"Speak from within."
On Eternal Enemies
by Adam Zagajewski
translated by Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008, $24
Reading always happens in the midst of other things: it's vacation time, or it's 8:30, dishes done, no concert to go to or listen to, no rented movie at hand, tomorrow's work can wait, and thus among many books one suggests itself. Because reading can so often work this way, it carries with it an element of travel: we leave one where and when -- we go into a book.
To enter Adam Zagajewski's collection of poems, Eternal Enemies, is to engage a traveler's voice, a voice mostly washed clean of foolishness, advertising, self promotion, deception, and idle chatter. This traveler has returned "years later" to a nameless "gray and lovely city," returned a changed person: "I am no longer the student / of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity, / I'm not the young poet who wrote / too many lines." This is self definition by negation: it describes what is no longer the case as a way to point towards what is. And these lines, coming in the collection's first poem ("Star") become the collection's introduction.
Negation depends on duality: not A but B. And the opposite of negation is comparison: A is like (and unlike) B. In both cases, the point is to bring two things into the same frame so that they may inform each other, as in the last lines of "Enroute," which bring these two things into juxtaposition: "The world's materiality at dawn -- / and the soul's fraility." Materiality and the soul -- these are, perhaps, the eternal enemies of this collection's title. And they are most certainly the twin foci of many of these poems, particularly when one factors in the workings of time. Here is the entirety of "Music in the Car":
Music heard with you
at home or in the car
or even while strolling
didn't always sound as pristine
as piano tuners might wish --
it was sometimes mixed with voices
full of fear and pain,
and then that music
was more than music,
it was our living
and our dying.
Any satisfying reading of Eternal Enemies depends on a reader's willingness to attend to this voice and allow its evident seriousness. But it's not all seriousness, for Zagajewski is also quite capable of a wry humor (as in "The Diction Teacher Retires from the Theater School"). Still, we have to be willing to go to this place. And American readers will recognize that it is not an essentially American place, but rather a Polish one. Zagajewski stands in the company of Milosz and Szymborska (to name but two). His place is Poland and exile from it and return to it. As a place at once literal, historical, and literary, it includes Auschwitz, Stolarska Street, Karmelica Street, Long Street (in a "proud Renaissance town"). It includes Urzednicza and Krzysztofory streets, and "what killing is, and smiling / and what wars are, seen or unseen, just or not, / and what it means to be a Jew, a German, or / a Pole, or maybe just human."
These poems speak often of a restlessness that seems at once physical and metaphysical:
Let me see, I ask.
Let me persist, I say.
A cold rain falls at night.
In the streets and avenues of my city
quiet darkness is hard at work.
Poetry searches for radiance.
In a famously lengthy and deeply fascinating work on the morality of fiction, Wayne Booth argues that good literature is a friend to us; good literature is in all ways good company. Odd as it might sound, Adam Zagajewski's Eternal Enemies celebrates friendships of various sorts. Zagajewski even celebrates friendships he recognizes are impossible: friendship with "A passerby with proud eyes / whom you'll never know," friendship with "The old man sipping coffee / in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone," even "friendship with yourself / --since after all you don't know who you are."
(A final note: poems in translation always raise the questions of translation. Here I can say only that Clare Cavanagh's English seems absolutely in sync with a Polish I do not know.)