Personal Histories

Personal Histories

New collections by Adam Zagajewski and Julia Hartwig suggest that postwar Polish verse can’t be reduced to “poetry of witness.”


Anyone doubting the prominent place that Polish poetry now occupies in the American literary landscape need only examine the books published these past few springs, the time of year when publishers large and small try to indulge readers’ senses before the lighter summer fare insults their intelligence. Among the heftier recent offerings, there was a new Selected Poems by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and, last year, The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert, two poets who have found avid readers in the United States since the 1960s and who have also been instrumental in teaching Americans how to read poetry from the other Europe. In the past, that reading strategy has often meant scanning the poem for reassurances and confirmations of our most convenient verdicts on historical catastrophe. Indeed, it has been all too easy for readers otherwise unfamiliar with Poland’s postwar poetic traditions to reduce its rich engagement with nature, philosophy and personal experience to a “poetry of witness” or verse “initiated by the apocalyptic fires of history,” as Edward Hirsch has described the work of Milosz and Herbert, among others. This year, indispensable collections from two Polish poets, Adam Zagajewski and Julia Hartwig, ask us to unlearn what we have been taught.

Eternal Enemies is Zagajewski’s fifth book of poetry in English. It is also his most cohesive and moving to date, in no small part because it transcends the categories most frequently imposed on Polish poets by Anglophone readers. The forceful engagement with historical questions that initially attracted British and American readers to Polish poetry is present here, certainly, but the work is also irreducible to vaguely familiar events or the beatitudes about suffering and tragedy often cherished by those who have not lived through them. Rather, Zagajewski is a refreshingly incurable nostalgist: wherever he is, he cannot extract himself from distant places and people, nor can he ignore a past that is no less palpable for having been conceived in reverie.

This has always been true of Zagajewski’s work, and it is difficult to imagine how it could have been otherwise. Soon after he was born, in war-torn Lvov in 1945, his native city was ceded to Soviet Ukraine. Like Herbert, also from Lvov, Zagajewski discovered the unfortunate possibility of living in exile within one’s native land. The same longing he expressed in the question “why must every city/become Jerusalem and every man a Jew”–from “To Go to Lvov,” a classic early poem–becomes a declaration of the poet’s own changes in “Star,” which opens the new collection and is quoted here in its entirety:

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.

Most of the poems in Eternal Enemies are about wandering “in the maze/of narrow streets and illusions,” about how the poet’s existential center–his Jerusalem–does not change, no matter how much he is displaced from it. In “Star,” Zagajewski most likely has in mind Krakow, where he spent his student years and now makes his home. (Long affiliated with the creative writing program at the University of Houston, he now teaches fall semesters at the University of Chicago.) But the sites and locales to which Zagajewski frequently refers are only ever half real. The other half belongs to a mnemonic ideal, a center of gravity or “brightness” that guides the poet–whether to his salvation or over a cliff, it does not matter. The journey is “without end,” as the title of Zagajewski’s 2002 volume of new and selected poems puts it.

The double life of place–as concrete geography and personal myth–plays out beautifully in Eternal Enemies, which is largely about the dynamic interplay of attraction and separation, as the poet suggests in “Epithalamium”:

Only in marriage do love and time,
eternal enemies, join forces.
Only love and time, when reconciled,
permit us to see other beings
in their enigmatic, complex essence,
unfolding slowly and certainly, like a new settlement
in a valley or among green hills.

Even in this understated wedding poem, Zagajewski cannot forgo the representation of a person’s “enigmatic, complex essence” as a place: an area seen from a distance and perhaps navigable, but only in the way one might plot a course while standing over a map. At street level, life becomes much more confusing. “Love and time” rarely “join forces,” but in these poems they may be coaxed into tenuous alliance, enabling the poet to play archaeologist in his own life, whether he is wandering the streets of an ancient city in “Notes From a Trip to Famous Excavations” (“You notice campaign slogans on the walls/and know that the elections ended long ago”) or, in “Genealogy,” looking at photographs of people long dead:

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.

A reader predisposed to detect a political subtext in the opening of those “secret archives” would not be disappointed by these poems. Zagajewski, who came of age in the late 1960s, belongs to the so-called New Wave of Polish writers who emerged from politically troubled times behind the Iron Curtain, and he continues to refer to the darker side of Poland’s past, sometimes in an oblique verbal echo, sometimes more explicitly. Here are several lines from “The Swallows of Auschwitz”: “In the barracks’ quiet,/in the silence of a summer Sunday,/the swallows’ shrill cry.” What may seem a muted evocation of horror to the American reader, however, is also a direct, literal description of a place, one that would be familiar to the majority of Zagajewski’s Polish readers. This is Zagajewski’s special talent, a sensibility born of his constant longing to be somewhere, sometime or something other than where, when and what he is. The more attentively he observes the world, the more alien it appears to poet and reader alike.

Consider the poems in the book’s first section, simultaneously wondrous and mundane, centered on the poet’s experience of Krakow after years in Paris, Houston and Chicago. “The small crowd by the American consulate/ripples like a jellyfish in water,” Zagajewski writes in “Stolarska Street.” “A young Dominican strides down the sidewalk/and passersby yield piously./I’m at home again, silent as a Buddhist.” On Stolarska Street, in the oldest part of Krakow, a local resident might pass the people waiting in front of the consulate and the friars walking in and out of the church several times each day without notice, but it becomes a strangely bewildering sight when imagination must stand in for experience, as it must for many readers. Even the poet seems elsewhere, picturing this scene alongside other places and times: “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.”

Zagajewski attaches himself to a vision of the everyday, but this vision remains vulnerable to invasion by fantasy. Frighteningly erudite and occasionally contentious in his prose, he is too well traveled not to be exotic to both American and Polish readers. As he writes in “Ordinary Life,” dedicated to Clare Cavanagh, his longtime translator, “Ordinary life desires.” Her facility in conveying this everyday longing for the strange or imaginative is in part why Cavanagh is by far Zagajewski’s best translator, though his early work also enjoyed the attentions of other exceptional proxies, including C.K. Williams, Benjamin Ivry and Renata Gorczynska. On the one hand, Cavanagh, who has also translated poems by Wislawa Szymborska, has an acutely trained ear for the nuances of Zagajewski’s Polish; she knows how to orchestrate his careful tonal shifts between assertion and reflection, moves that might otherwise sound flatly ruminative. On the other hand, she is intimately familiar with the people and places in Krakow and elsewhere that spring the poet into his mental excavations. What he knows, she seems to know as well. What appears mysterious to him is then conveyed as mystery to us.

More than anything else, this willingness to transcend the ordinary by passing through it, to reach beyond the immediate circumstances of the poem’s composition, confirms the value of Zagajewski for American readers and the inadequacy of the interpretations sometimes foisted upon him. In the 1980s, when he was living in Paris and slowly coming to the attention of writers in the West, it made some sense to trace the roots of his poems and essays to the experience of Soviet totalitarianism. But even then he was calling for something more, an attention to the rumblings of the earth that does not lose sight of how life is lived on the ground, in minutes and days rather than epochs. Zagajewski suggests this principle beautifully in the preface to Solidarity, Solitude, the first of four prose collections to appear in English: “The riddle itself is not distinctly Polish or Eastern-European but universal, because we all have rather complicated identities and we all live in a strangely multidimensional world.” And in the poem “Reading Milosz,” which shares its title and its intellectual rigor with Robert Hass’s seminal 1984 essay, the desire to be transported by lyrical precision is tempered by the actual, unremarkable experience of reading:

Sometimes your tone
transforms us for a moment,
we believe–truly–
that every day is sacred,

that poetry–how to put it?–
makes life rounder,
fuller, prouder, unashamed
of perfect formulation.

But evening arrives,
I lay my book aside,
and the city’s ordinary din resumes–
somebody coughs, someone cries and curses.

As in his earlier books, many of Zagajewski’s poems reflect on artists and writers who have inspired him. In Eternal Enemies, however, that inspiration is most readily born in moments of weakness or failure, the necessary return to earth after a flight of fancy. In “Subject: Brodsky,” another poem dedicated to a Nobel Prize-winning poet who made a home in Western literature, Zagajewski sardonically notes that the late Russian poet had his own political party, “Poetry versus the Infinite,/or PVI, if you prefer abbreviations,” but that this imposing intellect was at his best when he exposed “the almost timid smile,/the momentary doubt, the hesitation,/the tiny pause in flawless arguments.”

This fondness for flaw is equally evident in Julia Hartwig’s long-belated debut collection in English, appropriately titled In Praise of the Unfinished. Hartwig was born in 1921 and is more than a generation older than Zagajewski, but she also spent several years teaching poetry in the United States in the 1970s. With her late husband, Artur Miedzyrzecki–himself an underappreciated poet and essayist–she has been a tireless and prolific translator of French and American poetry into Polish. (She is especially acclaimed for her work on Guillaume Apollinaire and, more recently, Sylvia Plath, as well as for an influential anthology of American poetry published in the early 1990s.) Heretofore available only in occasional anthologies, sometimes in uneven renderings, her poems are no less conversant with the American poetic tradition than are Zagajewski’s. In “Translating American Poets,” Hartwig explains that it is the American concentration on personal experience–our ubiquitous self-obsessions–that she finds so refreshing:

This is the dowry you bring
in poems not aiming at greatness but showing the calendar of ordinariness
seen through the eyes of a farmer a neurotic and hypochondriac
a dipsomaniac a nymphomaniac a tramp
brimming with life trampled by a gang of misfortunes and failures
proud of democracy and cursing its abuses
It is wonderful to be able to look at one’s own country
like at a man whose virtues and vices can be discussed without fear

The political implications of the closing two lines are unmistakable, but they are not pitched as criticism. Sure, American poets are “neurotic,” and our “gang of misfortunes and failures” may seem trivial when compared with the tragedies that poets of Hartwig’s generation endured under Nazism and communism. If anything, however, Hartwig admires in her American counterparts the opportunity to pick apart “virtues and vices” of man and country alike, to engage in the verbal dissection of subjectivity that is poetry’s province. Such a pronouncement has a definite historical and political context, but to read it myopically as testimony about the past is to miss the point: there is nothing in these lines that does not apply just as well to today’s world, or tomorrow’s.

While Hartwig does not shy away from reflections on historical trauma or engagement with other great voices from the past century–like Eternal Enemies, this book includes one poem on Czeslaw Milosz, another on Joseph Brodsky–her most impressive poems revel in doubts about their observations and conclusions. In “Rebuke,” memory itself is chastised for its eagerness in seeking embellishment:

Lawless memory you project
whatever you like on a screen
ignoring our expectations
Cunning one
you make false pacts with dreams
thoughtlessly confusing faces and gestures
turning those close to us into strangers
giving strangers unearned familiarity

Similarly, in “A Confession,” a piece that calls to mind Milosz’s poem of the same title, Hartwig wonders aloud, “What is the value of a being whose testimony is so frail and uncertain?” She receives a provocative reassurance: “For only you, among the different species, know the dignity of your weakness.” And finally, in the impressive poem “Tombstone,” quoted here in full, what is missing from the image is also what lends it weight:

They are saying good-bye.
Two women stretch out their hands.
A girl takes leave of her mother.
Next to them the father, lost in thought.
Here lies Aristilla, daughter of a rich merchant, loved by her parents.
 She died in Piraeus, 240 years before the birth of Christ.
On a neighboring stele another young woman extends her hand for
 an apple that a beloved young man is picking from a tree.
Nearby, a child clasping a dove.
Hermes is standing at the edge of the broken slab. He looks into
 darkness. Where the art of the sculptor doesn’t reach.

Most of Hartwig’s poems are written either in carefully punctuated prose or in unpunctuated verse, where line breaks and tonal movement determine the pauses. Hartwig shares these strategies with Zbigniew Herbert, and it may be that years of translating Herbert have prepared John and Bogdana Carpenter for the spare elegance of the translations produced here. Whereas Herbert would almost inevitably follow the god’s gaze far beyond the edge of the slab, however, Hartwig is intent on the moment when real life takes on the faintest patina of myth, where the broken pieces of a funeral marker suggest possibilities that the poet is happy to leave to the reader’s imagination.

Elsewhere, Hartwig has described her approach to poetry as one wedded to the actual but continuously open to the imaginative: “If the attitude toward reality is the nerve center of every aesthetic, whether in literature or in art, visible reality has always been a constant point of reference for me…. The truth about it, the image of it accessible to us, at the same time carries us in the most extraordinary way into an invisible sphere…. The experience of reality thus becomes a kind of transcendent experience.” She ironically dubs this attitude “reality mysticism.” Much as the experiences and lyric strategies of Hartwig and Zagajewski differ, the term might apply just as cleanly to his poems, where history is almost always personal.

In this way, the poems of Hartwig and Zagajewski demand to be read with a much broader purview than historical contextualization can provide. The American and British reception of Central European poetry has long been restricted by the notion of a “poetry of witness,” an interpretive model that frames the poem as testimony and moral judgment about historical injustices. Popularized in Britain by Al Alvarez, who ushered such poets as Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub into English in the 1960s, the concept took root here with the publication of Carolyn Forché’s popular anthology Against Forgetting (1993), itself a masterpiece of revisionist history and interpretive myopia. “Poetry of witness” has since become a reductive, totalizing rubric, one that not only cordons off those aspects of a poem that do not function as testimony but that also equates history unambiguously with catastrophic political events. When we consider poets from unfamiliar traditions, such simplifications become overwhelming and, more often than not, lead to blurbery, such as when a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle declares Hartwig’s poems “a shining example of gifted witnessing” and insists on a Holocaust reference in a poem where there is none. What really suits Zagajewski and Hartwig to the American context, however, is how they are most comfortable witnessing themselves. What makes them unusual is that they write about the ultimate incomprehensibility of experience with a directness that has become démodé in the United States, and with a sobriety that is unattainable when historical catastrophe is merely fetishized as part of an emotional exercise.

At the same time, Hartwig hardly shies away from events of wider historical significance. Her poem “Classmates” recounts how the poet ran into two Jewish girls from her school “on the border of a freshly created ghetto,” both of them looking “as if something shameful happened to them.” “Towers,” meanwhile, considers the space left by the World Trade Center, how “the eyes do not want to accept a void/and draw the familiar contours in the air.” But like Zagajewski, Hartwig generally touches these moments lightly, exposing the point where, as in the act of visualizing buildings missing from a skyline that “still dazzles,” imagination and reality meet. As Charles Simic and Mark Strand astutely observe in their introduction to Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers (1976), the sadly out-of-print anthology in which many American readers encountered Milosz and Herbert, among others, for the first time, “in history nothing changes except the names.” If Zagajewski and Hartwig are to occupy a permanent place in American letters, as they deserve to, it will be because their work transcends these changes, or at least views them at eye level. As Zagajewski concludes in “Life Is Not a Dream,” one of the last poems in his book,

And life went on, inevitable life,
so skeptical, so practiced,
coming back to us so insistently
that one day we felt the taste of ordinary failure,
of common tragedy upon our lips,
which was a kind of triumph.

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