Both Light and Shadow... The Work of Adam Zagajewski
For the 70th birthday of Adam Zagajewski on the 21st of June 2015, a5 Press prepared a bilingual Polish-English anthology of essays devoted to the works of the poet. The book both light and shadow...The work of Adam Zagajewski edited by Professor Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel contains over twenty carefully chosen texts from authors of different ages and nationalities who are fascinated by the poems and the essays of the jubilarian.
The cast of authors brought together in this volume is truly impressive. Besides the essay from Derek Walcott, laureate of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature who once called Adam Zagajewski a 'secular mystic', other texts were written by some of the most distinguished poets such as Edward Hirsch, C.K. Williams, and Michael Krüger. They are accompanied by the never before published voices of Clare Cavanagh and Xavier Farré on their experiences of translating Zagajewski’s poems, which let us see the translation process.
The poetry of Zagajewski is anachronistic, except if the soul is a certainty. He has approximated poetry to prayer, and throughout this collection there is something of the hushed psalter, the whisper of hermetic, even monkish meditation. We feel as if we are eavesdropping on a man's prayers – or, if we were the State, listening to a playback of his bugged meditations. This is why they speak so ravishingly of the soul of Poland: his poems are not declarative, like those of his contemporaries, but almost secret, with the pain and the privilege of secrecy.
The first of the outstanding literary critics is the American legend, Susan Sontag. Prominent Swedish writers and translators, Marie Lundquist, Anders Bodegård, and Lars Kleberg contribute as well. The book would not be complete without the Polish critics, who have been supporting the poet for years. For instance Barbara Toruńczyk, Tadeusz Nyczek, Tadeusz Sobolewski, or Jarosław Klejnocki cast a light on the 'black legend' of the Polish response to Zagajewski’s works. Two poems dedicated to our poet by Renate Schmidgall and Charles Simic are the icing on the cake.
Adam Zagajewski’s poems put us in the presence of great mysteries. They deliver us to something that is deep and strange and perhaps even unlimited within ourselves. They have a strong kinship with prayer, a paradoxical feeling for truth, a fiery sense of quest, and a keen longing for radiance.
Adam Zgajewski is a Pole, and clearly the many Polish headaches, a large number of which were caused by Germans, not to mention Germany, but also by Russians and of course by the Poles themselves – clearly the many Polish headaches have left their mark in his Polish writing. However, and this is the overhelmingly beautiful thing about his work, through a long and complicated process Adam Zagajewski managed to extricate his head from the political noose. And whatever means that took, he found or regained the clarity to create a body of work that is unique in its combination of poetic reflection and authorial practice. This development is already clear in an essay from Solidarity, Solitude, an exciting book in every respect, in which our laureate attempts to describe the changes not only in their political but also in their cultural perspective. Zagajewski’s ability to sense mutations, flaws and tiny distortions, his appreciation of contingency and chance, and his awareness that the new is always a variant of the old – that the old forms remain recognizable even through new forms of interaction – all make this book hugely charming and engaging. This is hardly a treatise that simply runs from A to B only then to be done with the subject.
The tone of the commentary by authors from outside of Poland places the Polish poet and essayist among the world’s most prized men of letters. 'What I felt when I first encountered Adam Zagajewski’s poetry in the mid-1980s' was a tremor with 'emanations of joy, gravity, thoughtfulness, surprise, delight, energy, shrewdness, a razor’s edge of historical unease, and unapologetic feeling for the motley terrain of being. I had that awareness one has when first encountering a substantial poet – a new continent has arisen from the sea of idle words', recalls Baron Wormser.
Zagajewski is a secular mystic. (One of his volumes of verse is called 'Mysticism for Beginners', though he is no beginner.) For him, concentrically, the poem revolvesback to is nub, its core, in the way that the white rose of light revolves in 'Paradis' toward the close of the 'Divine Comedy', inviolable in its innocence. With him the soul is as visible in its manifestations as actual fabric, as a linden leaf or a pair of weathered boots. The soul may find itself even in a black, polluted canal. There are louder reputations than his own, there is the theatrically thunderous Miłosz and the irratingly oblique Herbert; but this is the voice of a soft-spoken man, with the conversational pitch of a seraph or a convict, a prisoner of the sublime who often achieves grandeur without changing tone.
After these and other such words incoming from various parts of the world, one cannot shake the impression that Adam Zagajewski did not have it easy on the Polish book market. One can ponder the nature of the Polish literary life, where one would be pressed to find equally balanced and well-argued texts (not counting the representation in both light and shadow… and a few others). In Poland, the voices that were prevailing were those filled with skepticism and distrust.
Very often – in particular among the generations of poets debuting after the breakthrough of 1989 – mixed with jealousy and even envy. In his essay, Jarosław Klejnocki recounts an anecdote of the Polish cauldron in hell, which the devils need not guard, because any unfortunate soul trying to escape is always dragged back inside by his own countrymen. Which, in the case of Zagajewski, finds a grim confirmation – sad, but true.
Last but not least – in the present category – is the poet’s media image. Zagajewski appears on television as an upright, distanced, and contemplative person. Many times I have heard him called a “square.” This is also the nature of the media, because many of us are more prone to see how someone looks, rather than listen to how he or she speaks. And Adam Zagajewski is a person who is full of cutting humor; his opinions and diagnoses are full of subtle irony and self-effacement, not to mention brilliance. Whoever has met him knows that he is among the most intelligent of Polish intellectuals. We can see, however, in our brave new times, that what was once an advantage has become more of a liability to one’s image. […] I believe that Zagajewski is simply not understood, as his literature requires erudition, being well-read, and a philosophical sensitivity. One searches in vain for these virtues among many contemporary young poets who, being simply incapable of grasping the content of Zagajewski’s poems, prefer to criticize the loftiness he so defends.
The poet himself expresses the opinion that a person living, like nowadays, in times when 'only the lower things win applause, and the higher things are seen as purely rhetorical constructs, a kind of educated flim-flam' would have to despair.
Tadeusz Sobolewski underlines that Zagajewski’s poetry adopts an idyllic tone; but it is precisely in the classic idyll that shadows and death are always present, as in Poussin’s mysterious painting Et in Arcadia ego.
Beauty and horror always come together’ – this key sentence in Adam Zagajewski’s poetry (though the stress falls on the beauty) does not signify a flight from the world’s problems. It resounds like a challenge. […] It is good to read Zagajewski’s poems alternately with his essays – beginning with Solidarity, Solitude, first published under martial law. The title had a provocative ring to it. Zagajewski was affiliated with the dissident movement and published underground; he refused to mourn, not wanting to adopt the role of the poet who suffered for the homeland.
According to Susan Sontag, the essence of Zagajewski’s essay Solidarity, Solitude lies in the fact that 'solitude erodes solidarity; solidarity corrupts solitude.' The acuteness of the author of that essay according to Sontag springs from being a writer from a 'lacerated corner of the world', which determines a 'species of remembering.' As proof, she quotes another book of his – Another Beauty:
I didn’t witness the extermination of the Jews. I was born too late. I bore witness, though, to the gradual process by which Europe recovered its memory. This memory moved slowly, more like a lazy, lowland river than a mountain stream, but it finally, unambiguously condemned the evil of the Holocaust and the Nazis, and the evil of Soviet civilization as well (though in this it was less successful, as if reluctant to admit that two such monstrosities might simultaneously coexist).
In the afterword to the anniversary book Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel writes that the voices gathered in it were from various times and for many reasons. Some were recently written for this jubilee, but even in these we find something that goes beyond ordinary birthday greetings – a very personal tone, speaking of something unexpected that occurred in an encounter with literature. […] The diverse testimonies and styles of reception are joined by one thing – a trust in what Adam Zagajewski has to say.
The authors of this book consider Zagajewski to be their dear friend. Regardless of whether this friendship arises from a shared belonging to a single Republic of Poets, or whether this is merely an intellectual affinity, or based on a private familiarity born on personal contact with his work. This capacity to feel closeness from afar comes, above all, with the work of the translator, but every attentive reader also has the chance to feel it.
That is what we should wish for the jubilarian – a large group of fans authentically interested in poetry.
i cień i światło... both light and shadow... The work of Adam Zagajewski
Edited by Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel
Artistic design by Władysław Pluta
a5 Press, Kraków 2015
Dimensions: 150 x 210 mm , pages: 256/256
Binding: Hardcover with jacket
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, June 2015Janusz R. Kowalczyk