Posted August 1, 2007on:
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
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.