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,
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.