Unseen Hand: Poems

Unseen Hand: Poems

by Adam Zagajewski

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A brilliant new collection from a master world poet

One of the most gifted poets of our time, Adam Zagajewski is a contemporary classic. Few writers in poetry or prose have attained the lucid intelligence and limpid economy of style that are the trademarks of his work. His wry humor, gentle skepticism, and perpetual sense of history's dark possibilities


A brilliant new collection from a master world poet

One of the most gifted poets of our time, Adam Zagajewski is a contemporary classic. Few writers in poetry or prose have attained the lucid intelligence and limpid economy of style that are the trademarks of his work. His wry humor, gentle skepticism, and perpetual sense of history's dark possibilities have earned him a devoted international following. This collection, gracefully translated by Clare Cavanagh, finds the poet returning to the themes that have defined his career—moving meditations on place, language, and history. Unseen Hand is a luminous meeting of art and everyday life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Not so long ago we had two incredible voices--Neruda and Milosz. Now we have Adam Zagajewski, who also speaks passionately from both the historical and the personal perspective, in poems reduced to a clean, lyrical clarity. In one poet's opinion (mine), he is now our greatest and truest representative, the most pertinent, impressive, meaningful poet of our time.” —Mary Oliver

“Zagajewski's poems pull us from whatever routine threatens to dull our senses, from whatever might lull us into mere existence.” —Philip Boehm, The New York Times Book Review

“As the title suggests, Polish poet Adam Zagajewski's new book Unseen Hand is a book of hidden things. By this we mean the poems move in and out of revealing and concealing, each poem an elegant exploration of history, both personal and global . . . Zagajewski's poetry reflects on the unseen impressions we leave on each other and the physical world around us, the indirect intimacy of human interaction . . . Thoughtful and meditative . . . We as readers . . . experience the steady unveiling of the unseen and the unspoken through Zagajewski's language.” —Kelly Forsythe, Newcity Lit

“In his new book, Zagajewski stakes out, as firmly as ever, the position of poetry in a world where language's metaphysical registers have been largely usurped by the forces of political oppression . . . Yet these poems oppose grand pronouncements . . . we see Zagajewski's continual evolution toward elegy and memory, but the role of poetry is still both vital and deeply limited . . . these new poems, pitched at a register slightly lower than that of praise, offer a sort of quiet surprise--occasionally even delight--born out of wise and hard-earned skepticism.” —Publishers Weekly

“The poems of Unseen Hand, translated by the admirably consistent Clare Cavanagh, move through the various locales of Zagajewski's life; from his Polish upbringing in Lvov and the provincial garrison town of Gliwice . . . to various stints in Krakow, Paris, and Chicago . . . Zagajewski is especially perceptive of the ways the past is channeled through the present -- his ‘now' tends to carry the authority of an ‘always' . . . Zagajewski's skill with subtle tensions doesn't stifle his playful nature . . . As always with Zagajewski, we are ultimately responsible for the way we experience our own lives, how we value the inheritance of the past, and how open we are to those ‘moments without an hour.'” —Michael Brodeur, The Boston Globe

“Zagajewski . . . blends past and present, mundane and mysterious in all his word. His new collection has a conversational, unadorned style reminiscent of William Carlos Williams . . . The best poems establish a contradiction that is resolved at the end by paradox . . . melancholy yet hopeful.” —Diane Scharper, Library Journal

“Adam Zagajewski's radiant poetry is a gift. It offers a chance to ponder the vagaries of human experience in the company of a uniquely sensitive, patient, hospitable companion, who maintains a capacity for childlike wonder in concert with maturity. His work is also an example of what art can achieve now, in defiance of theorists who insist that poetry is no longer an authentic possibility, that we are trapped in our own small, stifling self.” —Ian Marcus Corbin, The Weekly Standard

“Insightfully translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, Zagajewski's latest poems celebrate the twofold pleasures of recollection and meditation . . . Zagajewski is particularly interesting when he writes about his beloved cities: Lvov . . . whose inhabitants appears ghost-like in his dreams and on photographs, and Cracow, which he reproduces in all its old-fashioned splendor . . . Of particular note are the several poems that describe his lonely wanderings through Cracow's Jewish corner. The setting is often nocturnal, the tone mournful . . . Zagajewski acknowledges that history takes its course regardless of any poet's contribution.” —Piotr Gziazda, Times Literary Supplement

“Zagajewski has cultivated, through his travels, a supremely long-range view, as if the trials of the past might be understood in the present, if not explained or justified. Like the hymn the collection's title perhaps alludes to, this is a poetry that journeys across a weary earth but aspires to quiet rapture. In the final poem, ‘Carts,' even ‘carts full of hay' feel shadowed by deportations. Transport is not always freeing. These carts ‘abandoned the town / in greatest quiet.' There are ‘cautious glances' and ‘archives' in which ‘men calculate the losses.' Yet there is also life's undeniable pull.” —Joseph Campana, Houston Chronicle

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt

Unseen Hand

By Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Adam Zagajewski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8425-0




    In February the poplars are even slimmer
    than in summer, frozen through. My family
    spread across the earth, beneath the earth,
    in different countries, poems, paintings.

    Noon, I'm on Na Groblach Square.
    I sometimes came to see my aunt
    and uncle here (partly out of duty).
    They'd stopped complaining about their fate,

    the system, but their faces looked like
    an empty secondhand bookshop.
    Now someone else lives in that apartment,
    strange people, the scent of a strange life.

    A new hotel was built nearby,
    bright rooms, breakfasts doubtless comme il faut,
    juices, coffee, toast, glass, concrete,
    amnesia — and suddenly, I don't know why,
    a moment of penetrating joy.



    The café in a strange city bore a French writer's
    name. I sat reading Under the Volcano,
    with less enthusiasm now. Time to be healed,
    I thought. I'd probably become a philistine.
    Mexico was remote and its enormous stars
    did not shine for me. The day of the dead dragged on.
    Holiday of metaphors and light. Death played the lead.
    A few people at neighboring tables, various fates.
    Prudence, Sorrow, Common Sense. The Consul, Yvonne.
    It was raining. I felt a little happiness. Someone entering,
    someone leaving, someone had finally discovered the perpetuum mobile.
    I was in a free country. A lonely country.
    Nothing was happening, the cannons slept.
    The music favored no one, pop seeped
    from the speakers, lazily repeating: many events coming soon.
    No one knew what to do, where to go, why.
    I thought about you, our closeness, the scent
    of your hair when autumn starts.
    A plane rose from the airport
    like a zealous pupil who believes
    what the old masters told him.
    The Soviet cosmonauts claimed they didn't find
    God in outer space, but did they look?


    It may already be September. I drank tasteless coffee
    in a café garden on Museumsinsel
    and thought about Berlin, its dark waters.
    These black buildings have seen much.
    But peace reigns in Europe, diplomats doze,
    the sun is pale, summer dies serenely,
    spiders weave its shining shroud, the dry leaves
    of plane trees write memoirs of their youth.

    So this is the vita contemplativa.
    The Pergamon's dark walls, white sculptures inside.
    A bust of Greek loveliness. So this is it.
    An altar before which no one prays.
    So this is the vita contemplativa.
    Happiness. A moment without an hour, in the words
    of the poet killed in Lublin by a bomb. So this is it.
    And what if, in this or another city, the vita activa
    burst forth once more, what would Artemis,
    fourth century B.C.E., do? Narcissus? Hermes?

    Pergamon faces watch me with envy
    — I still make mistakes, they can't.
    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.



    Dark gray houses and triangular bay windows,
    near a little park with German statues
    (pseudo-baroque from the thirties).
    Mrs. Kolmer took my picture there
    right after my First Communion
    against the backdrop of a freshly laundered sheet:
    I'm that chubby child. Earnest,
    upright, candle in hand.
    I'm a beginning Catholic,
    who struggles to tell good from evil,
    but doesn't know what divides them,
    especially at dawn and dusk, when
    for a long moment the light wavers.
    The poplar leaves in the garden are black,
    the light is black, the homes are black,
    the air's transparent, only the sheet is white.
    Color photos will come later
    to mute the contrasts and perhaps permit
    an ordinary life, splendid holidays,
    even a second communion.


    Parisian apartment houses fear neither wind nor imagination —
    they're solid paperweights,
    the antithesis of dreaming.

    White boats race the river, packed with crowds
    demanding greetings from the shore-bound;
    their champagne mood liquidates the past.

    A pair of wealthy tourists emerges from a cab
    in gleaming outfits; waiters serve them
    wearing frock coats whose cut is untouched by fashion.

    But the Luxembourg Gardens grow empty now,
    and become a vast, quiet herbarium;

    they don't recall all those who once
    strolled their avenues, who haven't noticed that they're dead.

    Mickiewicz lived here, and over there August Strindberg
    sought the philosopher's stone
    he never found.

    Dusk falls. Sober night approaches from the east,
    taciturn and troubled.
    Night comes from Asia, and asks no questions.

    Foreignness is splendid, a cold pleasure.
    Yellow lights illuminate the windows on the Seine
    (there's the real mystery: the life of others).

    I know — the city no longer holds secrets.
    But there are plane trees, squares, cafés, friendly streets,
    and the bright gaze of clouds that slowly dies.



    My father remembers next to nothing. With slight exceptions.
    Do you remember fixing transmitters for the Home Army?
    Of course I remember. Were you afraid?
    I don't remember. Was mother afraid? I don't know.
    The garden on Piaskowa Street? Sure.
    The scent of linden blossoms? No.
    Do you remember Mr. Romer? Sometimes.
    Skiing on Czantoria Mountain? I guess not.
    Do you remember infinity? No, I don't.
    But I'll see it soon. (He could say that.)



    In winter Joseph Street is dark,
    a few pilgrims flounder through wet snow
    and don't know where they're going, to which star,
    and maybe they stop short
    like the gardener, who leans
    against his shovel handle, dreaming,
    and doesn't see that war
    has unexpectedly erupted
    or that the hydrangea has bloomed.



    Because you didn't flow through my childhood.
    Because I didn't swim in your currents.
    Because even now, beneath the archaeologist's hand
    the same helmet grows, and the ancient swastika
    of a worse Rome. Because you might have been
    my sister, my prison, my
    salvation, the happiness of a summer day.
    Because you are memory, and your
    vowels sing a song
    that we don't want to understand.



    I dreamed of my distant city —
    it spoke the language of children and the injured,
    it spoke in many voices, rushing
    to shout one another down, like simple people suddenly admitted
    to the presence of a great official:
    "There is no justice," it cried; "All
    has been taken from us," it wailed loudly;
    "No one remembers us, not a soul";
    I saw feminists with dark eyes,
    petty nobles with forgotten family trees,
    judges wearing togas sewn of nettles
    and devout, exhausted Jews —
    but slowly, relentlessly
    the gray dawn drew near and the speakers faded,
    dimmed, submissively went back to their barracks
    like legions of toy soldiers,
    and then I heard completely different words:
    "Still there are miracles, not everyone believes,
    but miracles do happen ..." And waking, slowly,
    reluctantly departing the dream's bunker,
    I realized that the arguments continue,
    that nothing has been settled yet ...



    Piano lesson at the neighbors', Mr. and Mrs. J.
    I'm in their apartment for the first time,
    which smells different from ours (ours has no smell,
    or so I think). Everywhere carpets,
    thick Persian carpets. I know that they're Armenians,
    but don't know what that means. Armenians have carpets,

    dust wanders through the air, imported
    from Lvov, medieval dust.
    We don't have carpets or Middle Ages.
    We don't know who we are — maybe wanderers.
    Sometimes I think we don't exist. Only others are.
    The acoustics are great in our neighbors' apartment.

    It's quiet in this apartment. A piano stands in the room
    like a lazy, tamed predator — and in it,
    at its very heart, dwells music's black ball.
    Mrs. J told me right after the first
    or second lesson that I should take up languages
    since I showed no talent for music.

    I show no talent for music.
    I should take up languages instead.
    Music will always be elsewhere,
    inaccessible, in someone else's apartment.
    The black ball will be hidden elsewhere,
    but there may be other meetings, revelations.

    I went home, hanging my head,
    a little saddened, a little glad — home,
    where there was no smell of Persia, only amateur paintings,
    watercolors, and I thought with bitterness and pleasure
    that I had only language, only words, images,
    only the world.



    September 2005, we came back from vacation,
    sat down at the kitchen table
    covered in green oilcloth.
    Suddenly Nicola calls, asking, do you know
    that Paola Malavasi died
    suddenly, in the morning,
    on Sunday, at a hotel in Venice.
    No, I hadn't heard — those two words,
    died and Paola, met then
    for the first time.
    Paola had
    just turned forty,
    a pretty, smiling woman.
    She taught Greek and Latin at the high school,
    she wrote and translated poems.
    The word died is much older
    and never smiles.
    Some months have passed,
    and I still don't believe in her death.
    Paola studied life and poetry,
    antiquity and today.
    Nothing speaks to her death.
    She seems serene in the photographs,
    her face is defenseless and open.
    Her face still summons the future,
    but the future, distracted,
    now looks the other way.


    You come here like a stranger,
    but this is your family home.
    The currants, the apple and cherry trees don't know you.
    One noble tree readies
    a new brood of walnuts in peace,
    while the sun, like a worried first-grader,
    diligently colors in the shadows.
    The dining room pretends it is a crypt,
    and doesn't give out one familiar echo —
    the old conversations haven't lingered.
    There, where your life doubtless
    began, someone else's television stutters.
    But the cellar's been collecting darknesses —
    all the nights since you left
    are snarled like the yarn of an old sweater
    in which wild cats have nested.
    You come here like a stranger,
    but this is your family home.


    Imagine a dark city.
    It understands nothing. Silence reigns.
    And in the quiet bats like Ionian philosophers
    make sudden, radical decisions in mid-flight,
    filling us with admiration.
    Mute city. Blanketed in clouds.
    Nothing is known yet. Nothing.
    Sharp lightning cleaves the night.
    Priests, Catholic and Orthodox alike, rush to shroud
    their windows in deep blue velvet,
    but we go out
    to hear the rain's rustle
    and the dawn. Dawn always tells us something,



    Crouched like an embryo,
    crushed into the narrow seat,
    I try to remember
    the scent of fresh-cut hay
    when wooden carts descend
    in August from the mountain meadows,
    lurching down dirt roads
    and the driver cries out
    as men always do when they panic
    — they screamed that way in the Iliad
    and have never fallen silent since,
    not during the Crusades,
    or later, much later, near us,
    when no one listens.

    I'm tired, I think about what
    can't be thought — about the silence that reigns
    in forests when the birds sleep,
    about the coming end of summer.
    I hold my head in my hands
    as if shielding it from annihilation.
    Seen from outside I doubtless
    seem immobile, almost dead,
    resigned, deserving sympathy.
    But it's not so — I'm free,
    maybe even happy.
    Yes, I hold my heavy head
    in my hands,
    but inside it a poem is being born.


    He lives in France now,
    calmer and much weaker.
    He is the jewel in the crown. Favored
    with the monarch's friendship.
    The Loire rolls its waters slowly.
    He considers the projects
    he left unfinished.
    His right hand, half-paralyzed,
    has already departed.
    His left would also like to take its leave.
    And his heart, and his whole body.
    Islands of light still
    stand sentry.



    You sit on a bench, leafing through Benn's poems
    — noisy streets around you, an airplane overhead,
    the president-elect smiles uncertainly (it's just a poster).

    Children play in the sandbox,
    someone draws water from a rusty well
    (a rowan tree on the lawn — farther off the Art Exhibit Bureau).

    You turn pages scored with black lava
    and await the signal — who's won, the living city
    or the shadow of the poet long since gone,

    but at last silence comes, calmness —
    unexpectedly, from unknown quarters, there appears
    that je ne sais quoi you know so well.


    — we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves


    Flat days came to pass, when doubt governed,
    days of obvious accord.

    Summer cried loudly like vegetable sellers
    in Parisian markets.

    Lovers, spliced together on benches, began to tally
    future gains and losses,

    months of happiness and contention.

    June in Siena: on every small square the boys
    practiced their kettledrums before the Palio —

    the brown city quivered like troops before a battle.
    Dry lips waited for rain.


    When father hiked through the mountains, tireless,
    patient, sometimes for hours in the rain,
    under his cape, like bygone pilgrims
    trudging toward Spain, I thought
    that yes, of course, he'd cross the mild slopes
    and come one day to the other side,
    but I failed to account for sudden
    shifts in the terrain, the treacherous drops
    that always accompany
    the trails dotted with signposts for tourists,
    white, sky-blue, or red;
    the chasms have no color,
    shadows dwell there, and blackberries grow,
    sweet only in autumn.



    It's so hard, trying to write, be it
    at home, on a plane above the ocean,
    over a black forest, in the evening stillness.
    Always starting fresh, reaching
    full speed and fifteen minutes later
    giving up, in reluctant surrender.
    I hope that you at least can hear me,
    — since, as you know, the theoreticians remind us
    insistently, almost daily, that we've missed
    the point, as usual we've skipped
    the deeper meaning, we've been reading
    the wrong books, alas,
    we've drawn the wrong conclusions.
    They claim: poetry is fundamentally impossible,
    a poem is a hall where faces dissolve
    in a golden haze of spotlights, where the fierce
    rumblings of an angry mob drown out
    defenseless single voices.
    So what then? Fine words perish quickly,
    ordinary words rarely persuade.
    All the evidence suggests silentium
    claims only a handful of adherents.
    Sometimes I envy the dead poets,
    they no longer have "bad days," they don't know
    "ennui," they've parted ways with "vacancy,"
    "rhetoric," rain, low-pressure zones,
    they've stopped following the "shrewd reviews,"
    but they keep speaking to us.
    Their doubts vanished with them,
    their rapture lives.

    JANUARY 27

    Frosty day. A winter sun. White breath.
    But on this Friday we didn't know
    what to celebrate and what to mourn —
    it was Holocaust Memorial Day
    and Mozart's birthday.
    Our memory was perplexed.
    Our imagination lost its way.
    The candle on the windowsill wept
    (we'd been asked to light candles),
    but the gentle music of young Mozart
    reached us from the speakers, rococo,
    the age of silver wigs and not the gray hair
    we knew from Auschwitz,
    the age of costumes, not of nakedness,
    hope and not despair.
    Our memory was perplexed,
    our imagination grew lost in thought.


Excerpted from Unseen Hand by Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh. Copyright © 2009 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; A Defense of Ardor; and Eternal Enemies—all published by FSG. He lives in Chicago and Kraków.

Clare Cavanagh is a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and has also translated the poetry of Wyslawa Szymborska.

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