By Norman Minnick
In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film The Double Life of Veronique we are presented with a box that is being opened by a pair of hands. The hands pull out a marionette and slowly turn the head as if to scan an audience of schoolchildren before manipulating the doll in a delicate ballet. This is one of the most moving scenes in modern cinema and although we can see the hands, we are as captivated as the children at the beauty and wonder of the dance.
Many readers of today’s poetry are troubled by this conflicting notion of reality and imagination. They also struggle with the “I” in poems and the poet interjecting a remark akin to “that reminds me of….” In Adam Zagajewski’s poems all forms of address are used: I, you, we. The poet is visible, yet in the hands of a skilled poet like Zagajewski, we are seduced by the poem and are also willing to ignore the manipulator’s hands.
When Zagajewski addresses “you” as in “Speak Softly…” (Without End), he is not breaking the fourth wall. It is clear that it is himself to whom he speaks, and it does not detract from such images as “rusty water sweeping the street” or “a wild animal’s bright eyes.” Here he struggles with the dual aspects of nature, the abstract and the concrete:
You know what mourning is, despair so fierce
it chokes the heart’s rhythm and the future.
You’ve cried among strangers, in a modern store,
where deft coins make the rounds.
Dualities are essential to Adam Zagajewski, but not in a polarizing way. He explains:
Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt. Ecstasy is ready to accept the entire world; irony, following in the footsteps of thought, questions everything, asks tendentious questions, doubts the meaning of poetry and even of itself. (Two Cities 209)
The dual roles of ecstasy and irony, the invisible and the visible (or, dare I say, the transcendent and the immanent), is demonstrated in “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.
Any composer will tell us that silence is equally as important as the notes. The same is true in poetry. As we speak we are breathing out or exhaling. Li-Young Lee calls this the “dying breath.” If it were possible to continually breathe out, to continue speaking without taking a breath, we would eventually pass out. We would expire. If “meaning is born,” as Lee says, when “the breath dies,” then inspiration comes in the silence (Ingersoll 144). It is natural to breathe in; our bodies and our internal organs need oxygen to be rejuvenated. We inspire. This word comes from the Latin spirare, “to breathe,” which is also the root of “spirit.” When we inhale it is impossible to speak. Try it. Inspiration comes in the silence of a poem.
There are many other seemingly conflicting dualities in Zagajewski’s poetry that are actually congruent. Zagajewski plays with grief and flirts with despair. Although he writes, “The poet reaches for his quill: / shall he be tender today, or incensed?” (“Historical Novel,” Canvas), he most often chooses the divide between these realities. “We exist between the elements, / between fire and sleep” (“Cicadas,” Mysticism). It is important to note that this is not juxtaposing states of slumber and awareness, or unconscious and conscious states of being, because the awake or literal world often brings fire, which is both a life giving and destructive force that often comes out of silence. Or, as in the following example, nothingness.
This day’s nothingness
as if from spite
became a flame
and scorched the lips
of children and poets.
(“This Day’s Nothingness”)
In his latest collection, Unseen Hand, Zagajewski teaches us that paying attention to both the concrete and the abstract is paramount. There is no need to be a shaman or mystic to glean epiphany out of mundane experience.
I thought that at the last stop
the meaning of it all would stand revealed
but nothing happened, nothing,
the driver ate a roll with cheese…
(“The Last Stop”)
Sometimes in these mundane experiences nothing happens, which, we have learned, if we pay close enough attention, can bring about epiphany––even rapture.
…though I also seek the flame of rapture
pretty much everywhere, even
in the budget theater…
(“If I were Tomaz Salamun”)
Ironically, given the title, this poem becomes self-revelation for Zagajewski.
…I’m an eternal student of stenography,
struggling to understand how death enters the house
and how it leaves, and then returns,
and how it is defeated by a small freckled girl
reciting Dante from memory…
This is the sort of image that gives weight to the abstract notions of death and eternity. Zagajewski, while struggling to understand how death is defeated by a small freckled girl and seeking the flame of rapture, is also well grounded. He is at home as long as he is in a city surrounded by people or great art and music. His is a contemplative life that absorbs the richness of culture.
…I drank tasteless coffee
in a café garden on Museumsinsel
and thought about Berlin, it’s dark waters.
This may at first appear trite and commonplace, but it is to Berlin and her dark waters that Zagajewski is attuned. “Vita Contemplativa” continues,
The Pergamon’s dark walls, white sculptures inside.
A bust of Greek loveliness. So this is it.
An altar before which no one prays.
With this both-and philosophy, Zagajewski explains, “all writers should be obliged to scrutinize the idiots of both persuasions, left and right. The poet,” he continues, “is a born centrist; his parliament is elsewhere” (Another Beauty). “Vita Contemplativa” concludes:
Comparing day and night; so this is it.
Dream with waking, world and mind. Joy.
Composure, focus, the heart’s levitation.
Bright thoughts smolder in dark walls.
So this is it. What we do not know.
We live in the abyss. In dark waters. In brightness.
This is Keats’ notion of negative capability––to be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”––and Zagajewski’s both-and mind-set: to live at the same time in the dark waters and the brightness.
Zagajewski writes, “That two such vastly different elements shape poetry is astounding and even compromising. No wonder almost no one read poems” (Two Cities 209). And frankly, no one reads poems except students of poetry because too many contemporary poems aim to be oblique and meaningless. Zagajewski “yearn[s] for the safe company of thinkers and poets, where one question alone [will] engross [him], the conflict between poetry and philosophy” (Another Beauty 211). With “Writing Poems” (Unseen Hand) he begins,
Writing poems is a duel
that no one wins––on one side
a shadow rises, massive as a mountain range
viewed by a butterfly, on the other,
only brief glimpses of brightness,
images and thoughts like a match flame
on the night when winter is born in pain.
On the one side, massive mountains suggest the grandiose philosophical aspect referred to earlier (ironic in that it is viewed by a butterfly). On the other side, a spark of epiphany leaps from a rather bleak night.
The two do not exist contrary to one another, but together. This duality is what gives Zagajewski’s poems their strength.
And what if Heraclitus and Parmenides
are both right
and two worlds exist side by side,
one serene, the other insane…
I use the word dichotomy in the title, but want to be careful and not suggest this as a negative. Again, I am talking about a both-and rather than an either-or ideology. Perhaps Zagajewski would prefer “balance.”
I put my book down and for an instant felt
a perfect balance between waking and dreams.
But when the plane touched concrete, then
assiduously circled in the airport’s labyrinth,
I once again knew nothing. The darkness
of daily wandering resumed, the day’s sweet darkness,
the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,
remembers and forgets.
(“Balance” Eternal Enemies)
It is in the mundane, the “daily wandering” where he knows nothing. Sometimes it is in the great works of art that bring this balance, that calls into question all that we thought we understood and stuns us into knowing.
Zagajewski writes about first seeing Carlos Saura’s Carmen noticing that passion will be one of the main characters of the film (Solidarity, 152). Like the spark that comes from nothing, “there is so much passion in this film…it is almost not there because it immediately turns into dance, rhythm, flamenco…. Flamenco becomes the site of a strange meeting of formless passion and passionless form” (153). At the end of this essay Zagajewski, noticing clouds being changed by wind, realizes, “I know that God would have to be both form and formlessness” (166).
Muriel Rukeyser says that when good and evil “have been shown as different in nature one from the other, [it is] at that point art breaks down” (64). This breakdown or either-or sentiment is the essence of much of the poetry written today because of––or perhaps as a reaction to––the fragmented world in which we find ourselves. Many would argue that the world has become shattered as a result of this polarization and the cynicism that is so prevalent today, which has lead to poetry of fragmentation, abstraction, disenchantment, and utter nonsense. Some might say that this is an elucidation of avant-garde poetry and art following the devastation of World War I. Zagajewski writes in Another Beauty, “Shouldn’t we seek out at all costs the force that joins together, not the one that drives apart? (114) Yet, we are fractured and Adam Zagajewski is attempting to put the pieces back together.
Ingersoll, Earl G. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Rochester: BOA Editions, 2006.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, Mass: Paris P, 1996.
Zagajewski, Adam. Another Beauty. Trans. Clare Cavanagh. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
––. Canvas. Trans. Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry, and C. K. Williams. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
––. Eternal Enemies. Trans. Clare Cavanagh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
––. Mysticism for Beginners. Trans. Clare Cavanagh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
––. Solidarity, Solitude. Trans. Lillian Vallee. New York: Ecco, 1990.
––. Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination. Trans. Lillian Vallee. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
––. Unseen Hand. Trans. Clare Cavanagh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
––. Without End: New and Selected Poems. Trans. Clare Cavanagh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.