"As his reader might expect, Eternal Enemies contains poems capturing evanescent moments of being deftly and economically rendered, several astute travel poems, moving evocations of Krakow, and some sensitively recorded responses to art and those who make it. For example, there is a penetrating portrait of Joseph Brodsky titled 'Subject: Brodsky,' the subject one that Zagajewski has treated before. But the presentation here is original, cast somewhat in the official mode of a KGB report, one that gradually softens into eulogy and concludes with an evocation of '. . . something like tenderness, / the almost timid smile, / the momentary doubt, the hesitation, / the tiny pause in flawless arguments.' The American scene rarely and only fleetingly entered Zagajewski's viewfinder in earlier collections, but it does so now in the poem 'Traveling by Train Along the Hudson,' and it slips in several other poems as well, including the volume's final poem, 'Antennas in the Rain.' This test is something of an experiment, composed of disjunctive statements or sentence fragments in a calculatedly random order, each separated from the next by double spacing. The fragments are of every sort: flashes of perception, literary quotations, daily plans, memories, art works, comic queries, philosophical speculations, commands addressed to an undesignated listener who may be the reader or the author—all told, what the French call a coq à l’âne, a sundry, a catalogue assembled with rhyme or reason. The result, though, tends to constitute a sketched résumé of the author's practical, mental, and spiritual life, the ordinary hard by the exalted, amusing trivia followed by existential crossroads . . . [Eternal Enemies] even so has a rough authenticity giving us the sense that Zagajewski hasn't stopped questing, that he will continue to add strings to his bow as he moves into the late phase of his career, one aspect of which is involved in extending the amicable rapport between Poland and the United States."—Alfred Corn, The Hudson Review "Mr. Zagajewski, who was born in Poland in 1945, is one of the few foreign-language poets to be regularly translated into English. He is often mentioned in the same breath as Czeslaw Milosz, in part simply because he is the most famous Polish poet of the generation after Milosz's. Mr. Zagajewski is writing Milosz's biography, and it would be surprising if he didn't eventually follow his subject to Stockholm. But there is also a deeper similarity, since the two poets, products of the same Polish experience, share a basic theme: the dilemma of the spirit trapped in history, of freedom constrained by necessity. These are two ways of naming the opponents invoked in the title of Eternal Enemies, Mr. Zagajewski's fifth collection of poems to appear in English (translated by Clare Cavanagh). For Milosz, who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and defected from Poland's Communist regime, spirit and history were mortal foes, locked in a permanent death grip. For Mr. Zagajewski, who belongs to the generation of Solidarity and of the Velvet Revolutions, their enmity is less acute, more a chronic condition to be lived with. In his poems, the ordinary world is always quivering at the brink of, but never quite yielding to, ecstasy . . . Forced to emigrate from Poland in the 1970s, Mr. Zagajewski lived for many years in France and America. He has now returned to Krakow, the city of his youth; but the habit of wandering remains, and Eternal Enemies alternates views of his childhood streets with a traveler's snapshots . . . Yet most of the traveling in Eternal Enemies is done under rather plusher circumstances than this suggests, and there is a certain danger—as we follow the poet from 'Sicily' to 'Rome, Open City' to 'Camogli' and 'Staglieno'—that Mr. Zagajewski's voyaging will turn into a higher tourism, yielding a succession of interchangeable epiphanies. 'What happened to summer's plans / and our dreams, / what has our youth become,' he asks in 'Camogli.' This kind of undefended, melancholy lyricism has always been one of the distinctive notes of Mr. Zagajewski's verse. It makes one think of songs by Schumann, more than anything in English poetry, and in fact Mr. Zagajewski often invokes music to achieve his effects . . . In 'Long Street,' he employs his gift for surprising, witty metaphors to describe a remembered Krakow street: 'a street of dwarves and giants, creaking bikes, / a street of small towns clustered / in one room, napping after lunch, / heads dropped on a soiled tablecloth . . .' The drama of homecoming, after a lifetime filled with so much experience and reflection, is very moving, and gives Eternal Enemies its beautifully autumnal quality."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun"To open Adam Zagajewski's new book Eternal Enemies is to find oneself in motion. 'To travel without baggage, sleep in the train / on a hard wooden bench, / forget your native land,' begins 'En Route.' A few pages later the narrator wonders whether it was 'worth waiting in consulates / for some clerk's fleeting good humor' and 'worth taking the underground / beneath I can't recall what city' ('Was It'). Other poems find him in cars, imagining the 'great ships that wandered the ocean,' on a plane flying over the arctic, on more trains, and occasionally on foot. Often the motion is not just from one city or country to another, but from one historical era to another. In 'Notes from a Trip to Famous Excavations,' for instance, the narrator sees 'campaign slogans on the walls / and know[s] that the elections ended long ago,' yet when a gate swings open, the past becomes present as 'wine returns to the pitchers, / and love comes back to the homesteads / where it once dwelled.' The poems move, as well, from concrete particular to the abstract and transcendent—from an epiphany, as Zagajewski once wrote in an essay, to the kitchen and 'the envelope holding the telephone bill.' Some of poems' loveliest effects are achieved by juxtaposing one time or dimension with another, as in 'Star,' the opening poem . . . Zagajewki's places are always more than simply places. They are both mythical and real, a quality that will come through even for readers who are less traveled and don't put down the book long enough to Google the names. The restlessness of the poems is at least partly a function of Zagajewski's long exile . . . Eternal Enemies is Zagajewski's fifth book of poems to appear in English. Born in 1945, he emerged in the New Wave of Polish poets in the 1960s, writing raw, stripped-down verse that implicitly and sometimes overtly challenged the totalitarian political establishment of his seedtime. Zagajewski later reinvented himself, employing the first-person perspective of traditional lyric poetry, a shift that has been criticized by some as abandoning the earlier commitments. To hint at least at what I assume is the music of the Polish originals, Clare Cavanagh, Zagajewski's longtime translator and a perceptive scholar of Slavic literature in her own right, uses intricate but usually understated patterns of sound, as in the l's and o's and b's of 'that dusty little apartment in Gliwice, / in a low block in the Soviet style / that says all towns should look like barracks.' ('In a Little Apartment'). The poems are so beautifully rendered it is easy to forget that English is their second language. The book is very cleverly crafted, its three sections proceeding in loosely reverse chronological order. The streets of Krakow, and the narrator's return years after his university days, turn up frequently in the first section (as in 'Star,' quoted above). In the second are elegies to some of the writers who helped shape Zagajewski's own voice: Czeslaw Milosz, W. G. Sebald, Joseph Brodsky. Ancient history and myth link many of the poems in the final section—Sophocles, Syracuse, a poet from Telos who died at nineteen. But the deep structure of the book is symphonic, with images from one poem reappearing elsewhere. 'Antennas in the Rain,' the book's final poem, serves as a kind of key to motifs that are developed in other poems. 'Reading Milosz by an open window. The swallow's sudden trill,' for instance, is the bittersweet bud from which both an elegy to Milosz and a short, haunting poem about Auschwitz blossom. One recurring motif, which appears in poems in each of the book's three sections, is the narrator's assurance to his beloved that 'music heard with you was more than music.' The Caravaggio masterpiece The Calling of Saint Matthew, in which Jesus beckons with outstretched finger to Matthew, appears in three different poems, the first focusing on Matthew himself ('was I truly / summoned to become human?'), the others on the 'nobleness . . . of Christ's face'). The soloist in an Orthodox church 'recalls the voice / of Joseph Brodsky reciting his poems / before Americans, unconvinced / by any sort of resurrection, / but glad that somebody believed' ('The Orthodox Liturgy'), a theme further developed in 'Subject: Brodsky,' one of the most beautiful poems in recent memory. The voice of these poems—the mixture of faith and doubt, humor and longing, history and urgent present—is unlike anything else in contemporary poetry. If the settings accurately reflect Zagajewski's own life, his travels have not yet taken him to Sweden. If there is any justice in Stockholm, he will be invited there soon."—David Skeel, Books & Culture"The adversaries of the title of Zagajewski’s ample new collection are, he says in the wedding-celebration piece ‘Epithalamium,’ love and time, but to read these poems is to ask whether the animosity between love and time is all that consequential. For Zagajewski conjures the way things used to be so convincingly that one’s world expands in the reading. Here are streets in Kraków, beaches and fields in Sicily, the sites of ancient Greece, the grounds of north central European history—all alive in the mind that loves and ponders them, that takes them personally, so to speak, and transferred, via precise and piercingly intelligent language, to the reader as a world to be embraced as the poet embraces it. ‘Epithalamium’ also asserts that ‘only in marriage do love and time . . . join forces’ and allow us to see the essence of other beings. To be sure, marriage of a man and woman (indeed, of one particular couple) is meant, but it’s impossible not to believe that the linking of loving human consciousness and eroding material history is also meant, and to consider Zagajewski’s absorbingly solemn and enlivening poetry as a blessing agent of that wedding."—Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)"Celebrated on two continents, Polish poet Zagajewski looks back with some self-consciousness, in these new poems, at the lyricism of his compatriot Czeslaw Milosz, at the prewar Poland he portrayed, and at a Miloszian mixture of pathos, faith and doubt. Set in Krakow, Italy, Houston and New York, these frequently brief and always inviting works present, at their most general, ‘the world's materiality at dawn-/ and the soul's frailty.’ More specific elegies remember Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Alexander Wat, W.G. Sebald, or look back on the poet's own ‘childhood, which evaporated/ like a puddle gleaming with a rainbow of gasoline.’ Cavanagh's supple translations let the verse sing in American English without making this Polish poet sound too American: as much as he embraces his new home (he is now teaching at the University of Chicago), he remembers, too, that ‘the Holocaust Museum in Washington’ holds ‘my childhood, my wagons, my rust.’ Perhaps narrow in their sweet, sad moods, Zagajewski's poems remain wide in their sympathies. One especially ambitious work imagines the people of the ancient Near East coming alive again, startling archeologists: ‘Look, a flame stirs from the ashes./ Yes, I recognize the face.’"—Publishers Weekly
Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945. His previous books include Tremor, Canvas, Mysticism for Beginners, Without End, Two Cities, Another Beauty, and A Defense of Ardor. He lives in Kraców, Paris, and Chicago.Clare Cavanagh is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. She has translated numerous volumes of Polish poetry and prose, including the work of Wislawa Szymborska.
Listen to Adam Zagajewski read his poem Epithalamium from his book Eternal Enemies at his 92nd Street Y reading.
Listen to Adam Zagajewski read the poem En Route from his book Eternal Enemies at a 92nd Street Y reading.