He gave Us Astonishment and a Flame, High, Bright! R.I.P. Adam Zagajewski ( June 21st,1945 – March 21st 2021

R.I.P Adam Zagajewski – 1945 – 2021

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

Oh, Adam Zagajewski was given astonishment and gave astonishment. And he was a flame! High, bright. Now that flame is snuffed out. Zagajewski, the great Polish poet dead at seventy-five in Krakow on Sunday night Polish time. Such a loss! And only five years ago The Toronto-based Griffin Trust gave him its prestigous lifetime achievement award.

I will let the celebrated American poet Mary Oliver, gone last year, sing his praises: [He] is now our greatest and truest representative, the most pertinent, impressive, meaningful poet of our time. High praise indeed. This poet, born on my birthday June 21st, whose passing hurts me, truly. I loved his poetry. This poet, who came to prominence in North America especially after the tragedy of 9-11 when the New Yorker published his now famous poem Try to Praise This Mutilated World:

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

To read a discussion of this remarkable poem from my blog post in June 2012 please click here.

In an article written for The Poetry International Festival in 1999, Gerard Rasch quotes the Nobel Prize Laureate Czeslaw 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.

What a lineage he came from! 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.

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. But ended up living in both the U.S. and Poland in his later years.

There is so much more to say about this fine poet. And I said a lot in Part One of my blog on Zagajewski back in 2012. You can read it here! But in sorrow here is another favorite Zagajewski poem:

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 ibid

And Adam what made you sing was a silence full of the numinous and the everyday! And so evident in this excerpt from his 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.

Adam Zagajewski, ibid

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