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A Search for Radiance: On the Poetry of Adam Zagajewski

Jolanta W. Best

By Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel. Kraków: Universitas, 2005. 247 pages. Bibliography, index, summary in English. ISBN 83-242-0490-3. Paper.

My masters are not infallible.
My masters seek my advice
In fleecy overcoats hurriedly slipped on
over their own dreams, at dawn, when
the cool wind interrogates the birds,
my masters talk in whispers.
I can hear their broken speech.

Adam Zagajewski

Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel, a Jagiellonian University literature professor, defines Zagajewski’s poetry as a “search for radiance.” She singles out several different schools of interpretation of Zagajewski’s work among Polish and foreign critics, and posits that the first school can be described as the “innovative voices” (Renata Gorczyńska, Clare Cavanagh, and Grażyna Borkowska); the second as the “reserved voices” (Marta Wyka and Marian Stala, who stress Zagajewski’s poetic of “bitter innocence”); and the third as the postmodern voices (Bogusława Bodzioch-Bryła who reads the poetry of Zagajewski as a “semantic labyrinth,” 225-29). For Czabanowska-Wróbel, Adam Zagajewski is a poet of both modernity and postmodernism. Although he witnessed the rise and fall of the leading theories and ideologies such as structuralism and Marxism, he no longer trusts any ideology or theory. Instead, he chooses epistemological patience and perseverance in trying to describe the world. He creates an open realm of the “poetry of questions, but not of answers” (237).

The attitude of methodological and paradoxical “conscious naiveté” (świadoma naiwność) has been built systematically by the author of Another Beauty. Its purpose is to redefine human self-consciousness (238). Zagajewski seems to perceive poetry as a process-oriented activity that expresses self-consciousness. His poetry thus rejects dogmatic thinking and does not promote arbitrary descriptions of reality (234), tending instead to be complex and tautological at the same time (253). This poetry expresses a negation of nihilism, pessimism, skepticism, and existential irony, but it does not impose easy affirmations. Zagajewski’s poetry should not be considered as a static presentation of a “monumental building,” but rather should be viewed as an activity of thinking. It might be compared to the process of “setting a tent for-a wanderer” (234).

Working with such metaphors, Czabanowska-Wróbel accentuates the leading images of Zagajewski’s poetry. One of them is the metaphor of the “snowball.” The “moving snowball” generates its own motion and experiences dynamic changes (228). Thus the early writings of Zagajewski reveal an essential core visible in his late poetry. However, Czabanowska-Wróbel emphasizes that the mature Zagajewski differs from his earlier self. Over time the poet gradually developed a strong awareness of the cognitive processes and a self-consciousness (237). A “pendulum in motion” describes well the nature of his later poetry. Zagajewski creates a poetic movement where opposite directions/sides of meaning are paradoxically connected. At the same time, the clear-cut meaning is replaced by a “search for the meaning” (253). Finally, the metaphor of a “tapestry” is useful in creating a framework of poetic images in Zagajewski’s work. It is relevant to note that Hans-Georg Gadamer defines any written text as a tapestry/fabric. Czabanowska-Wróbel also references the works of Czesław Miłosz and Renata Gorczyńska, which describe the poems of Adam Zagajewski as a fine texture made by a skillful weaver. The phrase “poems as rich tapestries” reminds one of a precise Gobelin (rich, colorful texture) where the reader can explore a vibrant world transformed into art. This artistic reality is not an escape from life, but is strongly connected with the contemporary world (200). This methodology of metaphors leads Czabanowska-Wróbel to her definition that Zagajewski’s poetry can be defined as “thinking through images.” She tries to conduct her examination within the paradigm of Zagajewski’s poetry, and never against it (234).

The book is divided into four parts: 1. A History of Solitude, 2. Moments of Radiance, 3. Dreams Have Not Been Studied, and 4. A Pupil of Masters of Unknowing, which provides a short conclusion. A History of Solitude contains four essays: Wanderer, Another Beauty, Mysticism for Beginners, and Solitude, Solidarity. Czabanowska-Wróbel consecutively analyzes the aesthetic, metaphysical, and ethical dimensions of Zagajewski’s poetry (249). The first essay ponders the idea of a spiritual and metaphysical quest for meaning and understanding. It defines Zagajewski’s poetics as a series of dialectic antinomies, stretched out between intellect and imagination, philosophy and poetry, negation and affirmation, ecstasy and boredom, a sudden epiphany and a lack of understanding. The antinomies help the reader discover a range of life that is universal, rich, and complex, but never fully comprehended (“The Ode to Plurality” [1982], 38). For Zagajewski, a human being has to “wander” and look for a final metaphysical realm-where God and poetry reside-even if they cannot be fully defined (17, 66). The concepts of deity, poetry, pain, death, and others are noumenal in nature and cannot be fully decribed. If the essence of poetry is indescribable, one is left with an urgent necessity to wander in search of understanding. Thus the function of poetry is recognized as a search for meaning and understanding (56).

Zagajewski’s poetry also focuses on what can be described as the restitution of light. Using words, poetry discovers and collects beautiful and “potent moments of light” (65). A good example can be found in Zagajewski’s volume Without End: New and Selected Poems [2002], especially in the poem “Smoke.”

Zagajewski’s “theology of beauty” leads to consolation and is the main topic of Another Beauty (69). The idea of “beauty” as consolation is hidden in a dialogue with “another”: music, poetry, art, and philosophy (246). Zagajewski proposes a dialogic perception of artworks where one has to develop an open-minded relation with poems, paintings, and music. In rare moments, this artistic attitude can lead to epiphany. It is similar to the case of paintings by Jan Johannes Vermeer van Delft, who stimulated Zagajewski’s “small epiphanies” (72). Czabanowska-Wróbel correctly points out that music is the highest art for Zagajewski (as for Arthur Schopenhauer), but poetry comes immediately after music (74). The poet has been inspired by the music of Bach, Mahler, Chopin, Shostakovich (in “Self-Portrait”), but he mainly listens to Mahler. The dominant influence of Mahler’s music can be defined as poetic “Mahlerism” (75). For instance, Mahler’s Song of the Earth is being recognized in Zagajewski’s “Three Angels” (in Mysticism for Beginners), “Opus Posthumous” (in New Poems), and “Three Voices” (in Tremor).

The dream of pure spirituality, perfect meaning, and perfect inner life becomes increasingly prominent in Zagajewski’s later poetry. In her essay on Mysticism for Beginners, Czabanowska-Wróbel accentuates the main symbolic images and depicts them as a poetic “fire-like” desire for transcendence (83). The desire for the sacred is present, especially when one lives in a spiritual desert. Zagajewski’s desert takes the form of a big city. It is the city that forgets, or does not possess, an artistic and intellectual glory. This is a former “holy city”; it suffers from amnesia and needs to be spiritually awakened. The implication is that there are many spiritually dormant American and European cities. The concept of a big city presages an image of one’s inner life perceived as a dialectic between the realms of the “individual” and “social.” That is a constant but never overt narrative in Zagajewski’s works, and Czabanowska-Wróbel underlines it strongly in her sketch Solitude and Solidarity (98-113). The cities (Lviv, Kraków, Warsaw) mirror a social reality defined as a “polis” or “wholeness.” This “collectiveness” is a metaphor of Polish culture. Sometimes cultural ambivalence is created when an individual solitary silence becomes public, or an individually cherished literary word begins to be relevant for many (112). Like Simone Weil, Zagajewski postulates that solitude and meditative attention are necessary conditions of a good social life. In its final form, solitude goes against any social realm because it is a choice of being “homeless” in life. That always symbolizes a universal human condition (111). Solitude may also generate an inner transformation (metanoia), leading to an epiphany (92). In Another Beauty Zagajewski states that one has to be attentive and has to remove layers of an overwhelming irony and routine from life. Then it may be easier to discover the goodness that still exists-even in this cruel century-and contradicts evil or ignorance (92). Czabanowska-Wróbel asserts that Zagajewski’s poetry is indeed “mysticism for beginners.” This poetry depicts life in a modern/postmodern reality where one is always a beginner: never prepared enough, never patient enough, and never peaceful enough. Nevertheless, people are full of a desire/longing that is metaphysical in nature (94). Zagajewski’s poetry can be described as aporetic, or one in which there are no ready-made answers. It opens a desire for certainty rather than offering certainty (95-96).

As long as certainty is difficult to obtain, the “masters of unknowing” appear to be a careful epistemological choice (236). There are many philosophers and poets who became Zagajewski’s intellectual and spiritual masters, including Józef Czapski, Zbigniew Herbert, and Czesław Miłosz. Józef Czapski is described as a person with a passionate, “I don’t know” attitude. This attitude was an underlying source of his search, and of his spiritual youth and enthusiasm. It was strongly connected with Czapski’s persistent “I know” attitude that generated his moral choices. Zbigniew Herbert has a special place in Zagajewski’s poetry. Herbert was the master, the first real poet whom he met at a school in Gliwice, and artistic interlocutor. The two poets participated in a creative dialogue on art, poetry, and aesthetics through their poems (167). In Farewell to Zbigniew Herbert, Zagajewski pays homage and symbolically announces: “I marvel at your poems’ kingly pride” (179). Zagajewski admires Herbert’s ability to maintain an artistic distance from the reader and hide the artist‘s ego behind the poem (169). Zagajewski stays close to the idea of the relation between “man and objects/things” initiated by Herbert (171). One could discover further similarities by reading their poetry, as they both write on ordinary objects and on art, including Dutch painting, as well as music (172). They also established the “poetry of the city” that includes Lviv (179). In addition to Czapski, Herbert, and Miłosz, Zagajewski was influenced by Roman Ingarden, a philosophy professor who lectured on phenomenology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

The author of Without End subscribes to poetic epistemology that has its roots in phenomenology and mysticism. The idea of a phenomenological “epoch” underlines Zagajewski’s later poetry and essays where the reader can detect various forms of suspension of judgment. It is interesting to note that this author of so many sophisticated and intellectual poems pays little attention to the established definitions of the nature of beauty, poetry, or music (236). Paradoxically, this suspension of judgment initiates the beginning of a poetic “search for radiance.” It also opens the possibility of learning through erring and mistakes because those “masters are not infallible. They’re neither Goethe . . . nor Horace . . . I can hear their broken speech” (“My Masters,” 237).

A Search for Radiance is written with erudition and a genuine passion for literature. It is a significant book that examines not only the aesthetic paradigm of Adam Zagajewski’s poetry, but also reconstructs the less obvious and hidden “ontological” questions of his poetic philosophy. This is accomplished through close readings of Zagajewski’s texts. Sometimes the language of analysis appears to be too metaphorical (180), but ultimately the reader is given a rich commentary on literature, philosophy, and art. It is indeed a teres atque rotundus, a well-rounded book.

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