A Love Poem to Lviv (Lvov, Lwowa) and Ukraine! And a Tribute (R.I.P.) to Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021) the Polish Poet, Born in Lviv When it Was Part of Poland

Lviv, Ukraine

To go to Lvov (Jechać do Lwowa)

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity. But the cathedral rises,
you remember, so straight, as straight
as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket
full of raspberries standing on the floor, and
my desire which wasn’t born yet,
only gardens and weeds and the amber
of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro.
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house. My aunts couldn’t have known
yet that I’d resurrect them,
and lived so trustfully; so singly;
servants, clean and ironed, ran for
fresh cream, inside the houses
a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski
came as a visiting lecturer, one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled Why,
dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much
of Lvov, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
returned home, read the New Testament,
slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,
there was too much of Lvov, and now
there isn’t any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in May, without mercy,
without love, ah, wait till warm June
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
But scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked
diligently, as in a child’s cutout
along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.
Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched,
cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses
of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

Adam Zagajewski from WITHOUT END New and Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002

Oh, how the image of scissors, pruning shears, are a shock wave in Adam Jagajewski’s signature poem published in 1985. How at the Yalta Conference in 1945 Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill took scissors to a map of Europe and started cutting. Pieces of Germany to Poland. Pieces of Poland, now part of Ukraine, to Russia. Lviv, Lwowa in Polish, Lviv in Ukrainian,  Lvov, in Russian, became Russian and the Zagajewski family were dislocated from Lwowa to Gliwice. Lvivi is in Western Ukraine about six hundred kilometers west of embattled Kviv.

And now its not just scissors trying to reshape Ukraine once again and make it part of Russia but bombs and artillery shells. So far Lviv is too far west to be caught in the crossfire but with many Ukrainians fleeing the Ukraine from Lviv, oh, how this poem shouts out. How it will be carried again as a symbol for home in hearts of people once again displaced by war. And at a time of huge refugee migration I think of all the Lvovs that call out to displaced hearts!

I celebrate Adam Zagajewski and his poem not just as a reminder of the horror going on in Kyiv (as I write, a Russian armoured column nearing the city), but also to honour (long overdue by me) Adam’s passing almost a year ago. He was born in Lviv on the same day I was (June 21st) but in 1945 and died aged seventy-five, on March 21st, 2021 in Krakow, one of a few two cities he moved back and forth from for years! One was Paris where was self-exiled for years, another Chicago and another Houston, where for fifteen years he taught a creative writing course for a semester each year. He was invited there by another poetic icon Edward Hirsch!

When I think of Adam I think of one poem of his. I don’t think of all his honours and he won many. Here’s a partial list: the 2004 Neustadt International prize for Literature (often seen as a possible signal for a Nobel prize); the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award and the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Literature. But more than any honours it’s this poem, a viral sensation after 9/11: Try To Praise the Mutilated World that ties me closest to Adam. I celebrated Adam and this poem in 2012 in this blog post and this post which investigates the poem in greater depth.

In looking at some moving elegiac tributes to Adam after he died I realized that there are other poems of his that stand out hugely for others especially To Go to Lvov. Here below is an excerpt from the wonderful tribute by the Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky  published in the Yale Review in November, 2021:

It is To Go to Lvov— the great poem….first published in Polish in 1985—that towers at the center of all Adam Zagajewski’s work for me. An elegy to the gone world, the poem also achieves jubilation. In the 1990s, it became a touchstone for many immigrant and refugee poets of my generation. “To go to Lvov,” a friend from the former Yugoslavia would say sometimes, and another from the former Soviet Union would quote back, “Which station / for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew / gleams on a suitcase.” The poem gave us a destination, a path forward. If you already know this poem—if you love it—you are one of us. I love it because after a century of war it allowed a way for praise to enter poetry again, decades after Celan’s “Death Fugue” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”. This poem has all the force of those monumental works, and yet it also allows tenderness in.

In To Go to Lvov,…  Zagajewski attempts to step back into the city to which his refugee family could never return, a city they still saw everywhere they looked. He crafts on the page the lost world of the city’s cafés, theater, and gardens.

Think of this poem, written in the 1980s, in a time when half of Europe was still under Soviet rule. Think of the joy it gives, composed in the shadow of a pained, disjointed requiem like Celan’s “Death Fugue.” Think of how much it took for a refugee and a child of refugees—for a man whose people died in exile—to stand up and imagine a way forward.

In “To Go to Lvov,” the city’s rhythms are in the poem’s repetitions, line breaks, and sentence patterns. At the end of twentieth century, in a postwar poem about exile we expect an elegy, a protest, a dirge, but instead receive an ode’s joyful, impossible praise.

For me without the emotional connection to this poem that Ilya has, as a Ukrainian exile, I so appreciate his response. It helps me understand better the importance of this poem and its particular importance as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing Ukraine and entering exile.  May they carry Lvov or its equivalent inside them and find peace:

and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

The turns in this poem as Ilya suggests. Jubilation yes, the celebration of Lvov but then the grief as the scissors come and cut it out of the lives of those going into exile but then the celebration again of Lvov, but the one scissors can’t cut if we don’t let them. The Lvov that lives as something lifegiving, with a sense of renewal and promise.

And may I, still in my beloved Canada but burdened with the impacts of Covid and its disruptions and now with the shadow of a madness looming over the world from the Ukrainian invasion, may I find the Lvov in me, pure as a peach. And know: It is everywhere.

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