Diary: On Adam Zagajewski
By Ann Kjellberg, editor
I was so startled by the death last night of Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, because he always seemed, though he had apparently somehow become seventy-five, like a young man. I knew him in the company of Joseph Brodsky, for whom I worked in the eighties and nineties, and Joseph’s friends. In that crowd Adam was a junior member. But it wasn’t just that. He had this eyebrow-cocked devilishness and puckish curiosity that danced a bit above their sometimes ponderous self-understandings. Shyness was perhaps a feature. That crowd used to gather boisterously, full of jokes and one-upmanship, like roughhousing kids or dogs. Adam would stand slightly back of the circle, smiling observantly, on cue for a pause to unfurl one of his long, slow sentences, which would be met with general backslapping. A characteristic Adam sentence built toward a pause at the end heralding the unexpected closer, which he would deliver with a wry meet of the eye. Perhaps he paced himself in this way because he was mustering his English, but the effect was of delicious deliberateness. The last time I saw him was at a tribute to Derek Walcott in London after Walcott’s death. I was surprised to find him there, an unexpected Continental visitor, but it turned out they had become separate friends. It was hard to picture! Shy Adam and domineering Derek. Adam so pale and reticent that his eyebrows popped out like punctuation—in the enveloping sun and bonhomie of Derek’s annual raucus birthday gatherings in St. Lucia. Derek’s hypnotic music and Adam’s deceptively quotidian vers libre. At a gathering after Joseph’s death I will never forget Adam and Milosz answering my question about the relationship between Russian and Polish verse (Russian borrowed its forms from Polish, but then Polish, under the influence of French, moved away from formal poetry): we think of Russian poetry, they said, as “one long song.” The vowels in that sentence are still in my ear.
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Like Milosz Adam did not translate himself, but he had an active life in English-speaking countries as a teacher and literary presence. He stayed with his brilliant translator, Clare Cavanagh, though her own busy career could not keep time with his oeuvre. He knew how important it was not just for his legacy but for his daily life that he be a real poet in English. One had this feeling then of the two careers running side by side: the Polish Zagajewski was there but just out of reach, conveyed like an unseen familiar by this courtly ambassador. Was part of his diffidence an unwillingness to submit to translating his whole self?
What I found wondrous in his work was that he fully maintained the sense of high poetic purpose that emerged from poetry’s experience of the Middle- and Eastern-European twentieth century, but fused it with a kind of lightness and weightlessness, and a fealty to the simplicity of lived experience. When a poem of Zagajewski’s went for a walk, it was not just a trope. This departure from what we might think of as the Slavic manner (in company with his friend Wisława Szymborska, who made dailiness a signature) was partly attributable to an assimilation of French sensibilities. Zagajewski was an elective Parisian for decades, and French presences were long latent in Polish culture. One saw in Adam’s work: the philosophical bent, and the balancing tendency to temper ratiocination with the everyday pleasure of existing. It also, though, seemed natural to Adam. His ever-awake curiosity was poised on the top of his great learning like a little elf on a mountain range. The Adam who was transported by Mahler was the same Adam marveling as the sun spread over the treetops.
I wish I had visited him in Poland after he returned there from Paris in 2002. An impulse toward homecoming seemed slightly at odds with his cosmopolitan persona; I would have liked to see how it played out. It seems the Polish Adam whom we never quite knew in New York and Chicago and Houston and Paris and St. Lucia gave us the slip and lived out its days, a being at one with its language.
I wish I could recommend a book of Adam’s, but I am unable to choose. Start anywhere, poetry or prose. Every door is easily entered with his work. One of Walcott’s favorite poems was “To Go to Lvov.” Here’s a picture of me finding it for him to read aloud, from my copy of Adam’s first book of poems in English, Tremor. (It can now be found in the reassuringly entitled Without End: New and Selected Poems.)
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