I will always remember how, on a street corner in Chicago, the late Polish poet Adam Zagajewski turned to me and breathlessly said, “Oh, how much I hate Dante!”
I kept laughing
all the way to my train. But of course, like everything Adam said, it
made perfect sense in context. He was teaching at the University of
Chicago that semester, away from his hometown of Kraków. I saw him twice
a month when I visited Chicago for work. On that occasion, as usual,
our conversation began with a report of what we had been reading: in my
case, Dante, in Adam’s, Kobayashi Issa’s haiku. He loved the short
lyric, its self-contained inner life, and minimalists like Pascal and E.
M. Cioran; the latter he quoted often. But he also struggled with
Cioran’s pessimism: “I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to toss
that book against the wall.”
A skinny man who carried a world of books within him, Adam Zagajewski was the kind of person who would offer to drop you off at your hotel after a poetry reading only to pull over midway to better focus on a conversation about poetry. He would email the next day to recommend some more poets he loved, without any of that Bloomian anxiety of influence. None of this was a performance: he was a very shy person, gracious, precise. He believed in the soul—that the soul must live in lyric poetry. That, most of all.
What I love about his own poems is how, in the second half of the horror that was the twentieth century, knowing what happened to Federico García Lorca*, César Vallejo, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan, and countless others, Adam insisted that a poem can be both an elegy for what happened and also a hymn to life. He gave us, if not a healing, then a way to go on, to give each other a measure of reprieve, music, and gentleness.
Of all the poets Adam mentioned, he came back most often to Gottfried Benn. (Benn makes an appearance in most of Adam’s prose books, too.) Born in the late nineteenth century, Benn was a troubled, brilliant misanthrope, a believer in high art, and a dermatologist who lived through both world wars.
To those who knew him, Adam’s affinity with a German poet isn’t a surprise. In 1945, when Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill redrew the map of Europe at Yalta, they gave the Polish city of Lvov—where the Zagajewski family lived—to the Soviet Union and the German city of Gliwice to Poland. Adam’s family, along with thousands of other Polish refugees from Lvov, were directed into the empty German streets of Gliwice and told to make their home there.
“In October 1945,” Adam wrote in his memoir, Two Cities, translated by Lillian Vallee, “my parents, my sister and I endured a two-week journey from Lvov to Gliwice. The family graves stayed in the east. The household spirits probably hesitated before they decided to accompany us on that uncertain journey in cattle car.”
Adam was four months old; his childhood took place among German architecture. Though no German was spoken in the city, he could see it everywhere: “The German Normende radio retained its stubborn German smell in spite of the fact that Polish announcers spoke through it.”
Now that Adam is gone, I read him again and realize that he was the most German of all great Polish poets. I hear in his work the seriousness and light touch of mid-period Rainer Maria Rilke, the detachment of Karl Krolow. Most of all I hear the distant echo of Benn, especially in Adam’s great early odes to music.
Adam’s favorite Benn poem, “Chopin,” is about the Polish composer, who, like Adam, was forced out of Poland during the Russian occupation; Chopin lived out his exile in Paris, where Adam also came to live a century later. Benn’s poem is a biographical sketch of the composer in exile, making music out of his nostalgia for his old home. Here are a few lines, translated by Michael Hoffman:
Not much of a conversationalist,
ideas weren’t his strong suit,
ideas miss the point,
when Delacroix expounded his theories
it made him nervous. . . .
certain of his Preludes
in country seats or
through open French windows
on the terrace, say, of a sanatorium,
will not easily forget it.
He composed no operas,
only those tragic progressions
from artistic conviction
and with a small hand.
Much of what we see in Benn—abundance of detail (the sanatorium’s “country seats” and “open French windows”), directness (“ideas miss the point”), unexpected feeling (“will not easily forget it”), and liberal use of adjectives—would be among Adam’s recurrent tools. (“A world without an adjective,” he wrote in Two Cities, “is as sad as a surgical clinic on Sunday.”)
“Music cannot be represented in print,” Adam once emailed me about this poem. But in his own poems about composers, such as “Late Beethoven” (from Tremor, translated by Renata Gorczynski) Adam is, in fact, able to represent our need for music:
I haven’t yet known a man who loved virtue as strongly as one loves beauty.
Nobody knows who she was, the Immortal
Beloved. Apart from that, everything is
clear. Feathery notes rest
peacefully on the threads of the staff
like martins just come
from the Atlantic. What would I have to be
in order to speak about him, he who’s still
growing. Now we are walking alone
without ghosts or banners. Long live
chaos, say our solitary mouths.
We know that he dressed carelessly,
that he was given to fits of avarice, that he wasn’t
always fair to his friends.
Friends are a hundred years
late with their impeccable smiles. Who
was the Immortal Beloved? Certainly,
he loved virtue more than beauty.
But a nameless god of beauty dwelled
in him and compelled his obedience.
He improvised for hours. A few minutes
of each improvisation were noted down.
These minutes belong neither to the nineteenth
nor to the twentieth century; as if hydrochloric
acid burned a window in velvet, thus
opening a passage to even
smoother velvet, thin as
a spiderweb. Now they name
ships and perfumes after him. They don’t know who
the Immortal Beloved was, otherwise
new cities and pâtés would bear her
name. But it’s useless. Only velvet
growing under velvet, like a leaf hidden
safely in another leaf. Light in darkness.
Unending adagios. That’s how tired freedom
breathes. Biographers argue only
over details. Why he tormented
his nephew Karl so much. Why
he walked so fast. Why he didn’t go
to London. Apart from that, everything is clear.
We don’t know what music is. Who speaks
in it. To whom it is addressed. Why it is
so obstinately silent. Why it circles and returns
instead of giving a straight answer
as the Gospel demands. Prophecies
were not fulfilled. The Chinese didn’t reach
the Rhine. Once more, it turned out that
the real world doesn’t exist, to the immense
relief of antiquaries. The secret was hidden
somewhere else, not in soldiers’
knapsacks, but in a few notebooks.
Grillparzer, he, Chopin. Generals are
cast in lead and tinsel to
give hell’s flame a moment of respite
after kilowatts of straw. Unending adagios,
but first and foremost joy, wild
joy of shape, the laughing sister of death.
For me, reading Zagajewski and Benn alongside one another is a practical lesson in how poets learn from other poets while also expanding the possibilities of craft. The structure of biography we note in Benn is enlarged in “Late Beethoven,” with details punctuated by excessive lyric outbursts, bits of wry humor, impossible questions, and attempts at rupture. Zagajewski’s poem, unlike Benn’s, tries to describe music in words; as the poem progresses, repetitions (and near-repetitions) give us a sense of expectation and surprise, but also of musicality itself. So much recurs, yet never in exactly the same way. The poet says “we don’t know,” and the reader hears “we know.”
Benn gives us a
sense of beautiful sadness, an elegant structure, but little hope—like
the emptied city of Gliwice, whose streets were once devoid of human
faces. Zagajewski’s poem fills this structure with life, exuberance. It
knows that the inevitable will happen, that history will, once more, eat
us all alive. But it gives us the music of meanwhile, a music made of
human gossip, giggles, shouts.
It is “To Go to Lvov”—the great poem from his next collection of the same name, 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,” while retaining the same form and cadences as “Late Beethoven,” 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. Here it is, translated by Gorczynski:
To Go to Lvov
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.
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.
“Late Beethoven,” this poem juxtaposes tonalities: humor, high lyricism,
heartbreak. There is that same tension between description and
invocation. The cathedral trembles, people bid good-bye without
handkerchiefs, no tears, dry mouths, and there is too much of Lvov, it
brims the container. It is a three-page epic, a dream that refuses to
end, showing us what Adam Zagajewski’s exiled parents and grandparents
saw, refracted through the wonder and joy of a child’s stare. “I do not
believe in happiness,” Adam was fond of repeating, “but I believe in
joy.” Despite everything, this insistence on wonder. Despite everything,
in the age of mass murder, a lucid moment.
Does Lvov exist? Where is its main street, Svobody Avenue, now? “My parents’ life was cut in two: before they left and after they left,” Adam once told me. Proust insisted that reality exists in memory alone. But “To Go to Lvov” is hardly merely a poem of memory; publishing it in 1985, when the Soviet Union was still a world power, was a bold political move. Mikhail Gorbachev hadn’t yet happened. Poland was still a Soviet country. Writing about a stolen city was no joke.
“Aunt Busia told me that, when leaving their Lvov apartment, she put a jar of apricot preserves on the table, in the hope that the thieves who would come to loot would stop at the apricots,” Adam wrote in Two Cities. And: “My grandfather, despite walking right next to me in Gliwice, was in Lvov. I walked the streets of Gliwice, he walked the streets of Lvov.”
In Gliwice, Adam’s father, an engineering professor, couldn’t afford a desk. Instead, he nailed four metal food cans to a small table, where he piled book after book about Lvov. For decades, he kept buying maps and guidebooks to the city. As if Lvov existed. As if he could simply return.
Some poets are revolutionaries. Others are elegists. The twentieth century is chockful of protests and requiems. Some poets are bold, and even proclaim, as Joseph Brodsky did, that “lack of egotism is lack of talent.” Some poets are quiet, refusing to publish for decades; others recite poems at the inaugurations of presidents who bomb other countries. Some poets are more passionate at faculty meetings than in their poems. Some poets have children and write whole books trying to explain to them our impossible world. Others, like Vladimir Mayakovsky, say that they like to watch little children cry. Some poets say they believe in the fascination of what is difficult. Others change language by what they do not say.
Your writings, dear Adam, propose a perspective that is strangely uncommon among poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: you bend toward mystery, allowing praise in, despite the odds: “You have seen the refugees going nowhere / You’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. / You should praise the mutilated world.” Also uncommon, for this harsh moment, is your continual insistence on softness. In your memoir, you wrote: “I did not realize that a positive majority of people belonged to the domain of profound meaning not through their knowledge . . . but through their lives, through their radiant living substance, and that is why it is dumb and absurd to accuse them of ignorance. . . . I should have looked with tenderness.”
Dear Adam: you are dead for weeks now, but I can’t stop speaking to you. Thank you for being in my life. Thank you for your lines that stay so stubbornly in my memory—like windchimes from Svobody Avenue: not too loud, but never distant either. Now since you are dead—since you are quiet and pure as a peach—go dear poet, go to Lvov. After all, it exists.
May 7, 2021: Because of an editing error, this piece originally referred to Gabriel García Lorca. The writer's name is Federico García Lorca.