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Through the Poet's Eye

The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky

Reviewer: Anna Czarnowus

Through the Poet's Eye - The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky

By Bozena Shallcross. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2002. 190 pages. Index. Hardcover. $27.95.

Bozena Shallcross moves freely through various literary genres. Her object of study is the literature created by immigrant poets, or at least the ones who traveled extensively in western Europe (Adam Zagajewski returned to Kraków; Zbigniew Herbert never became an émigré). Zagajewski's Another Beauty, Herbert's Barbarian in the Garden and Still Life with a Bridle, and Josif Brodsky's Watermark are the collections of essays she focuses on. Even though the literary works in question can be identified as travelogues, they also have numerous associations with their authors' poems, a point stressed a number of times in Shallcross's book. Nearly all the statements referring to both the essays and the poems are supported by ample quotations, and all of them appear in good English translations.

The study reflects Shallcross's fascination with the interdisciplinary quality of contemporary culture and with intertextuality of various cultural phenomena, such as literary works and the visual arts. The idea of discussing together the essays written by the poets in question is quite original, especially when one bears in mind the specificity of their experiences. Shallcross focuses on the question of epiphany as it was understood by such modernist writers as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, even though there is only one reference to the former and no references to the latter in the book. The perspective adopted for the purpose of the study is ocular, since visual experience is the source of epiphany for the central and eastern European travelers to the part of Europe that remained free of Communist incursion. Their experiences are associated with travels to cities situated outside their part of the world which was then separated by the Iron Curtain. Shallcross's major premise is that "a correlation exists between the sensory experience of travel and the epiphanic perception of the visual arts" (xvi). Her definition of an epiphanic journey is presented as "a dynamic and intensive moment of insight and motion produced by the interdependence of movement and works of art" (xvi). The uniqueness of the epiphanies described in the book is associated with the historical conditioning of the travelers. All of them experienced the feeling of disinheritance due to being excluded from access to and participation in Western culture for which they otherwise felt much affinity. Seeing became their modus operandi, and they adopted the attitude of a flaneur: Zagajewski is described as a selective observer, Herbert as a casual onlooker, and Brodsky as one immersed in the environment surrounding him.

The author of Through the Poet's Eye intends to present her objects of study through a "variety of interdisciplinary readings" (xvii), but to a certain extent her analysis remains methodologically indeterminate. Individual experiences are viewed from the perspective of the epiphany theory, but the entire concept seems to be slightly unspecified due to the thinness of the critical apparatus used in the book. She mentions, among others, S. T. Coleridge, William Blake, and Virginia Woolf as theoreticians of epiphany, but the book does not supply enough theoretical background associated with the topic. Shallcross seems to be more interested in the historical and political background of the poets' experiences. The following reference to Roman Ingarden's phenomenology is one of those few passages where theory is addressed: "Immediacy, intensity, and ecstasy combined with intuitive grasp of the pure essence of objects are the elements which constitute both [Zagajewski's] epiphanic and his phenomenological visions. Thus both forms of vision serve to define each other" (39). Such references to literary theory are rare even though the works of art in question are said to be analyzed in the context of art theory.

The urban epiphanies of Zagajewski are associated with Lwów/Lviv where he was born, with Kraków where he studied, with the United States where he traveled and lived, and with Paris which he chose for his abode. Not every city can be the site of epiphanic experience: Shallcross stresses the fact that some cities, such as Gliwice where Zagajewski grew up, cannot be the setting of such a phenomenon (but why?). The poet's epiphanies are described as object-related, and they are perceived in the context of his fascination with both Ingarden's philosophy and Vermeer's painting. Such a situation partly justifies Shallcross's neglect of theoretical background: Zagajewski himself applied a literary theory to his interpretations, and a reading of his essays in the light of a critical theory might be superfluous as he already placed his work in the context of phenomenology.

Zbigniew Herbert is presented as a pilgrim (to use the title of a review by Andrzej Kijowski) relishing in the imaginative space supplied to him by museums and historical cities. Barbarian in the Garden and Still Life with a Bridle are analyzed in the context of the poet's biography, and specifically his state of being "caught between the implied Scylla of communist-ruled society and the Chabrydis of humanism in the West" (49). Shallcross carefully analyzes the metaphoric level of the two collections of essays and even provides the definition of epiphany valid for Herbert's essays: it is viewed as "an intense and ecstatic manifestation or realization of an otherwise ineffable truth, a realization that comes into being through the power of art" (44). The experience is caused by Italian and Dutch art, the former being associated with visiting places along with the hordes of tourists, and the latter with remaining a solitary pilgrim in the temples of art of the Dutch museums. It is innovative that Herbert's epiphanies are juxtaposed with Kasimir Malevich's art, with the implication that both the Russian artist's paintings and the Polish poet's travelogues embody the spirit of negative aesthetics.

Brodsky's Watermark is interpreted as "a treatise about mirrors and their hidden and unpredictable meanings" (104), and it is analyzed as a manifestation of the poet's fascination with the topic of the void. Petersburg and Venice are interpreted as the twin cities that are always present in the life of the poet. Being in Venice is the result of a choice consciously made by the poet, and it manifests his fondness for impersonation and masquerading. Venice is an "intertextual creation" (114), a city representing nothingness. Shallcross stresses the postmodern dimension of Watermark, pinpointing the topic of negativity as the element crucial for the understanding of Brodsky's poetry and prose. What is striking is the comparison she draws between the poet's oeuvre and modern painting, which was the domain disliked by Brodsky himself. Such passages make the book a remarkable piece of writing, since they provide interdisciplinary perspective for interpretation of the literary works in question.

Shallcross's views on works of art are far from orthodox. She does quote art historians when writing about the objects and places generating the poets' epiphanic experiences, but she also presents her own critical opinions instead of agreeing with every point that had already been made on a given subject. In that she imitates the poets she is writing about: according to her, Herbert also walked away from traditional art history and combined his objects of study with the diversified texture of life. In other words, she accepts the canon created by the poets whose essays she analyzes. Shallcross's analysis takes into account the analogues to the works she focuses on and the differences between the individual essay collections. The subject matter of the essays acquires a wider perspective in her account, probably the most interesting of them being the comparison of Watermark with Ruskin's Stones of Venice: she sees Brodsky as the continuator of the tradition started by the Victorian thinker.

After reading the book it becomes clear why Shallcross chose these three authors. She presents the three collections of essays as belonging to the same tradition, one which includes the poets' relationships to Western culture. She states that "Herbert bridges the extreme poles marked by Zagajewski and Brodsky. His dark epiphanies . . . anticipate Brodsky's moment of a black vision" (99). The writers' feeling of dispossession is alleviated through Shallcross's study: she shows that their epiphanies have their roots in Western civilization from which the three poets felt themselves frustratingly excluded.

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Last updated 10/03/03