Reflections on art, music, poetry, and family from an acclaimed Polish poet.
In an engaging assemblage of short essays, poems, and diary entries as brief as a sentence or two, Zagajewski (Unseen Hand: Poems, 2011, etc.) offers an impressionistic collection of thoughts about culture, history, and aesthetics, circling always back to his family’s experiences during World War II, when they were forced to leave their native Lvov and resettle in Silesia. Uprootedness, he believes, is crucial to the creation of art. Stability may be enviable, he writes, “but it has no poetic merit whatsoever. Loss alone touches us deeply, permanence goes unremarked.” Many pieces coalesce to form a tender portrait of his taciturn, modest father, an engineer and professor, who lost his memory to dementia. When asked once to comment about “the whole strange world that had swallowed up his son,” he replied that poetry is a “slight exaggeration,” because, as Zagajewski explains, a genre awash in metaphor, hyperbole, and emotion was antithetical to his objective, pragmatic view of the world; poetry “confuses the boundaries and lines of reality, which grows feverish and dances.” The author himself defines poetry as “mysticism for beginners.” Acutely responsive to place, Zagajewski recalls 20 years spent in Paris, a city that enthralled him, and many semesters teaching in Houston, where he discovered the riches of the Rice University library and Menil art collection. Other pieces, not surprisingly, consider language, writing, and a number of fellow poets, including Joseph Brodsky (a “brilliant, arrogant intellectual” and also “the most considerate of friends”), Constantine Cavafy (“the Balzac of modern Greek poetry”), Zbigniew Herbert, and Philip Larkin. Zagajewski dismisses the work of some young poets who, in his estimation, “did not know how to live.” Among visual artists, the author admires the old masters; in music, he is transported by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Billie Holiday, whose voice rendered him “spellbound.”
An illuminating prose album of candid musings on the “melancholy and joyful” gifts of art.