I just finished a slim, posthumous book of Adam Zagajewski’s poems. This little poem seems to me to capture exactly how it feels to long to write when you can’t:


We always forget what poetry is
(or maybe it happens only to me).
Poetry is a wind blowing from the gods, says
Cioran, citing the Aztecs.

But there are so many quiet, windless days.
The gods are napping then
or they’re preparing tax forms
for even loftier gods.

Oh may that wind return.
The wind blowing from the gods
let it come back, let that wind

from The Life
translated by Clare Cavanagh

The Exemplary Sentence

It’s been awhile since I published a prose piece.  This snippet is from Wisława Szymborska’s How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) and first appeared in Lit Hub’s Craft of Writing newsletter. It comes from the advice she gave—anonymously—for many years in “Literary Mailbox,” a regular column in the Polish journal Literary Life, and is translated by the indefatigable Clare Cavanagh, who has brought us most of the wonderful Polish poetry and prose that we have in English.

“The same old complaint about ‘youth.’ This time we’re supposed to forgive the author since he still hasn’t been anywhere, experienced anything worth mentioning, or read everything that he should. Such confessions betray the belief (adolescent, hence a bit simplistic) that external circumstances alone make the writer. That his creative quality derives from the quantity of his life adventures. In fact, the writer develops internally, within his own heart and mind: through an innate (we repeat, innate) propensity for thought, acute sensitivity to minor matters, astonishment at what others see as ordinary. Trips abroad? We sincerely hope you’ll take them, they sometimes come in handy. But before you head off to Capri, we suggest a trip to Lesser Wółka. If you come back with nothing to write about, then no azure grottoes will save you.”

When we were in Krakow a few years ago (sadly we missed Lesser Wółka), there was a museum show called Szymborska’s Desk, which had a facsimile of her writing room with many artifacts. I found it truly charming, and was only sorry I never got to meet the writer herself. Here is her yellow typewriter from that show.

The book of these snippets, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) is published by New Directions. Hurray for them! I’m going to buy a copy myself.

An exemplary sentence

41K5ATQ9E5LAlthough I primarily know him as a poet, I love Adam Zagewski’s prose. Here is a snippet from his memoir of his student days in Krakow, Another Beauty,  beautifully translated by Clare Cavanagh. It’s about the cleaning lady for his student apartment:

She was a magpie, a snoop. I suspected her of regularly rummaging though our things and once left a card that said “Please don’t look here” in my desk drawer. Helena took offense and didn’t speak to me for several days, and then, when her anger had subsided, she reproached me bitterly: “How could you even think such a thing? So you don’t trust me at all.” Continue reading “An exemplary sentence”

The exemplary sentence

zagajewskiI picked up a book of essays by Adam Zagajewski, called In Defense of Ardor, an elegant title. The title essay discusses the role of irony in modern writing, and makes a case for less of it, more engagement. It’s worth reading in it’s entirety if that subject interests you.  But the quote today is from the essay “The Shabby and the Sublime,” about the act of writing.

“Maybe we’re not altogether alone in our empty room in our workshop: if so many writers love solitude it may be because they’re not really all that lonely. There really is a higher voice that sometimes–too rarely–speaks. We catch it only in the moments of our greatest concentration. This voice may only speak once, it may make itself heard only after long years of waiting: still, it changes everything… Continue reading “The exemplary sentence”

Poets and their mothers

I’ve been reading Adam Zagajewski’s recent book of poetry, Unseen Hand, translated by Clare Cavanagh. Zagajewski writes in Polish, and I’ve long admired his work.

I encountered this poem of his just after I had reread a poem of Larry’s about envisioning his mother’s funeral.  Yes, Larry, too is a poet.  His poem is from his book called Night Train. Here are the two:

About My Mother

I could never say anything about my mother:
how she repeated, you’ll regret it one day,
when I’m not around anymore, and how I didn’t believe
in either “I’m not” or “anymore,”
how I liked watching as she read bestsellers,
always turning to the last chapter first,
how in the kitchen, convinced it wasn’t
her proper place, she made Sunday coffee,
or even worse, filet of cod,
how she studied the mirror while expecting guests,
making the face that best kept her
from seeing herself as she was ( I take
after her in this and other failings),
how she went on at length about things
that weren’t her strong suit and how I stupidly
teased her, for example when she
compared herself to Beethoven going deaf,
and I said, cruelly, but you know he
had talent, and how she forgave it all
and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston
to her funeral and couldn’t say anything
and still can’t.

Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh


When I go to your funeral
I’ll be clean-shaven & have
a fresh haircut. I’ll wear
a black silk tie with a Windsor
knot, a charcoal-grey suit
(3-buttoned, with vest).
My socks will match.
My shoes will be shined.
I’ll look real sharp, Mom.
And everyone will murmur
now there’s a young man
with promise
” & everything
will be like it once was—
before the pulleys creak
& the ropes slowly lower
your coffin out of the red
clay granite sunshine
of western Oaklahoma.

Larry Rafferty

I think Larry stands up pretty well with Zagajewski, although I have to admit that the lines:

how she studied the mirror while expecting guests,
making the face that best kept her
from seeing herself as she was

are pretty breathtaking in their unsparing appraisal. I’m just glad I wasn’t Mr. Zagajewski’s mother! As for Larry, well, I’m his wife and have often felt that unsparing, appraising eye–but tempered with fondness.