Mysticism for Beginners, Adam Zagajewski
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavenagh
Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) is a new poet to me, discovered on reading Tim Beck’s article, The Other Half of a Poem. I did a bit of reading and research and in sum found that Zagajewski began as a protest poet of the Polish “New Wave.” He felt that poetry should address current social needs, incorporating but not serving politics and using unambiguous language. Poetry should undermine communist double-speak. Not surprisingly, Zagajewski was exiled from Poland in 1982.
Zagajewski I found is generally well-considered by his peers, though there are some who criticize him (Czeslaw Milosz is one) for being “one-dimensional.”
I sent for three of Zagajewski’s books. Mysticism for Beginners is among them. I find the poems in this collection beguiling and disquieting at once.
From Vermeer’s Little Girl
“Oh, Vermeer’s little girl, oh pearl
blue turban: you are all light
and I am made of shadow.
Light looks down on shadow
with forbearance, perhaps pity.”
From The Traveler
“putting his hand to his chest, checking warily
to make sure he still had his return ticket
to the ordinary places we all live”
From Holy Saturday in Paris
“And two-headed doubts
slim as antelopes,
barricade the street
Lord why did you die”
A week after the Twin Towers collapsed, The New Yorker magazine ran Zagajewski’s Try to Praise the Mutilated World on the final page of its special 9/11 issue along with W.S. Merwin’s To the Words. It became – according to a Newsweek article – “the best known poem in decades.” The poem was not inspired by 9/11. It was written a few years before.
“You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.”
So, yes: an intriguing poet full of shadow and light and two-headed doubts.
© poetry, Zagajewsik; the photograph of Vemeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earing is in the public domain; thumbs up courtesy of Public Domain Files.