Sacred Fear and a Poem by Adam Zagajewski

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From Assymetry: Poems, by Adam Zagajewski Trans. Clare Cavanagh (FSG 2018)

This lyric proceeds according to the logic of lyric: from the literal to the more subjective to the dialectical (as if seeking a new literal —- as if rust was hatred). That movement proves unsustainable in its metaphoricity. Only in the last line does the true subject emerge. Somehow yielding to the impulse to discover some wonder by the highway (now ironic ambiguities ramify) leads the youthful poet to a personal discovery, a discovery of the self’s lack of self-certainty.

Thus a small innocent looking poem exposes us to intolerable perplexities AND a new discovery. Rather than meekly accept our aesthetic paycheck for reading yet another fine poem, let’s see the implications.

First: The creative mind is indeterminate. It involves a space of nothingness. The form that emerges from a mindful reading is a different kind of knowledge than was assumed in the setting provided in the first lines. Second: Interpretations will depend on the intention of the mind of the reader. Desmond’s distinction between erotic and agapeic gets to the nub of the matter. In erotic mind, the search is for a determinate object. As we’ve seen, this kind is frustrated by the poem. For the agapeic mind, the search discovers an ‘other’ that is not determinate but involves a plenitude of being in excess of the erotic self.

Zagajewski’s ultimate concern is a state of soul that did not appear before now, a concern for a ‘self-transcending self’ that is part of the agapeic ethos. The search for historical mementos concludes by discovering an agapeic consciousness that we call metaxu: between the things of ‘history’ and the experience of sacred fear.

Night, Sea

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Night, Sea, by Adam Zagajewski, Asymmetry Poems, Trans Clare Cavanagh. FSG 2018

Form emerges from confluences of image and thought. This small perfectly imperfect poem —- note the punctuation—- follows the sequence of realization. First, what’s out there. Then, our subjective interpretation of what’s out there. Then our search becomes reflexive—-‘it shines with reflective light.’ Aporia: our meditation grounded on the stony threshold between self and other. But this threshold creates a community of being. Together we wait for the sun’s return.
Where some find ‘the pathetic fallacy,’ others will accept their own partnership in the unfolding of the poem. Try reading Li Po and other seminal Chinese poets with the modernist thing about ‘the pathetic fallacy’—-impossible! The corrective model is shadowed in the classical concept ‘participation.’ Horace is full of such pathetic touches.
Note on punctuation: the flow of meditation in the between authorizes play with conventions which left to themselves disfigure meditative ‘spontaneity.’ The scare quotes are not agnostic or ironic: the arrival of the poem as an open whole depends on sources we cannot and should not control. On the contrary, the poem happens first in these depths. The poet’s punctuation releases the poem in its meditative flow.
This meditative pattern is attested in poetry from all ages and places. When Zagajewski lets it appear in its simplest form, he becomes a witness to form—-and we his readers likewise. So the image of our selves as orphans in the night with the sea models the experience of reading the poem.

Zagajewsky’s Comic-Passionate “Impassivity”

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from Unseen Hand (2009).

The ending of this characteristically limpid poem may trouble the waters a little but if we take the poem as an indicator or sign of the between, not so much.

The title suggests a preoccupation with a state of mind associated with remote indifferent divinity or emotional detachment. But the poem discloses a space rapturously beheld.

Let’s work it through. It’s a cunning piece of work, limply called ‘sacred’ as such poetry may be called.

First: Limpidity not transparency! Differences matter. Between memory and, it would seem, its other. Not oblivion but ‘promise of a new life.’ So ‘what’ is between memory and such a promise? What is the ‘it’ referred to?

The ‘moment’ revealed so to say because no ‘one’ saw it—-well, ‘only…’ something absolute but absolutely other: ‘serenity, glory, bliss’ saw it.

Does the poet speak for himself? Or some other?

The next section is down to earth. A still life. But: The color of the plum is both purple and violet ‘as in a Spanish canvas.’ (Note the naive usage ‘in it’ which nonetheless reminds us of the ‘materiality’ and intermediates quality of things-as-they-appear.)

The things here are not just ordinary, they create a metaxical order, a luminous space between real and ideal. So yes down to earth but ‘earth’ as a realm where givens are known as gifts of the spirit.

Impassivity?

Earth as in our time appears most vividly in nostalgia. But the ‘new life’ perhaps promised by the poem is not nostalgic, it is hyper-real. The hyper-real comes about through metaxyturn, not dialectic but dialogue with a transcendent other.

Especially— look!—-that disused ballpoint, having been used to write dark poems. Not like this one: other to it. Sad spent penis, streaked full of memories….

Not the erotic self-fulfillment but a certain peace beyond understanding.

The poem speaks for itself. The ‘whole’ of the poem results from metaxyturn, which Zagajewski fairly often lets happen as he writes.