As the title suggests, Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s new book “Unseen Hand” is a book of hidden things. By this, we mean the poems move in and out of revealing and concealing, each poem an elegant exploration of history, both personal and global.
Splitting his time between Chicago and Krakow, Zagajewski’s poetry reflects on the unseen impressions we leave on each other and the physical world around us, the indirect intimacy of human interaction. In his poem, “Joseph Street,” he writes:
Years pass, I remain, memory is uncertain,
unheard prayers lie underfoot,
sparrows are eternity’s frail emblem,
the rain is only recollection, the silhouettes
of unknown persons walk without casting shadows.
This kind of quiet observation of “remembering,” the actual act of, allows readers to insert themselves emotionally into the international but often familiar landscapes that Zagajewski carefully details. His engagement with simplicity, with unnoticed or overlooked beauty, seems to be at the root of “Unseen Hand.” In one poem, “Carts,” Zagajewski elegantly describes a single moment, paused in space and time, yet stretched into a broad emotional canvas:
Carts full of hay
abandoned the town
in greatest quiet.
Cautious glances from the curtains.
A morning empty as a waiting room.
The rustling of papers in the archives;
men calculate the losses.
But that world.
Sing for it, oriole,
dance for it, little fox,
Pushing these poems into existence, be it gently, is a cloaked acknowledgement of trauma. Zagajewski’s subtle exploration of violence, or rather, the aftermath and resonating emotional debris of violence, helps create a speaker who is not only intrigued by distress, but actively working through anxiety by writing poetry. Many of the poems directly refer to the complicated life of a poet: the inability to capture the complexities of manmade culture, the failure but also necessity of language as a method of remembering. He writes, “So what then? Fine words perish quickly, / ordinary words rarely persuade.” “Unseen Hand” investigates what flees, evades, distracts and hides, not only within society but in the art of crafting poetry.
Zagajewski’s attentiveness to the process of writing poetry is also shown by the mentioning of other authors and their work. In “If I were Tomaz Salamun,” we are invited into the speakers imagination, not just his memory space.
If I were Tomaz Salamun,
I’d ride wild on an invisible bicycle,
like a metaphor spring from a poem’s cage,
still not certain of its freedom,
but making do with movement, wind and sun.
Thoughtful and meditative, these references to other artists allow the reader to access the speaker’s perspective regarding something that is often hidden or concealed: one artist’s slightly mystical connection to another artist’s work. This same thread of disclosure is prominent in a series of “Self-Portrait” poems, where the reader comes to certain revelations just as the speaker does: “A swarthy Christ watched me / from small trecento paintings; / I didn’t understand his gaze, but I wanted to open up before it.” As the speaker wishes to open himself, we as readers also wish to see this opening, experience the steady unveiling of the unseen and unspoken through Zagajewski’s language. (Kelly Forsythe)
By Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $23