Let’s face it: without hope and continual, sometimes rewarded longing for the world of love and beauty reflected in the faces of our mothers and her joyful cohorts from our first moments in the birth room, life would be a hard, hard slog. So much darkness, so much beauty.
It’s as if two exhausted boxers in the 35th round of a fight to the death keep probing and hoping for the merest, minuscule suggestion of acquiescence in the other so the question can be settled once and for all.
Polish poet Adam Zagajewski knew that slugfest well, beginning from his own birth in the city of Lwów, Poland, in June 1945. When he was barely four months old, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union annexed Lwów in the carve-up by the Allied powers as World War II ended, placing Lwów into the newly founded Soviet Republic of Ukraine.
Stalin sent Zagajewski’s engineer father and family of four packing along with countless other professionals whom Stalin did not want spouting any ideas about human freedom and dignity.
The family endured a two-week trek by cattle car to resettle in the Polish city of Gliwice, where Zagajewski spent his boyhood before going on to study psychology and philosophy at a Polish university in Krakow. He made his poetic debut at age 22 and wrote verse while also teaching philosophy for the rest of his career. He died in 2021 at age 75.
Ironically, given the first of the two Zagajewski poems we will read below, Lwów became Lviv upon its 1945 annexation, and Lviv it remained when the Stalin imitator Vladimir Putin began to decimate it with repeated missile strikes after he ordered the wanton invasion of Ukraine last February.
Were he alive, Zagajewski would likely be crestfallen but not surprised how history has repeated itself. His poem, “Russia Comes Into Poland,” first appeared in “The Paris Review” in 1987, 35 years before Russia once again sent an army rumbling across his birthplace and cast its people into a living hell.
Zagajewski cooks that raw stew of personal and national history into a piercing chronicle of what all invasions do to a people, how exhaustively they invade every aspect of daily life and set every life on edge.
Nothing will ever be quite as it was before the invaders came, not even the poetry of the poet who puts pen to paper in a desperate, blessed rage for an order that will be no more.
RUSSIA COMES INTO POLAND
(for Joseph Brodsky)
Through meadow and hedgerow, village and forest,
cavalries on the march, infantries on the march,
horses and cannons, old soldiers, young soldiers, children,
wiry wolfhounds at full gallop, a blizzard of feathers,
sleds, Black Marias, carriages, taxis,
even the old cars called Moskwitch come roaring in
and warships and rafts and pontoon bridges roar in
and barges, steamships, canoes, (some of which sink),
barrage balloons, missiles, bombers,
howitzer shells whistling arias from an opera,
the shriek of flagellants and the growl of commands,
songs slashing the air with notes made of steel,
yurts and tents break camp, ropes tightened,
the banners of dyed linen tremble overhead.
Messengers, panting, die as they run,
cables rush out, candles burning with quick crimson flames,
colonels dozing in carriages faster than light,
popes piously murmuring blessings,
even the moon is along on that hard iron march.
Tanks, sabres, ropes,
Katyuasha big-bertha’s whirring like comets,
fifes and drums exploding the air,
clubs crunching, the heaving decks of ferries
and of invasions sigh, sway, the sons of the Steppes
on the march, Moslems, condemned prisoners, lovers
of Byron, gamblers, the whole progeny
of Asia with Souvorov in the lead
limps in with a train of fawning courtiers who dance;
the yellow Volga runs in, Siberian rivers chanting,
camels plod pensively, bringing
the sands of the desert and humid mirages,
the folded-eyed Kirgises marching in step,
the black pupils of the God of the Urals
and behind them school teachers and languages straggle,
and behind them old manor houses skate in like gliders,
and German doctors with dressings and plasters;
the wounded with their faces of albaster,
regiments and divisions, cavalries, infantries, on the march,
Russia comes into Poland,
tearing cobwebs, leaves, silk ribbons,
ligaments and frontiers,
treaties, bridges, alliances,
threads, ties, clothes lines with wet washing still waving,
gates, arteries, bandages and conjunctions,
future and hope;
Russia comes in, marching
into a hamlet on the Pilica,
into the deep Mazovia forests,
rending posters and parliaments,
trampling roads, footbridges, paths, streams.
Russia comes into the eighteenth century,
into October, September, laughter and tears,
into conscience, into the concentration
of the student, the calm silence of the warm bricks of a wall,
comes into the fragrance
of meadows, herbs, the tangled path of the forest,
the pansy, the wild rose,
hoof-prints in the moss, tractor and tank prints
in the soft moss,
chimneys, tree trunks, palaces,
turns off lights, makes great bonfires
out in the formal garden,
darkens the clear spring,
razes the library, church, town hall,
flooding its scarlet banners through the sky,
Russia comes into my life,
Russia comes into my thought,
Russia comes into my poetry.
—Translated from the Polish by C. K. Williams and Renata Gorczynski
The images rush along here in a feverish quest to keep up with the rolling, roiling chaos of an invasion’s early days. No stanzas, because there is no time for breath, the poem a dogged attempt to catalog the rapid-fire imagery of an alien force on the march, crossing into and setting up camp in a country’s and each of its inhabitants’ consciousness.
People climb mountains and risk death for the kind of Be Here Now, totally enveloping awareness that invasion brings. Except climbers choose to do so, while those invaded are flung helter skelter onto a knife-edge they never, in their darkest dreams, considered.
Zagabrewski masterfully alternates concrete imagery with rich metaphor from line to line and even within lines as the invasion’s ripples spread out to flood every far corner of a country under siege.
Howitzer shells come in “whistling arias from an opera” and songs are “slashing the air with notes made of steel.”
We see “fifes and drums exploding the air,” along with this grim sight: “Messengers, panting, die as they run.”
And behind them, what will facilitate the appalling aftermath of the invasion’s success: “school teachers and languages straggle,” bringing with them indoctrination, suppression, the attempted destruction of the history and language that form the very core of a nation’s identity.
It is ugly and heartbreaking beyond measure, and Zagabrewski puts us right in the middle of it, right there amidst the “bonfires out in the formal garden,” the invader who “razes the library, church, town hall,” Lwów-in-1945-become-Lviv 2022.
And he does so only because he, too, succumbs, is breached, his own poetic vocation and vision forever altered as “Russia comes into my life,/Russia comes into my thought,/Russia comes into my poetry.”
Quite a poem, redemption coming in no small measure with the telling. And also setting the stage for images of endurance, redirection and ever-nascent beauty the poet weaves from his early life experience and reflects upon with the hard-fought wisdom of age, countless tragedies and triumphs later, the fighters still entangled, hope still abiding, presented here without further commentary to absorb and do with as you will.
(The following appeared first on September 17, 2001, in “The New Yorker” magazine, six days after the fall of the twin towers.)
TRY TO PRAISE THE MUTILATED WORLD
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
—Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
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