Living Everywhere: On Adam Zagajewski’s “True Life”

By Kathleen RooneyFebruary 19, 2023

Living Everywhere: On Adam Zagajewski’s “True Life”

True Life by Adam Zagajewski

IN HIS NOVEL The House of Dr. Dee, set partly in London in the 1990s and partly in the same metropolis in the 1500s, Peter Ackroyd writes: “True books are filled with the power of the understanding which is the inheritance of the ages.” The late Polish poet Adam Zagajewski captures this sense of how the past and the present slip into and over one another, both in writing and in life. Over the course of his remarkable career, Zagajewski frequently examined how these layers and sediments of experience and memory end up forgotten and recalled, submerged and revealed. “[Y]ou may take up a book in time,” Ackroyd continues, “but you read it in eternity.” In an Ackroydian sense, Zagajewski’s books are true, of their era and eternal.

Even when it does not literally rhyme, great poetry rhymes. The best poems are both of their own epoch and transferable to others, their themes and thoughts, emotions and meanings signifying whatever the poet initially meant and whatever future readers (all readers are temporally in the future) may need the poem to mean.

This notion might seem abstract, but one poem that has made this sensation of cross-temporal rhyming — of empathetic repetition, of historical echo — concrete in an extraordinary manner is Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Completed a year and a half before the September 11 attacks, the poem appeared one week after the shocking tragedy, on the back page of the September 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker. It’s hard to quote a representative passage from such an expansive work, but the poem concludes on an image that encapsulates these never-ending vicissitudes:

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Shortly after his 1945 birth in Lvov, Poland (now known as Lviv, Ukraine), Zagajewski and his family were relocated by cattle car to Western Poland. As an adult, he lived in Berlin, France, Houston, and Chicago, before returning to Kraków, where he died in 2021. When asked about his oft-quoted and arguably most renowned poem during a CBC radio interview conducted by Eleanor Wachtel in 2005, Zagajewski said,

Of course, in my mind, the connection [to 9/11] was established only by the fact of it being published in The New Yorker […] For me, it was a poem of my childhood, the childhood in the ruins after the Second World War. It is about the double experience, on the one hand, of destruction and pain — and the other hand, of joy, of art, of thinking.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” was deftly translated by the acclaimed translator and Northwestern University professor Clare Cavanagh, as are the poems in Zagajewski’s latest and last book, True Life, published posthumously. The collection’s 54 poems reveal Zagajewski still at his life’s work of conveying that double experience, still praising the mutilated world, and still showing how the mood of a moment might apply to a moment to come as much as a past moment.

In the poem “Rain in Lvov,” which riffs on fellow Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz’s “Rain in Kraków,” Zagajewski oscillates between humankind’s nobility and dishonor, exultation and abjection:

It falls on the Armenian cathedral
and on the Uniate Church of Saint George.
On the opera and on the black house.
Hills vanish in the mist.

And Ostap Ortwin, who
was a valiant man
(he defended Stanislaw Brzozowski).
Shot on the street
by the Gestapo.

Civilization has five syllables.
Pain — only one.
In London I saw van Eyck’s self-portrait
inscribed “Als ich can” — that is
“As best I can” — and it is not a selfie.

His subtle seesawings here and throughout the book are tonal as well, somber and comic, elegiac and celebratory, beautifully traversing not only time and history but also the various registers of cognition and affect. He dramatizes the experience of having a human consciousness that tries to make sense of the way the geopolitical pendulum sweeps from good to evil and everything in between — in other words, how the same species that built cathedrals and produced van Eyck also perpetrated and permitted the Holocaust.

True Life is also a book about the pleasures of thinking and feeling as acts unto themselves, and of the worthiness of seeking understanding even if understanding can never be found, and even if we can never be sure what the people around us are going through. In “Istanbul,” for instance, Zagajewski writes:

I see those boys once more, in the afternoon
sun, how they pinch their noses
and jump into Istanbul’s sea
from a low concrete embankment.
Then they came straight from the water,
shining like damp pebbles,
and jumped back in again —
as if there could really be perpetuum mobile.
I don’t know if they were happy, but I
was, for a moment, in the blaze
of a May day, watching.

The speaker’s observational stance on the boys reflects one of many instances when Zagajewski displays a curious attitude regarding the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.

Zagajewski studied philosophy at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, and True Life collection opens with an epigraph from 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s book Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961): “‘The true life is absent.’ But we are in the world.” This statement from which Zagajewski takes his book’s title can be understood to mean that although the chasm between the world we desire and the world that exists is wide — in other words, although corruption thrives and suffering persists — we have a responsibility to seek meaning and to try to bridge that chasm.

Even when writing about atrocity and injustice, Zagajewski never indulges himself in moral certitude or gets mired in despair, but rather suspends himself somewhere in that chasm of apprehension. “Bełżec,” a poem about the titular Nazi extermination camp, begins, “Summer ends, fall has not yet begun,” the indeterminacy of season establishing the dissonance between two observations that follow: “What a lovely day, the blackberries in the woods / must be dark as the lips of screen sirens in silent films,” and later on, “And just then you see Bełżec. / Only cinders and grief remain, only quiet, / and sleepy occupants who / still wait for an answer.”

This answerlessness — this inability, perhaps ever, to feel resolved about historical abominations and the way the world goes on during and after them — is a feature that lends coherence to the collection. Zagajewski’s muted and pensive but never dull attitude allows the poems to showcase their author’s overwhelming love of the world and all its beauty and wonder, as well as his anguish at that same world’s violence and cruelty. By way of understatement, his poems’ speakers give the sense of being clear-eyed and sage, their judgments not distorted by partisan manipulation or outrage. Somehow, by delivering utterances at the range of an almost-whisper or the modest hum of an internal train of thought, his poems carry more force than if they’d been shouted.

In his youth, Zagajewski began as a protest poet, part of the Polish New Wave or Generation ’68, who used their writings to oppose the communist government and denounce its iniquities. His work was banned in Poland in 1975, leading eventually to his living in exile from 1982 to 2002. In the aforementioned Wachtel interview, Zagajewski said of this time,

It was perhaps the best thing you could do under the circumstances, to revolt — and to revolt in a wise way […] It was done by thinking and trying to understand, not by rushing to a radical political action that would make you land in a prison, though I had a lot of admiration for people who undertook this radical action.

As he grew older and his poetry began to move in a less blunt and more ineffable direction, Zagajewski retained that sense of wisdom, and True Life radiates that belief in the revolutionary nature of trying to understand. “November” chronicles a “drab November day lost in thought” where reality and myth, truth and mystery intermingle:

Night and fireworks
and refugees landing on a stony beach
and Aphrodite who triumphantly
calmly strides the waves of a sea
dark as wine

And shopping malls where
contented humanity moves
both left and right

And we still don’t know why Ovid was exiled
from Rome and why Rome
forgot everything
and why we forgot

The subdued, steady attention he pays to people and things in the past and the present creates a ruminative atmosphere infused with low-key humor, and he imbues his words with an aura of hope, or at least ongoingness.

Zagajewski’s exquisite skill at representing the tension between endings and continuity makes the short poem “We Wait” worth quoting in its entirety:

One afternoon
Alfred Cortot plays Chopin
but only on a record
So what
There is eternity
There is delicacy
and dark powers
that drowse
We all wait
what comes next
There is eternity
but it ends soon
Sounds are lightning strokes
they can’t be stopped
We can be stopped
just like that

His use of repetition, particularly the verb “stop,” to emphasize that some things cannot endlessly repeat (even eternity, which, according to him, “ends soon”) is typical of the paradoxical charms of the collection.

The paradox of death as an end to something but not to everything — at least when the dead person can be said to have been an artist — crops up in Zagajewski’s allusions to such figures as Tolstoy and Bashō, as well as to more intimate remembrances of his personal friends. One such poem is “Charlie,” written in memory of his fellow poet C. K. Williams: “Friendship is immortal and doesn’t demand / many words. It is calm and patient. Friendship is the prose of love.”

Yet in a collection filled with so many elegies, the reader cannot help but get the sense that death itself is a form of exile — exiling the dead person from the country of life while exiling the dead person’s friends from the land that was that person. When we imagine our friends — idly or with the goal of elegizing them — we make them live again, of course, but it’s not the same as (to think about the title from another angle) true life.

Zagajewski’s 1995 essay collection Two Cities is subtitled On Exile, History, and the Imagination, and this final book braids all three of those concerns together. His lifelong interest in how people cross borders both literal and metaphysical, and how those same borders can also cross people (as the changing border of Ukraine dislocated his family when he was an infant), manifests throughout the collection. In “Border,” he makes this interest explicit: “Poor people wait by the border / and look hopefully at the other side / The scent of gasoline crickets / skylarks sing / the abridged version of a hymn.” The poem “Drottningholm,” about a photograph of his parents outside “Drottningholm Palace / near Stockholm,” offers a more indirect musing on the way the spirit of a place can or cannot flow into those who flow into it: “And higher, over them, / clouds, indifferent, deep blue, / and a little sun that illuminates / the tourists’ silhouettes. Perhaps / it wants to enter their hearts.”

Few poets have captured the mysterious motion through space, time, and mood that Zagajewski evokes in passing through built environments and poring over historical testaments. In “Córdoba Sparrows,” he declares, “Philosophers must choose their city, / only poets can live everywhere.” It’s the kind of aphorism that invites agreement, disagreement, meditation, and debate. Whether one finds the assertion true or false in a universal sense, in his own broad senses of time and space, Zagajewski himself was a poet who did live everywhere, and who, thanks to such books as True Life, will continue to do so.


Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Her next novel, From Dust to Stardust, will be published by Lake Union in fall 2023.

LARB Contributor

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. The author of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (2017) and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (2020), her latest poetry collection Where Are the Snows, winner of the XJ Kennedy Prize, was released by Texas Review Press in fall of 2022. Her next novel, From Dust to Stardust, will be published by Lake Union in fall of 2023.


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