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Michael Hofmann

For twenty years, since I first read the first poem, ‘To Go to Lvov’, in his first English-language book, Tremor (1985), I have had a happily unexamined admiration for the work of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Hence, perhaps, the inordinate difficulty – even for me, with my sluggishness and resistances – in approaching it now in a spirit of . . . let’s call it serious holism. And yet it was something I very much wanted to do, and something about Zagajewski’s poetry – the joyful flavours of it – seemed to me to elicit (or elicit from me) something like its dialectical opposite: something austere, grinding, agnostic, judicious.

I suppose what I always liked about his poetry is the sense of the poet as companion, as fellow reader and traveller, sharing his notes on books and places, in four books of essays and four collections of poems, without very much to tell them apart. (Though I’ve only met him half a dozen times at most, his voice is one of those I can hear absolutely at will.) The poems ramble wool-gatheringly, and the essays are yet more aimlessly beautiful affairs than the now slightly old-fashioned-sounding label suggests; rarely do they have anything either analytical or brutally argumentative about them. There is something enviably light-footed, free and easy, alert, intense and momentary about all the writing. It is adventitious, unplanned, follows its nose, goes very often sideways. It has a feline quality, and puts me in mind of Zagajewski’s curled purr. You see its marked profile, like a companion’s, from the side as you amblingly read. In addition to those essays, Zagajewski has also written at least one novel, which I read in German, about a Polish painter in Berlin. The book was called Der dünne Strich (‘The Thin Line’ or ‘The Fine Line’), which is its protagonist’s nickname: it might stand for Zagajewski himself. He teaches a term a year – a confrère! – in Houston, and after living in Paris for 25 years, has recently gone to live in Krakow, where he once studied philosophy.

Somewhere, the poems are one poem, and the prose one prose – or they are even, all together, one writing. The names of poets – and still more, of philosophers and composers – occur as naturally and profusely in the poems as the names of trees, or relatives, or types of fruit in the prose. Someone’s sonatas or pensées are set next to a church or a square in a town, or a painting, or the scent of some flower or bush. The world – including great parts of the human-made world – is there for our study and our delectation. And amid these stimuli, sipping, musing, modestly disclaiming all forms of industry, proficiency or diligence, sometimes mildly remonstrating with himself (‘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’), and sometimes voicing something more like a prayer (‘Give us astonishment/and a flame, high, bright’), is an engaging private ‘I’ (‘Herr Doktor, Herr Privatdozent’): a bookworm, globetrotter, noticer who seems very close to the poet himself.

The experience of reading him is very different, but the unself-conscious way with which Zagajewski handles this ‘I’ brings to mind Frank O’Hara. Certainly, it wouldn’t be easy to say who is the more charming, and charm is very much the issue. The difference is that in O’Hara the ‘I’ (as in ‘I do this, I do that’) is the repository of all charm: the poems are, in Norman Mailer’s phrase, ‘advertisements for myself’. In Zagajewski, the charm is that of all the world. O’Hara, straightening his eyelids, throwing a couple of tangerines in an overnight bag, is personally and actively and often spectacularly eccentric, Zagajewski – if such a thing can be imagined – passively and haphazardly and rather demurely so. ‘Do you mean to say this has never occurred to you?’ his poems seem to say. ‘Where have you been? What do you spend your time doing?’

I wasn’t in this poem
only gleaming pure pools,
a lizard’s tiny eye, the wind
and the sounds of a harmonica
pressed to not my lips.

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