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March 2021

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, 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