Excerpted from Without End by Adam Zagajewski. Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. To be published in March, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Oh my mute city, honey-gold, buried in ravines, where wolves loped softly down the cold meridian; if I had to tell you, city, asleep beneath a heap of lifeless leaves, if I needed to describe the ocean's skin, on which ships etch the lines of shining poems, and yachts like peacocks flaunt their lofty sails and the Mediterranean, rapt in salty concentration, and cities with sharp turrets gleaming in the keen morning sun, and the savage strength of jets piercing the clouds, the bureaucrats' undying scorn for us, people, Umbria's narrow streets like cisterns that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine, and a certain hill, where the stillest tree is growing, gray Paris, threaded by the river of salvation, Krakow, on Sunday, when even chestnut leaves seem pressed by an unseen iron, vineyards raided by the greedy fall and by highways full of fear; if I had to describe the sobriety of the night when it happened, and the clatter of the train running into nothingness and the blade flaring on a makeshift skating rink; I'm writing from the road, I had to see, and not just know, to see clearly the sights and fires of a single world, but you unmoving city turned to stone, my brethren in the shallow sand; the earth still turns above you and the Roman legions march and a polar fox attends the wind in a white wasteland where sounds perish.
We know we're not allowed to use your name. We know you're inexpressible, anemic, frail, and suspect for mysterious offenses as a child. We know that you are not allowed to live now in music or in trees at sunset. We know—or at least we've been told— that you do not exist at all, anywhere. And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice —in an echo, a complaint, in the letters we receive from Antigone in the Greek desert.
FAREWELL FOR ZBIGNIEW HERBERT
At first only cherries and the comic flight of bats, the apple moon, a drowsy owl, the tang of 0icy water on school outings. The city's towers rise like words of love. Afterwards, long after, Provence's golden dust, fig trees in the vineyards, the lesson of white Greece, obscure museums, Piero's Madonna great with child —in the interim, two occupations, two inhuman armies, death's clumsy vehicles patrol your streets.
Long days spent translating Georg Trakl, "The Captive Blackbird's Song," that blissful first Paris after years of Soviet scarcity and squalor; your sly smile, your schoolboy jokes, the gravitas and cheer you brought to Meaux's little cathedral (Bossuet watched us rather dourly), Berlin evenings: Herr Doktor, Herr Privatdozent, the rice you scattered at friends' weddings like confetti— but the quiet bitterness of bad months, too.
I liked to imagine your strolls in Umbria, Liguria: your dapper chase, your quest for places where the glaciers of the past melt, baring forms. I liked to imagine you roving through poetry's mountains, seeking the spot where silence suddenly erupts in speech. But I always met you in the cramped apartments of those gray Molochs called great cities.
You sometimes reminded me of life's tragedies. Life seldom let you out of sight. I think of your generation, crushed by fate, your illness in Madrid, in Amsterdam (Hotel Ambassade), even in holy Jerusalem, the hospital Saint-Louis, where you lay one summer with heat melting houses' walls and nations' borders, and your final weeks in Warsaw. I marvel at your poems' kingly pride.
THE EARLY HOURS
The early hours of morning; you still aren't writing (rather, you aren't even trying), you just read lazily. Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,
just as earlier, in childhood, on vacation, when a colored map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map promising so much, deep ponds in the forest like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning in sharp grass;
or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared, but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world, their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed (grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval figures
compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral; the early hours of morning, silence —you still aren't writing,
you still understand so much. Joy is close. Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945. He lives in Kraków and spends part of the year in Houston, where he teaches at the University of Houston.