Celebrated on two continents, Polish poet Zagajewski (A Defense of Ardor) looks back with some self-consciousness, in these new poems, at the lyricism of his compatriot Czeslaw Milosz, at the prewar Poland he portrayed, and at a Miloszian mixture of pathos, faith and doubt. Set in Krakow, Italy, Houston and New York, these frequently brief and always inviting works present, at their most general, "the world's materiality at dawn-/ and the soul's frailty." More specific elegies remember Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Alexander Wat, W.G. Sebald, or look back on the poet's own "childhood, which evaporated/ like a puddle gleaming with a rainbow of gasoline." Cavanagh's supple translations let the verse sing in American English without making this Polish poet sound too American: as much as he embraces his new home (he is now teaching at the University of Chicago), he remembers, too, that "the Holocaust Museum in Washington" holds "my childhood, my wagons, my rust." Perhaps narrow in their sweet, sad moods, Zagajewski's poems remain wide in their sympathies. One especially ambitious work imagines the people of the ancient Near East coming alive again, startling archeologists: "Look, a flame stirs from the ashes./ Yes, I recognize the face." (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Eternal Enemiesby Adam Zagajewski
The highway became the Red Sea.
We moved through the storm like a sheer valley.
You drove; I looked at you with love.
One of the most gifted and readable poets of his time, Adam Zagajewski is proving to be a contemporary classic./b>/i>/b>/i>/b>/i>/b>/i>/b>/i>/b>/i>/b>/i>
The highway became the Red Sea.
We moved through the storm like a sheer valley.
You drove; I looked at you with love.
One of the most gifted and readable poets of his time, Adam Zagajewski is proving to be a contemporary classic. Few writers in either poetry or prose can be said to have attained the lucid intelligence and limpid economy of style that have become a matter of course with Zagajewski. It is these qualities, combined with his wry humor, gentle skepticism, and perpetual sense of history's dark possibilities, that have earned him a devoted international following. This collection, gracefully translated by Clare Cavanagh, finds the poet reflecting on place, language, and history. Especially moving here are his tributes to writers, friends known in person or in bookspeople such as Milosz and Sebald, Brodsky and Blakewhich intermingle naturally with portraits of family members and loved ones. Eternal Enemies is a luminous meeting of art and everyday life.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
By Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2008 Adam Zagajewski
All rights reserved.
I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
buried in the waters of the past.
I'm no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity,
I'm not the young poet who wrote
too many lines
and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows
has touched my brow with his hand,
but still I'm guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.
1. WITHOUT BAGGAGE
To travel without baggage, sleep in the train
on a hard wooden bench,
forget your native land,
emerge from small stations
when a gray sky rises
and fishing boats head to sea.
2. IN BELGIUM
It was drizzling in Belgium
and the river wound between hills.
I thought, I'm so imperfect.
The trees sat in the meadows
like priests in green cassocks.
October was hiding in the weeds.
No, ma'am, I said,
this is the nontalking compartment.
3. A HAWK CIRCLES ABOVE THE HIGHWAY
It will be disappointed if it swoops down
on sheet iron, on gas,
on a tape of tawdry music,
on our narrow hearts.
4. MONT BLANC
It shines from afar, white and cautious,
like a lantern for shadows.
On the meadow a vast temple —
a wild animal
open to the sky.
Summer was gigantic, triumphant —
and our little car looked lost
on the road going to Verdun.
7. THE STATION IN BYTOM
In the underground tunnel
cigarette butts grow,
It stinks of loneliness.
8. RETIRED PEOPLE ON A FIELD TRIP
They're learning to walk
Eternity doesn't travel,
In a fishing port
only the gulls are chatty.
10. THE THEATER IN TAORMINA
From the theater in Taormina you spot
the snow on Etna's peak
and the gleaming sea.
Which is the better actor?
11. A BLACK CAT
A black cat comes out to greet us
as if to say, look at me
and not some old Romanesque church.
12. A ROMANESQUE CHURCH
At the bottom of the valley
a Romanesque church at rest:
there's wine in this cask.
Light on the walls of old houses,
Passerby, open your eyes.
14. AT DAWN
The world's materiality at dawn —
and the soul's frailty.
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.
THE SWALLOWS OF AUSCHWITZ
In the barracks' quiet,
in the silence of a summer Sunday,
the swallows' shrill cry.
Is this really all that's left
of human speech?
The small crowd by the American consulate
ripples like a jellyfish in water.
A young Dominican strides down the sidewalk
and passersby yield piously.
I'm at home again, silent as a Buddhist.
I count the days of happiness and fretting,
days spent seeking you frantically,
finding just a metaphor, an image,
days of Ecclesiastes and the Psalmist.
I remember the heatstruck scent of heather,
the smell of sap in the forest by the sea,
the dark of a white chapel in Provence,
where only a candle's sun glowed.
I remember Greece's small olives,
Westphalia's gleaming railroads,
and the long trip to bid my mother goodbye
on an airplane where they showed a comedy,
everyone laughed loudly.
I returned to the city of sweet cakes,
bitter chocolate, and lovely funerals
(a grain of hope was once buried here),
the city of starched memory —
but the anxiety that drives wanderers,
and turns the wheels of bicycles, mills, and clocks,
won't leave me, it remains concealed
in my heart like a starving deserter
in an abandoned circus wagon.
I'll never know them,
those outmoded figures
— the same as we are,
yet completely different.
My imagination works to unlock
the mystery of their being,
it can't wait for the release
of memory's secret archives.
I see them in cramped classrooms,
in the small provincial towns
of the Hapsburgs' unhappy empire.
Poplars twitch hysterically
outside the windows
while snow and rain dictate
their own orthography.
They grip a useless scrap of chalk
helplessly in their fists,
in fingers black with ink.
They labor to reveal the world's mystery
to noisy, hungry children,
who only grow and scream.
My schoolmaster forebears fought
to calm an angry ocean
just like that mad artist
who rose above the waves
clutching his frail conductor's wand.
I imagine the void
of their exhaustion, empty moments
through which I spy
their life's core.
And I think that when I too
do my teaching,
they gaze in turn at me,
revising my mutterings,
correcting my mistakes
with the calm assurance of the dead.
TO FRITZ STERN
Karmelicka Street, a sky blue tram, the sun,
September, the first day after vacation,
some have come home from long trips,
armored divisions enter Poland,
children off to school dressed in their best,
white and navy blue, like sails and sea,
like memory and grapes and inspiration.
The trees stand at attention, honoring
the power of young minds that haven't yet
known fire and sleep and can do what they want,
nothing can stop them
(not counting invisible limits).
The trees greet the young respectfully,
but you — be truthful — envy
that starting out, that setting off
from home, from childhood, from the sweet darkness
that tastes of almonds, raisins, and poppy seeds,
you stop by the store for bread
and then walk home, unhurried,
whistling and humming carelessly;
your school still hasn't started,
the teachers have gone, the masters remain,
distant as summer, your sleep sails through the clouds
across the sky.
Thankless street — little dry goods stores
like sentries in Napoleon's frozen army;
country people peer into shop windows and their reflections
gaze back at dusty cars;
Long Street trudging slowly to the suburbs,
while the suburbs press toward the center.
Lumbering trams groove the street,
scentless perfume shops furrow it,
and after rainstorms mud instead of manna;
a street of dwarves and giants, creaking bikes,
a street of small towns clustered
in one room, napping after lunch,
heads dropped on a soiled tablecloth,
and clerics tangled in long cassocks;
unsightly street — coal rises here in fall,
and in August the boredom of white heat.
This is where you spent your first years
in the proud Renaissance town,
you dashed to lectures and military drills
in an outsized overcoat —
and now you wonder, can
you return to the rapture
of those years, can you still
know so little and want so much,
and wait, and go to sleep so swiftly,
and wake adroitly
so as not to startle your last dream
despite the December dawn's darkness.
Street long as patience.
Street long as flight from a fire,
as a dream that never
He dressed in black,
like a clerk at an insurance bureau
who specializes in lost causes.
I'd spot him on Urzednicza
rushing for a streetcar,
and at Krzysztofory as he solemnly discharged
his duties, receiving other artists dressed in black.
I dismissed him with the pride
of someone who's done nothing himself
and despises the flaws of finished things.
Much later, though,
I saw The Dead Class and other plays,
and fell silent with fear and admiration —
I witnessed systematic dying,
decline, I saw how time
works on us, time stitched into clothes or rags,
into the face's slipping features, I saw
the work of tears and laughter, the gnashing of teeth,
I saw boredom and yearning at work, and how
prayer might live in us, if we would let it,
what blowhard military marches really are,
what killing is, and smiling,
and what wars are, seen or unseen, just or not,
what it means to be a Jew, a German, or
a Pole, or maybe just human,
why the elderly are childish,
and children dwell in aging bodies
on a high floor with no elevator and try
to tell us something, let us know, but it's useless,
in vain they wave gray handkerchiefs
stretching from their school desks scratched with penknives
— they already know that they have only
the countless ways of letting go,
the pathos of helpless smiles,
the innumerable ways of taking leave,
and they don't even hear the dirty stage sets
singing with them, singing shyly
and perhaps ascending into heaven.
THE POWER CINEMA
FOR BARBARA AND WOJCIECH PSZONIAK
Some Sundays were white
like sand on Baltic beaches.
In the morning footsteps sounded
from infrequent passersby.
The leaves of our trees kept watchful silence.
A fat priest prayed for everyone
who couldn't come to church.
Movie projectors gave intoxicating hiccups
as dust wandered crosswise through the light.
Meanwhile a skinny priest bewailed the times
and called us to strict mystic contemplation.
A few ladies grew slightly faint.
The screen in the Power Cinema was happy to receive
every film and every image —
the Indians felt right at home,
but Soviet heroes
were no less welcome.
After each showing a silence fell,
so deep that the police got nervous.
But in the afternoon the city slept,
mouth open, like an infant in a stroller.
Sometimes a wind stirred in the evening
and at dusk a storm would flicker
with an eerie, violet glow.
At midnight the frail moon
came back to a scrubbed sky.
On some Sundays it seemed
that God was close.
THE CHURCH OF CORPUS CHRISTI
We're next to the Jewish Quarter,
where mindful prayers rose
in another tongue, the speech of David,
which is like a nut, a cluster of grapes.
This church isn't lovely,
but it doesn't lack solemnity;
a set of vertical lines
and dust trembling in a sunbeam,
a shrine of minor revelations
and strenuous silence,
the terrain of longing
for those who have gone.
I don't know if I'll be admitted,
if my imperfect prayer
will enter the dark, trembling air,
if my endless questing
will halt within this church,
still and sated as a beehive.
Was it worth waiting in consulates
for some clerk's fleeting good humor
and waiting at the station for a late train,
seeing Etna in its Japanese cloak
and Paris at dawn, as Haussmann's conventional caryatids
came looming from the dark,
entering cheap restaurants
to the triumphal scent of garlic,
was it worth taking the underground
beneath I can't recall what city
to see the shades of not my ancestors,
flying in a tiny plane over an earthquake
in Seattle like a dragonfly above a fire, but also
scarcely breathing for three months, asking anxious questions,
forgetting the mysterious ways of grace,
reading in papers about betrayal, murder,
was it worth thinking, remembering, falling
into deepest sleep, where gray hallways
stretched, buying black books,
jotting only separate images
from a kaleidoscope more glorious than the cathedral
in Seville, which I haven't seen,
was it worth coming and going, was it —
yes no yes no
I returned to Long Street with its dark
halo of ancient grime — and to Karmelicka Street,
where drunks with blue faces await
the world's end in delirium tremens
like the anchorites of Antioch, and where
electric trams tremble from excess time,
to my youth, which didn't want
to wait and passed on, perished from long
fasting and strict vigils, I returned to
black side streets and used bookshops,
to conspiracies concealing
affection and treachery, to laziness,
to books, to boredom, to oblivion, to tea,
to death, which took so many
and gave no one back,
to Kazimierz, vacant district,
empty even of lamentation,
to a city of rain, rats, and garbage,
to childhood, which evaporated
like a puddle gleaming with a rainbow of gasoline,
to the university, still trying clumsily
to seduce yet another naive generation,
to a city now selling
even its own walls, since it sold
its fidelity and honor long ago, to a city
I love mistrustfully
and can offer nothing
except what I've forgotten and remember
except a poem, except life.
My friends wait for me,
ironic, smiling sadly.
Where are the transparent palaces
we meant to build —
their lips say,
their aging lips.
Don't worry, friends,
those splendid kites
still soar in the autumn air,
still take us
to the place where harvests begin,
to bright days —
the place where scarred eyes
You led me across the vast meadow,
the three-cornered Common that is Sicily
for this town that doesn't know the sea,
you led me to the Syracuse
of cold kisses and we passed
through the endless ocean of the grass
like conquerors with clear consciences
(since we vanquished only ourselves),
in the evening, under a vast sky,
under sharp stars,
a sky spreading righteously
over what lasts
and the lazy river of remembrance.
TO DANIEL STERN
We usually catch only a few details —
grapes from the seventeenth century,
still fresh and gleaming,
perhaps a fine ivory fork,
or a cross's wood and drops of blood,
and great suffering that has already dried.
The shiny parquet creaks.
We're in a strange town —
almost always in a strange town.
Somewhere a guard stands and yawns.
An ash branch sways outside the window.
describing static paintings.
Scholars devote tomes to it.
But we're alive,
full of memory and thought,
love, sometimes regret,
and at moments we take a special pride
because the future cries in us
and its tumult makes us human.
We were listening to music —
a little Bach, a little mournful Schubert.
For a moment we listened to the silence.
A blizzard roared outside,
the wind pressed its blue face
to the wall.
The dead raced past on sleds,
at our windows.
POETRY SEARCHES FOR RADIANCE
Poetry searches for radiance,
poetry is the kingly road
that leads us farthest.
We seek radiance in a gray hour,
at noon or in the chimneys of the dawn,
even on a bus, in November,
while an old priest nods beside us.
The waiter in a Chinese restaurant bursts into tears
and no one can think why.
Who knows, this may also be a quest,
like that moment at the seashore,
when a predatory ship appeared on the horizon
and stopped short, held still for a long while.
And also moments of deep joy
and countless moments of anxiety.
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.
THE DICTION TEACHER RETIRES FROM THE THEATER SCHOOL
Tall, shy, dignified
in an old-fashioned way,
She bids farewell to students, faculty,
and looks around suspiciously.
She's sure they'll mangle their mother tongue
ruthlessly and go unpunished.
She takes the certificate (she'll check
for errors later). She turns and vanishes offstage,
in the spotlights' velvet shadows,
We're left alone
to twist our tongues and lips.
Excerpted from Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh. Copyright © 2008 Adam Zagajewski. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov in 1945. His previous books include Tremor; Canvas; Mysticism for Beginners; Without End; Solidarity, Solitude; Two Cities; Another Beauty; and A Defense of Ardorall published by FSG. He lives in Paris and Houston.
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Zagajewski has done it again with 'Eternal Enemies,' perhaps my favorite of his collections to date. From the first page to the last, I found the poems gripping, containing his usual historical and biographical details of the Polish past. His sensibilities as a voyageur softly lead the reader with delicacy and taste. I find Part I to be the most compelling with the opening poem "Star" and the chilling "The Swallows of Auschwitz" though the entire collection is a gem. Well-worth having on the shelf.