Monday 27 August 2012

Adam Zagajewski's 'Mysticism for Beginners'

From the occasional reviews file - Adam Zagajewski's Mysticism for Beginners


Adam Zagajewski might be a little quiet, a little plain-spoken, a little lacking in the electric-skin-flicker I'm looking for right now. Whatever the reason, these poems largely flowed over me without catching.

One thing did catch me though: his repeated use (or Clare Cavanagh's repeated use in her translation) of the zeugma, a rhetorical device in which two words or phrases are yoked together. Most of the examples you find online help not at all to explain this idea - my favourite is, I believe, from Dickens; the image of little girls dressed in muslin and tears. One literal description, one figurative, yoked by the verb. (It is entirely possible I made this example up. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Once I noticed this in Zagajewski's writing, reading became a bird-spotting activity rather than an absorbing one:

The tablecloths smell of starch and morals

Mountain streams lay on their backs
greedily lapping up water and October

The taxi smelled of anise and the twentieth century

As always though, a couple of poems slipped under my skin. The double restraint (of the written words and the described world) of 'Transformation' is lifted by the tension and power of the final lines:

I haven’t written a single poem
in months.
I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper,
pondering the riddle of power
and the reasons for obedience.
I’ve watched sunsets
(crimson, anxious),
I’ve heard the birds grow quiet
… and night’s muteness.
I’ve seen sunflowers dangling
their heads at dusk, as if a careless hangman
had gone strolling through the gardens.
September’s sweet dust gathered
on the windowsill and lizards
hid in the bends of walls.
I’ve taken long walks,
craving one thing only:

And then 'Three Angels', which I fell straight into, and emerged the other side feeling like I always do when a writer's words sink into me, like I've been coloured in a little bit, made a little richer and deeper ...

Suddenly three angels appeared
right here by the bakery on St. George Street.
Not another census bureau survey,
one tired man sighed.
No, the first angel said patiently,
we just wanted to see
what your lives have become,
the flavor of your days and why
your nights are marked by restlessness and fear.
That's right, fear, a lovely, dreamy-eyed
woman replied; but I know why.
The labors of the human mind have faltered.

They seek help and support
they can't find. Sir, just take a look
-- she called the angel "Sir"! --
at Wittgenstein. Our sages
and leaders are melancholy madmen
and know even less than us
ordinary people (but she wasn't

Then too, said one boy
who was learning to play the violin, evenings
are just an empty carton,
a casket minus mysteries,
while at dawn the cosmos seems as
parched and foreign as a TV screen.
And besides, those who love music for itself
are few and far between.

Others spoke up and their laments
surged into a swelling sonata of wrath.
If you gentlemen want to know the truth,
one tall student yelled -- he'd
just lost his mother -- we've had enough
of death and cruelty, persecution, disease,
and long spells of boredom still
as a serpent's eye. We've got too little earth
and too much fire. We don't know who we are.
We're lost in the forest, and black stars
move lazily above us as if
they were only our dream.

But still, the second angel mumbled shyly,
there's always a little joy, and even beauty
lies close at hand, beneath the bark
of every hour, in the quiet heart of concentration,
and another person hides in each of us --
universal, strong, invincible.
Wild roses sometimes hold the scent
of childhood, and on holidays young girls
go out walking just as they always have,
and there's something timeless
in the way they wind their scarves.
Memory lives in the ocean, in galloping blood,
in black, burnt stones, in poems,
and in every quiet conversation.
The world is the same as it always was,
full of shadows and anticipation.

He would have gone on talking, but the crowd
was growing larger and waves
of mute rage spread
until at last the envoys rose lightly
into the air, whence, growing distant,
they gently repeated: peace be unto you,
peace to the living, the dead, the unborn.
The third angel alone said nothing,
for that was the angel of long silence.

... there's always a little joy, and even beauty / lies close at hand, beneath the bark / of every hour - beautiful. 

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