The Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski, who passed away late last month at the age of seventy-five, was born on June 21 (the day that marks the beginning of summer) in 1945 (the year World War II ended) in what was then the city of Lvov in eastern Poland but today is the city of Lviv in western Ukraine. Given these origins, Zagajewski’s distinction as an internationally celebrated poet of exile, history, and remembrance seems almost scripted. Arising from the rubble of the postwar world, his poems and essays bear witness to the experience of millions of displaced and uprooted lives. In his most famous poem, “Praise the Mutilated World,” he writes: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere, / you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. / You should praise the mutilated world.”
That poem appeared in English translation in the New Yorker’s first issue after 9/11—an understandable choice, but one that tethers the poem to a momentous historical event in a way that seems contrary to Zagajewski’s poetic ethos. The lines directly following those I quoted above read: “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” The shift is characteristic of Zagajewski. Here as elsewhere, private experience flares up in the dark of history and is even deployed against it. In “Summer ’95,” the Srebrenica massacre goes unmentioned until the very end of the poem; primacy is given instead to memories of the Mediterranean light that summer: “It was summer in evening’s slant light, in the pale / stains of stars, when the buzz of countless / trifling conversations had died out and only / silence waiting for a sleep bird to speak.”
The word “remember” is repeated often, mantra-like, in both of these poems. Perhaps no word recurs more often in Zagajewski’s oeuvre. Take the subtitle to “In a Little Apartment,” from the collection Eternal Enemies (2008): “I ask my father, ‘What do you do all day?’ ‘I remember.’” But remembrance, in Zagajewski’s work, is never a matter of mere recollection; it is at once a demand, a desire, and a destination. His poetry finds its purpose in elusive memories—half-glimpsed, half-remembered. They are the fragments he has shored against the ruin of time and history.
In his essay “Beginning to Remember,” Zagajewski distinguishes between two kinds of memory. On the one hand, there is the memory of intellectual synthesis, of large outlines and historical monuments, but there is also the memory of what he calls “little snapshots”: