Double Focus

‘Slight Exaggeration: An Essay’ by Adam Zagajewski
The Babel Festival Of Literature And Translation
Adam Zagajewski, The Babel Festival Of Literature And Translation, 2012

In his 1942 poem “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens offers seemingly contradictory claims about what modern poetry should or, in Stevens’s stronger phrasing, “has to” do. First, Stevens asserts that modern poetry “has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time.” Karl Barth is supposed to have said that the Christian must preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Stevens appears to be making a similar claim here on behalf of poetry: modern poetry must come from, and speak to, the time. It must concern itself with historical particularity, with the concrete and the contingent.

Later in the poem, though, Stevens tacks in a new direction, describing the modern poet as “a metaphysician in the dark.” What a lovely, resonant phrase. The poet is “in the dark” because the old ways of understanding existence—including, for Stevens, orthodox Christianity—no longer seem viable. And yet, despite this, the modern poet must continue to explore fundamental questions—groping in the dark, perhaps tripping herself up, but trying nonetheless. If modern poetry has to face history, then it also has to face that which exceeds history. If it has to be living, then it also has to explore the very conditions—temporality, materiality, being as such—that enable life.

Few recent poets have more perfectly fulfilled these twin demands than the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. On September 24, 2001, mere weeks after 9/11, he published a poem in the New Yorker titled “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” In it, he acknowledges the pain and violence of the moment (“You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere, / you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully”) while also exhorting the reader to “[r]emember June’s long days, / and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.” Indeed, in his four-decade-long career, Zagajewski’s poems have regularly addressed history. “Referendum,” for instance, takes as its starting point Ukraine’s 1991 vote on independence, while “To Go to Lvov” concerns the loss experienced by the Zagajewski family—and an entire generation—after the Soviets forcibly relocated them to central Poland in 1946. (Zagajewski was born in 1945 and so has no memory of the move from Lvov, though it has shaped much of his life.)

Yet Zagajewski’s poems just as regularly pivot from the historical to the metaphysical—to what simultaneously emerges from and transcends the particular moment. In one poem, the Catholic Zagajewski defiantly addresses that antiquated figure, the soul: “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.” In another poem, titled “A Flame,” he implores God, “Give us astonishment / and a flame, high, bright.” In his poem “From Memory,” Zagajewski describes how he “lived in two idioms”—a perfect distillation of the balancing of the profane and the sacred, the historical and the metaphysical, that his poems everywhere exhibit.

If modern poetry has to face history, then it also has to face that which exceeds history.

Zagajewski’s latest book, Slight Exaggeration, describes, in crackling and lucid prose, this living in two idioms. (Clare Cavanagh is the superb translator of this book and Zagajewski’s last several collections of poetry.) In an appreciation of the work of his fellow Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, he writes, “He didn’t lack for mystical appetites, but his mysticism fed on the yeast of reality.” A little later, he claims, “A poem is like a human face—it is an object that can be measured, described, cataloged, but it is also an appeal. You can heed an appeal or ignore it, but you can’t simply measure its meter. You can’t gauge a flame’s height with a ruler.” Still later he asserts that “we live on the border between ‘life’ and ‘art,’ we migrate between them, drawn first to one, then to the other, as though wild nomadic tribes held us captive, tribes favoring each empire by turns.” In each of these examples, seeming binaries—the real and the mystical; the measurable and the immeasurable; life and art—aren’t so much blurred as shown to be parts of a larger, more integrated whole. Auden once wrote that the “one infallible gift of greatness is the capacity for double focus,” a wide-angled vision that can accommodate ostensible contradiction. Zagajewski praises and displays such a double focus.

Readers of Zagajewski’s previous books of prose, especially A Defense of Ardor (2014), will recognize the style and structure of Slight Exaggeration. It is, like many works of prose written by poets, more miscellany than treatise, blending criticism, memoir, diary, and polemic in almost equal parts. The book lacks chapter breaks, and it proceeds by poetic association, not by narrative demand. Sections—some as long as several pages, some as short as a single sentence—shift ceaselessly and excitingly between subjects and registers. There are several touchstones to which Zagajewski returns again and again: the displacement from Lvov sixty years ago; the various cities—Krakow, Paris, Houston—that have served as homes for the peripatetic poet; Milosz, Herbert, Brodsky, Mandelstam, and other modern poets who possessed the double focus Zagajewski so admires; and classical music, “which links inner rhythm, the soul’s rhythm, to the voices of the outer world.”

Zagajewski continually comes back to the dislocations and traumas of twentieth-century Polish history. The displaced, Zagajewski writes, “never made peace with the space of their workaday existence, its walls and trees.” But such losses have their own compensations: a sharpened memory, since “loss alone touches us deeply, [while] permanence goes unremarked,” and “an abyss, a longing within” that leads many of the displaced to artistic creation. (Zagajewski believes there’s a reason so much good Polish poetry was written in the twentieth century.) Some of the book’s most moving passages center on Zagajewski’s father, an engineering professor and rationalist who can’t quite understand his son’s vocation. (The book’s title, Slight Exaggeration, comes from his response to a question about his son’s imaginative treatment of their shared history.) As Zagajewski was writing this book, his father was suffering from dementia and memory loss—a particularly bitter fate for an exile whose life has largely been defined by remembrance.

I love Zagajewski’s metaphysical seriousness, but he’s not the only one doing this kind of work—and thank God for that.

In A Defense of Ardor, Zagajewski writes, “Only ardor is a primary building block in our literary constructions. Irony is, of course, indispensable, but it comes later.” Zagajewski’s ardor for other writers and artists shines throughout. Rather than take others down for real or imagined sins, Zagajewski is far more likely to celebrate those writers, like Simone Weil and Emil Cioran, whose words continue to populate his mind.

Occasionally, Zagajewski moves from celebrating to lamenting, as when he grouchily declares, “I may be one of the few writers, not counting theologians, who raises now and then the notion of the ‘spiritual life.’” Perhaps as proof of this, he later describes an evening spent with a French poet (“for discretion’s sake, we’ll call him G”) who complains about the recalcitrantly religious interests of Polish poetry: “One thing troubled him, he said: Polish poets—of course not all of them—keep reckoning with God. He couldn’t understand it. ‘Long ago we reached the conclusion, the basic conclusion,’ he said, ‘that God does not exist, and taking that business seriously is considered, excuse me, rather childish.’” While this reductive and dismissive attitude certainly isn’t unheard of, there are plenty of contemporary writers—and not just Polish ones!—who take theology and the spiritual life seriously. To name but a few, Christian Wiman, Carolyn Forché, Lawrence Joseph, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson. I love Zagajewski’s metaphysical seriousness, but he’s not the only one doing this kind of work—and thank God for that.

Late in Slight Exaggeration, Zagajewski asks the book’s central question: “Does the light, the poetic force without which no great poem could take shape, exist only in our imagination, in intense, blissful fantasies of inspiration, or does it have some counterpart in reality?” His answer, initially tentative but ultimately stirring, asserts poetry’s purchase on the real and shows Zagajewski to be one the form’s strongest defenders:

If questioned, I myself would say, I have my doubts, I worry at times that this light is only Saint Elmo’s fire, glowing on the masts of our imagination. But ultimately, were I freed from my doubts, rooted in a pure and powerful place, I’d reply, what is most remarkable, wonderful (and rare) in poetry derives from reality, from a dimension that seldom reveals itself, from some radiant part of the planet.

Slight Exaggeration
An Essay

Adam Zagajewski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 288 pp.

Published in the June 16, 2017 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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