Ilya Kaminsky remembers Adam Zagajewski: “He was a very shy person, gracious, precise. He believed in the soul …”


We haven’t finished talking about Adam Zagajewski, who died last month. We never will. Now we have Ilya Kaminsky‘s amazing tribute in The Yale Review (We wrote about the Ukrainian poet and novelist here and here.)

His article, “Going to Lvov,” begins:

“…a world of books within him”

I will always remember how, on a street corner in Chicago, the late Polish poet Adam Zagajewski turned to me and breathlessly said, “Oh, how much I hate Dante!”

I kept laughing all the way to my train. But of course, like everything Adam said, it made perfect sense in context. He was teaching at the University of Chicago that semester, away from his hometown of Kraków. I saw him twice a month when I visited Chicago for work. On that occasion, as usual, our conversation began with a report of what we had been reading: in my case, Dante, in Adam’s, Kobayashi Issa’s haiku. He loved the short lyric, its self-contained inner life, and minimalists like Pascal and E. M. Cioran; the latter he quoted often. But he also struggled with Cioran’s pessimism: “I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to toss that book against the wall.”

“A skinny man who carried a world of books within him, Adam Zagajewski was the kind of person who would offer to drop you off at your hotel after a poetry reading only to pull over midway to better focus on a conversation about poetry.  He would email the next day to recommend some more poets he loved, without any of that Bloomian anxiety of influence. None of this was a performance: he was a very shy person, gracious, precise. He believed in the soul—that the soul must live in lyric poetry. That, most of all.

Poet, novelist Kaminsky at a reading

“What I love about his own poems is how, in the second half of the horror that was the twentieth century, knowing what happened to Gabriel García Lorca, César Vallejo, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan, and countless others, Adam insisted that a poem can be both an elegy for what happened and also a hymn to life. He gave us, if not a healing, then a way to go on, to give each other a measure of reprieve, music, and “gentleness.”

“To Go to Lvov” gives us context the poem, “a dream that refuses to end”: “Think of this poem, written in the 1980s, in a time when half of Europe was still under Soviet rule. Think of the joy it gives, composed in the shadow of a pained, disjointed requiem like Celan’s “Death Fugue.” Think of how much it took for a refugee and a child of refugees—for a man whose people died in exile—to stand up and imagine a way forward.”

In “To Go to Lvov,” the city’s rhythms are in the poem’s repetitions, line breaks, and sentence patterns. At the end of twentieth century, in a postwar poem about exile we expect an elegy, a protest, a dirge, but instead receive an ode’s joyful, impossible praise.

Much like “Late Beethoven,” this poem juxtaposes tonalities: humor, high lyricism, heartbreak. There is that same tension between description and invocation.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Go to the link to read Adam Z.’s matchless poem for the late Beethoven, called, justly enough, “Late Beethoven.” The poem, and Ilya’s tribute, are over at The Yale Review here.

Postscript on May 11: Sculptor Jonathan Hirschfeld has identified the playful man in the pink shirt. It is Adam’s lifelong friend, the actor Wojciech Pszoniak, who passed away at 78 last October. (Some may remember that he played Robespierre in Andrzej Wajda‘s 1983 Danton.) Adam was grieving deeply for his friend. The Bulgarian-French thinker Tzvetan Todorov, who died in 2017, is in the back row on the left.  

Adam Zagajewski’s wedding to Maja Wodecka. Joseph Brodsky and Zbigniew Herbert at left.

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