best in the world at it. The book features the usual assortment of Zagajewski poems—stunning, imagistic remembrances of childhood; elegies to poets; glancing snapshots of life on the move, the poet’s internal eye-roving, yet always returning to the past. As in Proust, this journey is far more than a ritual. It is a metaphysical meditation so yearning it feels like prayer. The volume begins with “Star,” a short poem in tribute to “the gray and lovely city…buried in the waters of the past,” then continues with a series of short sketches, “En Route,” which remind that all movement, especially for an exile, is a flight towards home, even if the direction is away.
Zagajewski is a superb phrasemaker, his lines full of arresting similes and compact metaphors. In “Stolarska Street” he writes of how his home lives on: “it remains concealed/in my heart like a starving deserter/in an abandoned circus wagon.” He remembers the emptiness of the city on Sundays: “in the afternoon the city slept,/mouth open, like an infant in a stroller.” Zagajewski is so good at painting scenes one almost wishes he limited himself to that. Occasionally, he will reach for a profound truth and wind up on that flatter plane of cliché: “the future cries in us,” he writes in “Describing Paintings,” “and its tumult makes us human.” Zagajewski acknowledges how hard it is not to fail like this writing poetry. “The territory of truth/is plainly small,” he writes in “Self-Portrait, Not Without Doubts,” “narrow as a path above a cliff. Can you stick/to it?”
Far more than most, he can. Here are dense, private moments—lovers driving in a car, cities in rare afternoon light of solitude—revealed, as only can be done, in poetry. Zagajewski is plainspoken about how he does it. “I read poems, listen to the mighty whisper/of night and blood.” How odd that an exile’s manifesto can sound so much like happiness. (John Freeman)
by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanaugh)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 128 pages