rev of. Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski

Issue #105
Spring 2008

Eternal Enemies, poems by Adam Zagajewski (FSG): It sounds somewhat disingenuous now to call even a single poem beautiful, let alone an entire book, so it’s not without caution that I say Adam Zagajewski’s latest collection, Eternal Enemies, is exactly that: lovely, luminous, and wholly lacking the easy cynicism lesser poets might ascribe to such work. Its richness comes, in part, from Zagajewski’s Polish heritage, and the war-savaged landscapes of his youth, which haunt his work even now, some thirty-six years after publishing his first book. Cities are of particular interest to Zagajewski, as places where lives intersect, or where history is measured against an individual life. The latter condition is explored in the opening poem, "Star," an ode to remembrance in which the poet returns to the "unchanging city / buried in the waters of the past." In many ways, it’s the quintessential poem of the collection, clear-spoken yet complex. "I’m not," he says, "the young poet who wrote / too many lines // and wandered in the maze / of narrow streets and illusions." Many of Zagajewski’s poems follow that mode of deceptive simplicity, where seemingly small associations lead to devastating conclusions. In "The Swallows of Auschwitz," the sound of birdcalls causes the poet to ask, "Is this really all that’s left / of human speech?" Elsewhere, a Billie Holliday recording leads to a meditation on death and pain.

Even in poems without such historical burdens, Zagajewski reaches through the expected, finding the personal, for example, in a public discourse: "Yes, defending poetry, high style, etc. / but also summer evenings in a small town…." Of course, for a poet like Zagajewski, matters of art and matters of the self aren’t far removed, and that tension becomes the driving force for several poems. It’s fascinating to watch a poet of Zagajewski’s stature grapple with such slippery subject matter as the natures of art or poetry. In one version, poetry is "the kingly road / that leads us farthest." In another, the act of reading poems becomes an elegy for the friends who wrote them. In this poem, the excellent "Butterflies," we see the perfect confluence of Zagajewski’s poetic concerns, past and present uniting under the auspices of art, and offering his readers a guide of sorts to the stark, essential beauty he continues to give us: "I read poems, listen to the mighty whisper / of night and blood." —Robert Arnold

Robert Arnold is the managing director of Ploughshares, and cofounder of Memorious: a journal of new verse and fiction.