The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: August 1, 2007

My first encounter with Adam Zagajewski’s Without End: New and Selected Poems was a bit discouraging: read the first poem, thought it was really good, moved on to others and met a solid blank wall. On the second attempt things went better, a few poems presented intriguing sides, but I wasn’t convinced. The first section in this collection were his newer works, so I thought I may find the selections from the older releases more engaging. Before I could set on my course I caught the last poem in the “New” section and remembered that it had been published in the New Yorker after 9/11.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flred.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

My favourite part was the last four lines. I wasn’t particularly moved by it — too many of the sentiments conveyed, and, more importantly, how they were conveyed was a little too unoriginal for me (dare I say clichéd?). Or I may mean “ordinary”. I like the last four lines because they broke from the previous pattern; the brevity, the repetition, the rhythm made the content more vibrant. It was enough to make me flip back to see what I had missed.

To my delight I read quite a few poems that I really responded to. The one on showcase today is “Barbarians”.

We were the barbarians.
You trembled before us in your palaces.
You awaited us with pounding hearts.
You commented on our languages:
they apparently consist of consonants alone,
of rustles, whispers, and dry leaves
We were those who lived in the dark forests.
We were what Ovid feared in Tomi,
we were the worshippers of gods with names
you could not pronounce.
But we too knew loneliness
and fear, and began longing for poetry.

Here one of my favourite openings, a complete statement a first line, works to great effect. The eyes focus, the mind is engaged, the chest tightens a bit, and you’re hooked. (When it’s done well anyway.)

The word “barbarians” has a pejorative connotation but in the poem it’s written boldly and claimed with a sort of pride. The more civilized “You”, in contrast, is depicted as arrogant, but fearful and ignorant. The predominant repetition of the “You”s in the first half and the “We”s in the second emphasize the divide between the two groups; and the use of the barbarian “We” in the first line eclipses the civilized pronoun.

Despite this the poem is not a simple triumphant narrative of barbarians scaling the walls. The sharp declaratives of the first half change to longer, more thoughtful lines that reveal a vulnerability. That vulnerability was fear, so the barbarians were not that different after all, and from that fear sprung a desire for poetry. This darker, more sombre origin of poetical genesis struck a strange (but not displeasing) note for me because of my immediately positive associations with poems. Sylvia Plath has achieved popularity for her twisted musings, but the image of poetry in the public eye is still warm, quaint aphorisms or love letters ready made in fourteen lines. Those lines forced me to look at it from a different perspective, something more urgent and elemental than leisurely pleasure.

From a wider view on poetry’s function one can narrow on to the issue of language. The Ovid reference is about the last years of the poet’s life when he was banished from Rome, exiled in Tomi. The residents there, though originally from a Greek city, had taken to barbaric (Goth) languages with very few left who spoke any Hellenic tongue. Although Ovid eventually became more friendly with the barbarians there, for a long time he despised them and despaired for the loss of his language. Zagajewski first language is Polish (the poems are translated) and I could not help but be reminded of the current distribution of languages. English-speaking countries are notoriously antagonistic to the idea of being bilingual, and in general are indifferent to other languages. One country in particular resists the idea because it is directly connected, in its mind, to the barbarian hordes at the gate (or border) ready to take over. (What will we do when we all have to learn Mandarin?)

Essentially this poem is about humanity’s inherent need for poetry, not out of joy, necessarily, and the inevitable permeability of our differences.

(Both poems were translated by Clare Cavanagh)


For other Summer Poetry Challenge entries here are my posts on “Persephone the Wanderer” by Louise Gluck and Paradise Lost by John Milton. (I may eventually list then in the sidebar but it’s too late to do that now.) I’m trying to be engaged with the Komunyakaa but it’s not working; we’ll see how that goes. (Maybe I’ll do a last minute replacement with something else?) I’ll try to get my SoC post on the Hardwick novel some time today or tomorrow. July’s reading marathon has left me reluctant to engage with much fiction at the moment.


6 Responses to "Barbarians"

I really liked the second poem.

When I was in Russia, one of our professors (who didn’t really like Americans, and missed the USSR) had us over for a lunch. Although none of us really liked her, we all went, and we helped her cook, and laid out the table, and helped clean up everything afterwards.

Then we found at that she had told another professor that we were barbarians, because we had left some food on our plates.

Regardless of cultural differences, what most struck me was that the Russian equivalant of ‘barbarbian’ was evidently more common than the English one. It makes me wonder if Polish is the same way. 🙂 Of course, since he references Ovid, I’m sure he meant it the way it sounded in English!

As far as learning other languages, the US education system is definitely not up to snuff. However, everyone I knew who grew up in Texas started studiying Spanish at age 12, and quite a few of them were fluent by the time they graduated (obviously, talking about non-native speakers). In my part of Texas, anyway, it’s considered obvious that you need to know at least some Spanish, and usually there are jobs that’re only open to bilingual applicants. Also, all the libraries there had huge Spanish sections and a lot of outreach to the Spanish-speaking community. So, I wouldn’t really describe the place as antagonistic to other languages. Sure, there’re always going to be a few “protect the border” types, but in my experience they were in the minority. And a lot of people I know, even those with a protectionist mentality, wish that they spoke another language. However, it’s very difficult, with the way the education system is set up, to become fluent. Even at the college level, most classes focus on lit. Ok, I’ll get off the soapbox. I just didn’t like that generalisation that Americans are anti-non English languages, because they feel threatened. I’m sure that’s not how you meant it anyway. 😉

It’s interesting, the first poem does have an emotional distance to it – like seeing a room through a sheer curtain or something. But I admire the rhythms. The second is really strong – an interesting and even compassionate view of the occupier. I love the music of it and the architecture of ‘I’ and ‘we’ that you point out. Lovely stuff.

Eva well, the nature of generalizations is that there are just that and there are always exceptions to the rule. I did highlight the USA but I think Canada is just as bad. “Bilingual” here means that Quebec and New Brunswick speak French, and all the others English.

Ted oh yay, seems I wasn’t too far off the mark in preferring the second.

i like your taste in poetry

I really liked “Barbarians”. I liked the repetitions of “you” in the first half and “we” in the second. And thank you for explaining the Ovid reference, I didn’t get that. But I love the criticism of the barbarians’ language, with all its consonants, because I often think about how language divides people…

lotusgreen thank you!

gentle reader I had to look it up myself but it did make things a lot clearer.

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