An Alphabet of Poets – Z is for Zagajewski

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world
Remember June’s long days
And wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
The abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world –
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
One of them had a long trip ahead of it,
While salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
You’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
In a white room – the curtain fluttered
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
And leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
And the gray feather a thrush lost
And the gentle light that strays and vanishes
And returns.

Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski and Clare Cavanaugh from Without End – New and Selected Poems, 2002

Even though this is my last official post in my series – An Alphabet of Poets – may it be, in many ways, Without End as Zagajewski’s title proclaims! May my love of poetry continue beyond death and may my poetry blog continue to my last.

And how appropriate in an upside down world where what is first should be last and what is last, first, that Zagajewski should come last. Because in many ways this was the poem that first utterly woke me up to what I see now as my life’s work; poetry in all its forms – written by others, read, taught and self-composed! Oh, and if only I could be as self-composed as Zagajewski!

A Flame

God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride – before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.

Adam Zagajewski from Without End

Zagajewski was born in 1945 in  Lyov, then part of Poland, just before it was annexed to Russia. It is now part of Ukraine and called Lviv. Zagajewski was an outspoken critic of the communist regime in Poland and went into self-imposed exile to Paris in 1981. He now has two domiciles – in Chicago and Krakow.

Zagajewski is one in a long line of recent contemporary Polish poets who I would rank among the best of the best in the world in the past one hundred years. I am thinking of the two Novel Laureates, of course, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska but also Anna Swir, Zbigniew Herbert, Julia Hartwig and Anna Kamienska (see K for Kamienska) among others.

In his recent book on Polish Poetry called Between Fire and Sleep (2009), Jaroslav Anders, has reservations about some of Zagajewski’s ouvre, but still says “ In many of his poems, sufficiently many to count him among the great poetic voices of his generation, Zagajewski can fill [the style of his poems] with remarkable energy and originality. Mary Oliver, the celebrated American poet, a poet I fear Gombrowicz may also have reservations about, is unequivocal in her praise of Zagajewski. She says he is now our greatest and truest representative, the most pertinent, impressive, meaningful poet of our time.

In an article written for The Poetry International Festival in 1999, Gerard Rasch quotes Milosz when he says this of Zagajewski: His poetry became [after his self-exile] what Czeslaw Milosz described as “a meditation on the flowing of time in which the historical and metaphysical meet.” It is rich in concrete detail, adverse to abstraction, and in unexpected associations often links the past and present; time becomes multi-layered. Zagajewski tries to express what underlies the conflicts and inconsistencies of tangible reality, what I conveniently referred to above as the “metaphysics of everyday experience.”

One of the elements that draws me to Zagajewski is the amble evidence of the mysterious, the divine, that appears in his poems then disappears back into a great absence. A flame high, bright with the implied sense that even though it will go out it is enough In this, Zagajewski’s God so often absent reminds me of R.S. Thomas’s absent God. (See T is for Thomas). For Zagajewski his God is not as much defined by his absence but his brief appearances as in the last line of his poem, dedicated to Milosz:

The churches of France, dark vessels, where the shy flame of  a
     mighty light wanders.

It is no coincidence that Try To Praise The Mutilated World (TTPTMW), an astonishing tour de force, is a praise poem not of some romantic abstract ideal but this gritty, lovely and  terrifying world.  It is no coincidence that the New York Times chose to print this poem right after 9/11. This poem ties in to Zagajewski’s theology, his spiritual view of this world. And be sure this poet who so honours and names the things we can see in the world, as importantly names what we can’t see! I feel that this poem is so important, perhaps because it so closely echoes my sense of the world, the tensions we must hold and not disregard, that I will be posting a second blog on Zagajewski which only concerns itself with TTPMW.

So let me leave TTPTMW but not before I add some thoughts by Milosz from an essay in his book The Witness of Poetry and a poem by Symborska that illustrate the significance of Zagajewski’s poetics which shares much with Milosz and Szymborska. Here is Szymborska:


In memory of Halina Poswiatowska

When in danger the sea-cucumber divides itself in two:
one self it surrenders for devouring by the world,
with the second it makes good its escape.

It splits violently into perdition and salvation,
into fine and reward, into what was and what will be.
In the middle of its body there opens up a chasm
with two shores that are immediately alien.

On one shore death, on the other life.
Here despair, there hope.
If a scale exists, the balance does not tip.
If there is justice, here it is.

To die as much as necessary, without going too far.
To grow back as much as needed, from the remnant that survives.

We know how to divide ourselves, how true, we too.
But only into a body and an interrupted whisper.
Into body and poetry.

On one side the throat, laughter on the other,
that’s light and quickly dying.
Here a heavy heart, there non omnis moriar,
just three little words like three feathers in ascent.

The chasm does not cut us in two.
The chasm surrounds us.

Like Zagajewski, Symborska celebrates not a dualism between body and soul but a soul enfleshed in the body and the world. We are not cut in two by a chasm/ A chasm surrounds us. We must praise both the wine and the nettles. In this broken world there is always beauty. As Milosz says: In Szymborska we are divided not into the flesh and a surviving oevre but into the flesh and a broken whisper; poetry is no more than a broken whisper, quickly dying laughter. How Zagajewski too celebrates the flesh and the broken whisper. A whisper that Szymborska calls poetry; a whisper I say comes from the divine!

Here again is Milosz who espouses the idea of Blake’s naïve imagination or in Milosz’s words, the divine imagination, which he sees so clearly in Symborska’s poem:

In the twentieth century, as never before, poets were forced to resist such a pressure of facts that ran contrary to their somewhat childish nature. Early on, in the first years of life, every one of us must, on our own, discover the harsh laws of existence contrary to our desires. A flame, so lovely to look at, burns the fingers when grasped; a glass tossed from the table does not stay in the air but falls and breaks to pieces. The desire for the miraculous is exposed to severe trials by the so-called natural order of things, into which gradually we are introduced by our family and school, as a preparation for life in society. It is possible that poets are particularly recalcitrant to that training, and that is why they become the voice of the universal longing for liberation from what is cold as two times two is four, harsh and pitiless.

Is it a coincidence in light of this passage that Zagajewski wrote this poem:

Just Children

for Ewunia

It was just children playing in the sand
(accompanied by the narcotic scent
of blooming lindens, don’t forget),
just children, but after all
the devil, and the minor gods,
and even forgotten politicians,
who’d broken all their promises,
were also there and watched them
with unending rapture.
Who wouldn’t want to be a child
—for the last time!

Adam Zagajewski from Without End

There is a delicious irony in the Just in the title and further irony and wisdom in the last line which ends, importantly with an exclamation mark, not a question mark. Childhood too has it cruelties and disappointments but the line suggests how critical it is to keep our child’s perspective, our curious beginner’s eyes and mind. And how poignant that in this poem even the devil might stand in rapture of what the world too quickly diminishes if not extinguishes in many of us. If Milosz is right that poets retain some of a child’s ability to see the miraculous then this poem is witness to it through the eyes of a poet – Zagajewski.

Poetic synchronicites! The stuff of a life that does not, in spite of the world’s fragility, its impermanence and horrors, lose sight of its lasting beauties, its hidden things. In an essay in his book A Defense of Ardor (2004), translated by Clare Cavanaugh, Zagajewski asks a question and answers it with an excerpt from a poem, Throughout Our Lands, by Milosz and Zagajewski’s further response:

Here is the question:

But where do we find what’s lasting? Where do the deathless things hide?

Here is the Milosz excerpt:

With their chins high, girls come back from the tennis courts.
The pray rainbows over the sloping lawns.
With short jerks a robin runs up, stands motionless.
The eucalyptus tree trunks glow in the light.
The oaks perfect the shadow of May leaves.
Only this. Only this is worthy of praise: the day.

And here is Zagajewski in response:

Imperishable things drift through the air, mixed with what is passing; it’s someone’s job to sort them out.

But can we still write like Holderlin, like Norwid, like Yeats, like Rilke, like Madlestam, like Milosz, in a way that directs us to the world’s wholeness, to a world that holds divinity and pain, joy and despair…?

Good question. But we know Zagajewski can. He absurdly enough, bravely enough praises a mutilated world. And he calls us  to carry the weight of that mutilation.


You must take up the world’s whole weight
and make it easier to bear.
Toss it like a knapsack
on your shoulders and set out.
The best time is evening, in spring, when
trees breathe calmly and the night promises
to be fine, elm twigs crackle in the garden.
The whole weight? Blood and ugliness? Can’t be done.
A trace of bitterness will linger on your lips,
and the contagious despair of the old woman
you spotted in the tram.
Why lie? After all rapture
exists only in imagination and leaves quickly.
Improvisation – always just improvisation,
great or small, that’s all we know,
in music, as a jazz trumpet weeps happily
or when you stare at the blank page
or try to outwit
sorrow by opening a favorite book of poems;
just then the phone usually rings,
someone asking, would you like to try
the latest model? No thank you.
I prefer the proven brands.
Grayness and monotony remain; grief
the finest elegy can’t heal.
But perhaps there are things hidden from us,
in which sorrow and enthusiasm mix
non-stop, on a daily basis, like the dawn’s birth
above the seashore, no, wait,
like the laughter of those little altar boys
in white vestments, on the corner of St. John and Mark,

Adam Zagajewski from, 2008

Here again is the shared language of these Polish poets. There is Symborska’s laughter! But not without the broken whisper, the grief:

Grayness and monotony remain; grief
the finest elegy can’t heal.
But perhaps there are things hidden from us,
in which sorrow and enthusiasm mix
non-stop, on a daily basis, like the dawn’s birth
above the seashore, no, wait,
like the laughter of those little altar boys
in white vestments, on the corner of St. John and Mark,

And there again are the children and that sublime one word last line: remember. Do we remember that laughter? Do we. And why not? Why not remember our own child-like laughter and perhaps we will be filled with unendng rapture. To regain our beginner’s heart and mind. And with that mind to have what Zagajewski calls a forbearance for our cruel, comic and imperfect world.

Here is a “big” little poem that tries to capture the ineffable, tries to say the unsayable:

Where The Breath Is

She stands alone onstage
and has no instrument.

She lays her palms upon her breast,
where the breath is born
and where it dies.

The palms do not sing,
nor does the breast.

What sings is what stays silent.

Adam Zagajewski from New and Selected Poems

What sings is what stays silent.

And finally, an excerpt from the poem Kierkegaard on Hegel:

….We live in longing. In our dreams,
locks and bolts open up. Who didn’t find shelter
in the huge looks to the small. God
is the smallest poppy seed in the world,
bursting with greatness.

Right now in our garden, here outside Duncanon Vancouver Island, poppies are making a riot of colour. So present. Transformative, bursting with greatness. But soon, too soon, in a flash they will be gone to green. Then brown and finally the long, darker brown of earth in a long, wet winter. But even then I remember.  Zagajewski reminds me I must remember.