Lovely poems that get in your way

Asymmetry: Poems by Adam Zagajewski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A good poet gets in our way. His language calls for some kind of pause – not necessarily to struggle with comprehension or form – but with our regular way of going about things. Adam Zagajewski, who was born and raised in Poland, and who then lived abroad for many years, has returned to Krakow, in part to recall, in poetry, the interruptions and reroutings of his life.

According to Zagajewski, in his recent book Asymmetry: Poems, the penchant for interrupting the everyday underwrites the poet’s task. Poets, he tells us,

“listen to the whispers of broad, lowland rivers./They admire birds in flight, calm suburban gardens,/ high-speed trains rushing breathlessly ahead./ The scent of fresh, hot bread drifting / wafting from a bakery/ stops them in their tracks,/ as if they’d just remembered something vital.”

He’s aware, too, of our custom of paying a poet’s labours little attention: “Each poem has to speak / of the world’s wholeness; alas, our / minds are elsewhere.”

After years abroad, teaching at universities in the United States and living in Europe, Zagajewski’s recent collection portrays his return to the Poland of his youth, and often hovers over the postwar years when the worst was past but what was yet to come remained unforeseeable.

Zagajewski’s family was forced west to the Upper Silesian city of Gliwice from their home in what was the city of Lvov in Poland (modern day Lviv, Ukraine) as part of the repatriations and depopulations at war’s end. Of this period he writes:

“forgetting triumphed in the end,/ forgetting, round as a ball,/ sweet as a strawberry, / final as judgment.”

Zagajewski’s mother and father appear in shadowy tableaux, as he recalls long-ago walks “above a muddy stream,” the water penetrated by “Canadian thyme … an invasive species.” His poems recover glancing bits of their talk; his mother warns him, “you’ll be sorry someday, when I’m not around anymore.”

The life of the poet’s mother is haunted by war – he cryptically recalls that he “couldn’t admire her during the war,” while neglecting to tell us why this is. Her death on the street next to Gliwice’s infamous radio tower, where events led to the war’s outbreak, represents to him

“…the war’s true end,/ since wars conclude with death and proclamations,/though silence always has the last word.”

Zagajewski’s sketches of his youth, in the grey Silesian city and then as a student in wondrous, ancient Krakow, include discovering Charlie Parker, the temptation of a “bookshop display” and a “teacher of false history with a vulture’s sharp face.” These are some of the fragments of a youth spent under communism, which return to him like

“a jungle, a splendid chaos that you spend/ the rest of your life trying to comprehend, to organize,/ in vain.”

Poland’s prewar Jewish character enters his poems as a counterpoint to the other narratives. The death of a friend, who was a child in the war, calls up a memory of a story she told of the Tarnopol Ghetto:

“…Once only she told us this story:/ her beloved cat wouldn’t stay in the ghetto, twice/ it went back to the Aryan side at night. Her cat/ didn’t know who Jews were, what the Aryan side meant./ It didn’t know, so it shot to the other side like an arrow.”


In contemporary Poland, Zagajewski is beset not just by memory but by the fallout of a new divisive politics of identity under a hard-right national government. “Mourning for a Lost Friend” is not a poem about death, but one that addresses political arguments so wounding that friendships fail. “My friend fell in love with the nation” Zagajewski writes, “(he’s) been seized by a deep political tide.”

Lightening Asymmetry are poems that invoke music, from Bach to Charlie Parker, along with Zagajewski’s love affair with the light and heat of southern climes, which from time to time draw the poet from his “northern cities” with “their dirty underwear of melting snow.”

Near the end of the volume, Zagajewski sets down fragments from an “Orange Notebook,” which help break the rhythm of nostalgia and loss:

“A June storm blesses the train. A pheasant lands heavily/ in a wheat field, like the first helicopter …/ Express train, June, a calm evening, the light retreats/ peaceably. Deer beside the forest. Happiness.”

Asymmetry is an autumnal collection. On its dust jacket is a silvery photograph of two elderly people, set on its side, as if to obscure its content. The subject of the photo must be the parents remembered in the poems, but our only evidence of this is a note on the jacket acknowledging it to be “courtesy of the author.”