Eternal Enemies

Eternal Enemies

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The highway became the Red Sea.

We moved through the storm like a sheer valley.

You drove; I looked at you with love.

—from "Storm"

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 books—people such as Milosz and Sebald, Brodsky and Blake—which intermingle naturally with portraits of family members and loved ones. Eternal Enemies is a luminous meeting of art and everyday life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374531607
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/31/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,198,425
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About 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 Ardor—all published by FSG. He lives in Paris and Houston.

Read an Excerpt

Eternal Enemies

By Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Adam Zagajewski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-53160-7



    I returned to you years later,
    gray and lovely city,
    unchanging 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.



    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.


    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.


    It will be disappointed if it swoops down
    on sheet iron, on gas,
    on a tape of tawdry music,
    on our narrow hearts.


    It shines from afar, white and cautious,
    like a lantern for shadows.

    5. SEGESTA

    On the meadow a vast temple —
    a wild animal
    open to the sky.

    6. SUMMER

    Summer was gigantic, triumphant —
    and our little car looked lost
    on the road going to Verdun.


    In the underground tunnel
    cigarette butts grow,
    not daisies.
    It stinks of loneliness.


    They're learning to walk
    on land.

    9. GULLS

    Eternity doesn't travel,
    eternity waits.
    In a fishing port
    only the gulls are chatty.


    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.
    I'm alive.


    At the bottom of the valley
    a Romanesque church at rest:
    there's wine in this cask.

    13. LIGHT

    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 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.


    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.



    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.



    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.


    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

    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
    erase nothing.


    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.



    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.
    It's absorbing,
    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,
    tossing snowballs
    at our windows.


    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.



    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,
    in silence.

    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.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
En Route,
Music in the Car,
The Swallows of Auschwitz,
Stolarska Street,
Karmelicka Street,
Long Street,
Tadeusz Kantor,
The Power Cinema,
The Church of Corpus Christi,
Was It,
Describing Paintings,
Poetry Searches for Radiance,
The Diction Teacher Retires from the Theater School,
In a Little Apartment,
The Orthodox Liturgy,
Rome, Open City,
The Sea,
Reading Milosz,
Walk Through This Town,
Ordinary Life,
Music Heard with You,
At the Cathedral's Foot,
Impossible Friendships,
Rain Drop,
In a Strange City,
Bogliasco: The Church Square,
Two-Headed Boy,
Our World,
Small Objects,
Defending Poetry, Etc.,
Subject: Brodsky,
Self-Portrait, Not Without Doubts,
Old Marx,
To the Shade of Aleksander Wat,
Night Is a Cistern,
Evening, Stary Sacz,
Notes from a Trip to Famous Excavations,
Traveling by Train Along the Hudson,
The Greeks,
Great Ships,
Erinna of Telos,
Of Kingdoms,
Submerged City,
New Year's Eve, 2004,
No Childhood,
Music Heard,
Old Marx (2),
Organ Tuning,
Firemen's Helmets,
A Bird Sings in the Evening,
Wait for an Autumn Day,
Kathleen Ferrier,
Life Is Not a Dream,
It Depends,
America's Sun,
Antennas in the Rain,
Also by Adam Zagajewski,
About the Authors,

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Eternal Enemies 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.