Posts filed under ‘Clare Cavanagh’

Reading Milosz

Adam Zagajewski


I read your poetry once more,
poems written by a rich man, understanding all,
and by a pauper, homeless,
an emigrant, alone.

You always want to say more
than we can, to transcend poetry, take flight,
but also to descend, to penetrate the place
where our timid, modest realm begins.

Your voice at times
persuades us,
if only for a moment,
that every day is holy

and that poetry, how to put it,
rounds our life,
completes it, makes it proud
and unafraid of perfect form.

I lay the book aside
at night and only then
the city’s normal tumult starts again,
somebody coughs or cries, somebody curses.

[translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh]

Reading poets on other poets is always fun, and who better to pay tribute to Milosz than Zagajewski? I love this poem mostly because it rings true, because it expresses, better than I ever could, just why Milosz is so special. The first time I read it (in the March 1 issue of the NYRB, which also features Zagajewski on Brodsky) I found myself nodding along, saying yes, that’s it exactly, that’s exactly how I feel about him too. “Poetry”, Zagajewski tells us, “rounds our life / completes it, makes it proud / and unafraid of perfect form”. It takes a very great poet to make us feel that way, and an incredibly good one to put that feeling into words.


March 15, 2007 at 12:43 pm 2 comments

Just Children

Adam Zagajewski

Listen (to Alice Quinn read)

for Ewunia

It was just children playing in the sand
(accompanied by the narcotic scent
of blooming lindens, don’t forget),
just children, but after all
the devil, and the minor gods,
and even forgotten politicians,
who’d broken all their promises,
were also there and watched them
with unending rapture.
Who wouldn’t want to be a child
—for the last time!

Szymborska, Milosz, Herbert. Now add Zagajewski. The reading and commentary are from (note: its not an mp3, but a ,wma file).

Alice Quinn on “Just Children” by Adam Zagajewski.

Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945, and his masters were Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert, the great poetic voices of post-war Poland. The New Yorker ran Adam’s poem “Try To Praise the Mutilated World” in the issue just after Sept. 11, 2001, and it struck a necessary note at that time. These great postwar Polish poets lived through so much: They’d managed to perfect, in the 30 years following the war, a balance of reverence for the world and a sharp awareness of the fragility of life.

One of the things I love about the poem is the way the punctuation figures: the implied single quotations around the word “just,” and the use of an exclamation point at the end following that wonderful question “who wouldn’t want to be a child, for the last time”—that exclamation point makes a point, but with an air of gentle surprise. I also love the tranquil mood of the poem and the way that as you read it your senses light up to the dimension of the sentence—you’re gazing so intently at the lindens and at the children, lulled into a meditation on how delightful it would be to be a child. Then comes a swerve at the close: “Who wouldn’t want to be a child for the last time”—and you think “Ummm … maybe.” Childhood, after all, is just the braided thing that every stage of life is: ecstasy, but misery and other things, too.

You could read this a hundred times. It’s so limpid and so wise. It reminds me sometimes of that beautiful poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Sandpiper” and the lines “[t]he world is a mist. And then the world is/ minute and vast and clear.” It’s that shift of scale, there, between looking at the children and yet being aware of the larger present—the devil and the minor gods and the politicians who don’t keep their promises but are still likely to be just as pierced by the sight of the children playing in the sand. –


October 16, 2006 at 10:47 pm 1 comment

Going Home

Wislawa Szymborska

Listen (to Black Mamba read)

He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a lecture
on homeostasis in metagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.

Retreating back to your mother’s womb – life can make you crave that space, at times. All the things you have done and achieved just can’t buy you, what you are dying for. There is just not enough homeostasis in the metagalaxy to comfort you. But then you wake up, walk the walk, talk the talk and the you everyone knows – is just fine.

note: Oh, Szymborska! again? you ask. :) Long answer : We like, we post :)


April 11, 2006 at 8:14 pm 2 comments

Thank-You Note

Wislawa Szymborska


I owe so much
to those I don’t love.

The relief as I agree
that someone else needs them more.

The happiness that I’m not
the wolf to their sheep.

The peace I feel with them,
the freedom —
love can neither give
nor take that.

I don’t wait for them,
as in window-to-door-and-back.
Almost as patient
as a sundial,
I understand
what love can’t.
and forgive
as love never would.

From a rendezvous to a letter
is just a few days or weeks,
not an eternity.

Trips with them always go smoothly,
concerts are heard,
cathedrals visited,
scenery is seen.

And when seven hills and rivers
come between us,
the hills and rivers
can be found on any map.

They deserve the credit
if I live in three dimensions,
in nonlyrical and nonrhetorical space
with a genuine, shifting horizon.

They themselves don’t realize
how much they hold in their empty hands.

“I don’t owe them a thing,”
would be love’s answer
to this open question.

Tr. from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Capturing the forgotten (moments, people, feelings, incidents). That is something Szymborska can do with such elegance.

This poem, for instance, thanks people who make life normal. Life is not always high drama and a torrent of emotions. For every garb in expensive fine silk, you need ten others in simple cotton. And making a perfect cotton dress needs an artist just as skilled, if not more.


March 21, 2006 at 3:00 pm 2 comments