Adam Zagajewski’s Asymmetry

Adam Zagajewski’s newest collection of poems, Asymmetry, translated by Clare Cavanagh, and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is representative of what makes this poet an important and well-established part of contemporary literature. Zagajewski produces work that is steady and bold, well-mannered and fierce, that continually explores the territory of literature, politics, and the brutalities of war, particularly that of World War II. His poems are lyrical and skillfully modern, oftentimes confronting the harsh nature of political violence and fascism. Zagajewski is an enduring poet because of his ability to maintain a strong, humanistic voice in poems that venture into the darkest, bleakest territory. He has the rare gift of poetic authenticity; regardless of subject matter, his voice maintains a transcendent, individualistic spirit.

There are three poems in Asymmetry worth looking at more closely in terms of how they speak to the overall theme of the collection, but also, because they contain key elements that make Zagajewski an elite poet. These three poems appear side-by-side in the collection, have a strong momentum to them, and are simple language-wise, but pack deep metaphorical meaning. The first poem is “Mourning for a Lost Friend” which is incredibly keen, strangely playful, and begins simply: “My friend hasn’t died, my friend lives / But I can’t meet him, I can’t see him / We can’t have a chat.” Immediately the tone is set; readers are introduced to the speaker’s plainspoken cheekiness. Then, the poem takes a serious turn: “He’s been seized by a deep political tide / My friend now knows the answer to every question / And can trace the source of every answer.” Readers discover that the division between the speaker and the friend is not physical, but rather, ideological. The poem grows more personal in tone:

My friend thinks that I’m
frivolous, lost, reckless,
hopelessly adrift in floods
of irresponsible epithets
in ominous thickets of ellipses

It is important to note that in the first half of this poem the tone has shifted three times, and yet, the voice remains even, almost detached. However, personal feeling still finds a way through, particularly in the above passage with words like “frivolous,” “lost,” and “reckless.” The poem becomes more complex as Zagajewski inserts an imagistic shift:

My friend never leaves his house
at night not even in May when all
the houses sing and swallows vanish in the sky
for a long time and come back happy
carefree, renewed

Readers are given more language variation within this plainspoken framework: “houses sing,” “swallows vanish in the sky,” and “come back happy / carefree, renewed.” Zagajewski knows how to make good use of tone, language, and poetic turns. This poem, although steady, is always moving and shifting—it creates a kind of aesthetic beauty that is both unique and captivating. The last shift of the poem falls heavy on the speaker’s feelings toward the friend:

My friend fell in love with the nation
but the nation is serious and never strolls even
in May it keeps watch, my friend
has no time for metaphors or pars pro toto
My friend is hiding from me
My friend lives

Here, the asymmetrical tension between ideology and imagination is at its most intense. There is also great irony: “My friend fell in love with the nation.” This line is ironic because of the emphasis on “fell in love.” The speaker’s friend has developed an emotional attachment to an entity that is “serious,” “never strolls,” and “keeps watch.” The friend has essentially fallen in love with authoritarianism. He has fallen in love, but “has no time for metaphors or pars pro toto” because those modes of thinking fall to the imaginative side of the intellect. Here, asymmetry also rises through an ironic twist: although the friend thinks the speaker is “frivolous” and “lost” he is the one who “never leaves his house / at night” and hides. The ending line of the poem: “My friend lives” is highly ironic and well-earned.

The next poem in the collection, “Jungle,” is rich and full of sensory detail, and in many ways, aesthetically defiant. The poem is pure rhythm, and borders on the wildness of spontaneity. It begins with a proclamation: “But it’s pure accident” and ventures into a wonderfully loose meditation on music, Greta Garbo, and poetry. The speaker then moves into memory and the larger landscape of the city, and pauses on a sensory image: “smelling / the first of weeds and then, in autumn, of bonfires’ sustaining smoke.” This is another poem that moves quite expertly and there is a shift that happens here that causes the poem to dive deeper into metaphorical meaning:

—not ideas, not the serenity of some philosopher’s study,
not an engineer’s sketches, or my father’s stenography,
just chaos, a chaos of stains, sounds, and scents,
a jungle, a splendid chaos that you spend
the rest of your life trying to comprehend…

In this poem, asymmetry develops through the friction between stifling order and harmonic chaos. The speaker pushes back against “philosopher’s study,” “engineer’s sketches,” and “my father’s stenography” which represents a world that is measured and meticulous, a world that can be explained, sectioned-off, and made efficient. The speaker continues:

…and so it remains, slipshod, a rough draft,
covered in slanting, violet lines,
a rough draft, whose cardboard covers
curl like a bat’s wings, a notebook
that fades and vanishes in the abyss
of the bottom drawer, vanishes, but is in fact
immortal.

Readers are presented with the contrasting image of the rough draft which is “slipshod” and “covered in slanting, violet lines.” The notebook represents the pure energetic art of creative imagination, pushed down by the constricting nature of a calculated and orderly world. However, the poem ends on the word “immortal” which suggests that creativity can be repressed, but it can never be completely buried or extinguished. It lives on even as it “vanishes.”

The third poem, “Ruth,” is an elegy for a woman who was a World War II survivor and a defense lawyer. The poem follows a similar thought trail as the other two in the sense that it meanders in an imaginative fashion, but the subject matter is dark and impactful:

She was a Jew. Sometimes she didn’t know what that meant.
It’s simple and incomprehensible, like algebra.
At times she tried to work it through. The Gestapo knew exactly what it meant
to be a Jew. The great philosophical tradition helped,
definitions sharp as knives, direct as a Buddhist’s arrow.

This poem operates on asymmetrical contrasts that are both ideological and gender-related. Mathematical thought, philosophy, and religion are paired with the brutal nature of The Gestapo who “knew exactly what it meant to be a Jew” and are weighted against Ruth, who attempts to “work it through,” which is a phrase heavy with passionate sarcasm. However, an excellent shift occurs that asserts Ruth’s being in miraculous ways:

She was beautiful. She should have died then, like the other men and women,
vanished without a trace, gone without elegies, like so many others,
like the air, but she lived a long time, in daylight, in the sun,
in the daily air, the oxygen of ordinary Krakow.
Sometimes she couldn’t understand what it meant to be beautiful.
The mirror kept still, it didn’t know the philosophical definitions.

This is probably the most poignant moment in Asymmetry. Humanism breathes through Ruth, through the emotional power of the elegy as a poetic form that asserts her personhood even as it mourns her death. The powerful tone of the speaker is especially gripping: “she lived a long time, in the daylight, in the sun, / in the daily air, the oxygen of ordinary Krakow.” Ruth survived the harsh reality of an ideological and genocidal violence which sought to destroy her. The poem ends with the speaker celebrating a woman who chose to become a defense lawyer rather than a prosecutor. Ruth is honored as a conscientious defender instead of a victimized war survivor.

The poems in Asymmetry continue to establish Adam Zagajewski as a major voice in poetry. His use of tone, language, and metaphor is both effortless and nuanced, but his biggest strength is consistency. Zagajewski is one of the steadiest poets writing today. His voice never strays from its rhythms; the poems remain honest and powerful. He continues to find new ways to carry his lyrical and narrative sensibilities into innovative territory, keeping the work fresh.

February 18, 2019