Adam Zagajewski

March 22, 2021

The wonderful Polish poet Adam Zagajewski died yesterday in Krakow–an enormous loss.  I don’t know where to start. With his poems, I suppose, which I can read in English, thanks to the wonderful translator, Clare Cavanaugh. They move through his love of music, philosophy, art, his friends, serious engagements with the range of human behavior, but always with a light touch: one of his books is titled Mysticism for Beginners. I’d never thought, until I heard him talk about it, what it was like to read aloud his Polish poems in English. Like reading someone else’s poems, he said, but he did it beautifully. He was fluent in half a dozen languages, a true intellectual, but as James Merrill said of Elizabeth Bishop, he did “lifelong impressions of an ordinary person.” His prose books include one titled Solitude and Solidarity, referring to his love of solitude at one end of the spectrum and his participation in the Polish Solidarity movement at the other. I met him when I taught for a semester in Houston, and we became friends. He was one of the best men I have ever known–kind, generous, funny, brilliant. And one of the best poets. Although he didn’t write this poem about himself, it predicts how those who knew him and loved him are all feeling today.

 

THAT DAY

 

That day, when word comes

that someone close has died, a friend, or someone

we didn’t know, but admired from a distance

–the first moment, the first hours: he or she is gone,

it seems certain, inescapable, maybe even

irrefutable, we trust (reluctantly) whoever tells us,

heartbroken, over the phone, or maybe some announcer

from a careless radio, but we can’t believe it,

nothing on earth could convince us,

since he still hasn’t died (for us), not at all,

he (she) no longer is, but hasn’t yet vanished

for good, just the opposite, he is, so it seems, at the strongest

point of his existence, he grows,

though he is no more, he still speaks,

though he’s gone mute, he still prevails,

though he’s lost, lost the battle–with what?

time? the body?–but no, it’s not true, he has triumphed,

he’s achieved completion, absolute completion,

he’s so complete, so great, so splendid, he no longer fits

inside life, he shatters life’s frail vessel,

he towers over the living, as if made

from a different substance, the strongest bronze,

but at the same time we begin to suspect,

we’re afraid, we guess, we know,

that silence approaches

and helpless grief

 

 

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15 Comments

  • Reply Fredric Koeppel March 22, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    thanks for posting this lovely and touching poem, Sharon. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend and a great poet.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 22, 2021 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks, Fredric. I was so lucky to know him.

      Sharon

  • Reply Pattie Heyman March 22, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    extraordinary. never read a poem that captures the loss so true to the experience. among the many lines, that line, “he’s achieved completion……..as if made from a different substance, the strongest bronze…” this poem in itself tells me the reason for writing poetry and why it is almost impossible to achieve what he has done in this poem. I can only aspire to write poetry that takes one to a higher level of understanding something of the human condition. I look forward to hearing some of your memories, Sharon. Sorry for the loss of such a beloved person in your life.

    he’s achieved completion, absolute completion,

    he’s so complete, so great, so splendid, he no longer fits

    inside life, he shatters life’s frail vessel,

    he towers over the living, as if made

    from a different substance, the strongest bronze,

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 22, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks for this Patty. Yes, it’s as if he wrote his own elegy.

    Sharon

  • Reply Wyn Cooper March 22, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    Thanks so much for this, Sharon. Such a fine poet.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 22, 2021 at 7:18 pm

      Thanks, Wyn. Yes, wonderful.

  • Reply John Tripoulas March 22, 2021 at 6:53 pm

    Hi. My name is John Tripoulas and I’m a poet who lives in Greece. I spent time with Adam and Eva on Crete a few years back. Like you, I wouldn’t know where to start. Adam was everything that you described plus had the intangible Factor X that is indescribable. His passing is a terrible loss. I would like to ask in which collection of poems is “That Day” published? I have most of Adam’s books but not all of them. May Adam’s memory be eternal.
    Thank you. Best, John

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 22, 2021 at 7:16 pm

    Thanks, John. Adam’s wife’s name is Maja–another first woman, like Eve. Yes, intangible. A gentleness, a warmth. I should have said: this poem is from the most recent book (in English) that I know of: Asymmetry. It’s nice to meet you here.

    Sharon

  • Reply Joan Seliger Sidney March 22, 2021 at 8:31 pm

    Sharon, you were lucky to have known him. What a year of losses, including Jean Valentine.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 22, 2021 at 8:44 pm

      Hi Joan. Yes, incredibly lucky. That’s what I’m trying to focus on. I hope you’re doing well.

  • Reply Susan March 22, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    Sharon–I’m heartbroken. Was he ill? I hadn’t seen him since he left Houston for Chicago and I left for Miami. But I think of him with so much affection. I like your application of Merrill’s observation of Bishop. Always so unassuming, but a giant.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 22, 2021 at 9:54 pm

      I knew he’d had heart surgery a few years ago, but I don’t know what happened. I’d actually been meaning to email him all week, hadn’t heard from him in a while and I just wanted to say hello. What a wonderful man.

  • Reply Kathleen Flenniken March 23, 2021 at 4:29 pm

    Such a beautiful post and poem. I’m so sorry Adam Zagajewski is gone. You were lucky to have the friendship you did, and so was he. His poems will live on.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 23, 2021 at 4:39 pm

      Thank you for this. It really means a lot.

  • Reply kathy Wagner March 24, 2021 at 10:41 am

    I’m sorry I didn’t discover this poet sooner. His work is so clean and precise. I will definitely look for his books. And the fact that he was kind and unassuming and a good friend to you, makes me want to know much more about him. I am so sorry that you didn’t get to say goodbye.

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