This past week has seen some outstanding television as the BBC has screened a series of films as part of its Poetry season. Sheila Hancock, in My Life In Verse, featured this amongst several less obvious choices:
Try To Praise The Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
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 heading 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 flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Adam Zagajewski was born 21 June 1945 in Lwów, Soviet Union (now Lviv, Ukraine). He first became well known as one of the leading poets of the generation of ’68’ or the Polish New Wave; he is one of Poland’s most famous contemporary poets. He lived in Paris from 1982, beforemoving to Kraków in 2002. His poem Try To Praise The Mutilated World, became famous after it was printed on the back page of The New Yorker of September 24th, 2001.
Zagajewski’s books of poetry in English include Mysticism for Beginners (1997); Tremor (1985); and Canvas (1991). He is also the author of a memoir, Another Beauty (2000) and the prose collections, Two Cities (1995) and Solitude and Solidarity (1990). He currently is a faculty member on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and teaches two classes, one on fellow Polish poet Czesław Miłosz.
Zagajewski writes about Cracow and about Paris, about the cities of his childhood and the mythical cities of his “Central European” education, about Nietzsche, Junger, Bruno Schulz, Cioran, and Gottfried Benn, as well as about the dangers that our society presents to spiritual life and the paradoxes that arise when there are more and more informational media and less and less information worth conveying, as well as many other issues and figures who are crucial to our modern times.
I will never be someone who writes only about bird song, although I admire birdsong highly – but not enough to withdraw from the historical world, for the historical world is fascinating. What really interests me is the interweaving of the historical and cosmic world. The cosmic world is unmoving – or rather, it moves to a completely different rhythm. I shall never know how these worlds coexist. They are in conflict yet they complement each other – and that merits our reflection. (Adam Zagajewski)
In an article in The Guardian in 2004 Colm Tóibín celebrated the work of Adam Zagajewski, writing about how the poet’s parents were banished from Lvov to Gliwice, the ugly, industrial city: for Zagajewski, history was not something that could be lightly discarded, despite his best efforts. History had pursued him. Lvov, the lost paradise, where he would visit one day and feel a stranger, became part of the Soviet Union in 1945, just as Gliwice, once a German-speaking city, became Polish. All of this happened because of the deliberations of three old men at Yalta at the end of the second world war, the year Zagajewski was born. Also, he grew up not only in a climate of loss, but in a world where utterance itself was closely watched and guarded, and where poetry, in all its purity and secret signs, mattered almost as much as prayer.
In considering Poland and its fate, Tóibín wrote, Zagajewski has also been acutely alert to the fate of the Jews in Europe in the years before his birth. Walking the streets of Krakov, the haunted and repressed old city was an early aspect of his yearning for Europe, which he would share with other Polish poets such as Czeslaw Milotz and Zbigniew Herbert.