Lanew-yorkaise's Reviews > Eternal Enemies: Poems

Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski
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U 50x66
's review
Jul 20, 2009

really liked it
Read in May, 2009


Adam Zagajewski is often compared to the Polish poet Czeslaw Miloscz: both write of the proximity of history and memory in their native Poland, and both are seen as the preeminent writers to embody the emotions of that country. But where Milocz’s sensibilities developed during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and his defection from Poland’s communist regime, Zagajewski was born in 1945, and was still an infant when his family relocated to Western Poland. Too young to remember World War II, Zagajewski matured in a country ruled by communism, his writing marked by his membership in the “Generation of ‘68” or “New Wave” of writers in Poland.

Zagajewski’s earlier work was marked by angry protest, but in Eternal Enemies (translated by Clare Cavanagh, FSG Paperbacks, April 7, 2009, $14) the anger has mellowed to an acceptance of the weighty past that continues to push against the present. For Zagajewski, the past is an electrical current that informs his sensations as he walks the streets of Europe’s once-great cities still reeling from the tremors.

Eternal Enemies covers a lot of ground: the importance of music; musings on Marx, Brodsky, and Milocz; meditative train trips and strolls through a multitude of cities. Yet it is Zagajewsky’s sense of being born too late, of being excluded from the formation of history that stands out most in his writings. This sense of alienation can best be seen in his poem, “In a Little Apartment:”

“I ask my father, ‘what do you do all day?’

‘I remember.’

…in a low block in the Soviet Style

that says all towns should look like barracks,

and cramped rooms will defeat conspiracies…

he relives daily the mild September of ’39, its whistling bombs,

and the Jesuit Garden in Lvov, gleaming

with the green glow of maples and ash trees and small birds,

kayaks on the Dniester, the scent of wicker and wet sand,

that hot day when you met a girl who studied law,

the trip by freight car to the west, the final border,

two hundred roses from the students

grateful for your help in ’68,

and other episodes I’ll never know,

the kiss of a girl who didn’t become my mother,

the fear and sweet gooseberries of childhood, images drawn

from that calm abyss before I was.

Your memory works in the quiet apartment—in silence,

Systematically, you struggle to retrieve for an instant

Your painful century.”

By the time Zagajewski returns to Lvov after his family’s exile, the very buildings weigh on the individual, silencing and smothering protest, echoes of the barracks used to house Poland’s many prisoners of war.

A nostalgia for a past he himself did not experience is evinced by the juxtaposition of the “whistling bombs” to the gleaming green glow of Maples and the sound of sparrows, of life going on in spite of war.

The sense of being apart from history is repeated again and again: “other episodes I’ll never know,” “the kiss of a girl who didn’t become my mother,” “The calm abyss before I was,” and the final, distancing, disowning gesture: “Your painful century.”

It is in this last, accusing phrase, that some of the old anger comes to the surface. The generation of ’68 around the globe felt an insurmountable distance between themselves and the lives of their parents, and this poem is partly a manifestation of this inaccessibility. Yet the very act of recording his father’s memories—which we can assume would otherwise have continued to be replayed in the “quiet apartment,” “in silence”— is a testament to the role of the poet, and the Polish poet in particular. Zagajewski actively inherits the mantle of Milocz, the weight of his country’s history on his shoulders.

Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov in 1945. His previous books include Tremor; Canvas; Mysticism for Beginners; Without End; Solidarity, Solitude; Two Cities; Another Beauty; and A Defense of Ardor—all published by FSG. He lives in Paris and Houston.
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