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When I Heard the Poet Read

ne of my April traditions for many years has been to consider not writing about Poetry Month, but I always succumb to temptation. It's a weakness. I read poetry almost daily; I write about it from time to time here; and poetry occupies significant real estate on my bookshelves.

Speaking of which: During a recent, noble (if still not quite finished) attempt to bring order to the semi-chaos of our personal library, I became reacquainted with my copy of Adam Zagajewski's Without End: New and Selected Poems. I bought it during the winter of 2002, though I had first heard him read from his work in the summer of 2001. At the time, I wrote about how a poet's words, spoken as well as written, can, in just the right light, open eyes. My eyes, at least. The beginning of Poetry Month 2017 seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on my first encounter with Zagajewski's work.

Begin with lines from his poem "Letter from A Reader":

Too much about death,
too many shadows.
Write about life,
an average day,
the yearning for order.

When the poet read, I hadn't seen any of the poems yet. His voice made words appear in the air before him. When the poet read, I leaned forward into those words to receive the brunt, the wave, the wash of image, and the sound of lines forged and bent in unlikely combinations ("A poem grows/ on contradiction but can't cover it.") that felt as fresh and inevitable as water down a hill (Europe's "coarse plaid of borders" or clouds that "swim on their backs, / gazing calmly at the sun.").

When the poet read, I heard the sketchbook of his work, and wanted more. Later, when I read the poet, sketches filled with color, hazy borders were framed, outlines of images came alive, the words irresistible in their knife-edged engagement with, and disengagement from, a mad and beautiful world.

Contentment is a moment for Zagajewski, a ledge to rest on as he climbs, not a habit or goal. The poet may be in America, but he is not from America. He is wary of our frenzied and well-documented pursuit of happiness. "Dutch Painters" begins with "Pewter bowls heavy and swelling with metal./ Plump windows bulging from the light"; and offers an evocative portrait in words of a place and time where "Doors were wide open, the wind was friendly./ Brooms rested after work well done./ Homes bared all."

Not the poet's home, however, because simplicity and peace are moments frozen. "The painting of a land without secret police," the poet observes and can't help wondering:

Tell us, Dutch painters, what will happen
when the apple is peeled, when the silk dims,
when all the colors grow cold.
Tell us what darkness is.

What is darkness?

where the horizon's razor lay in wait,
and the black spider of evening
and night, widow of so many dreams.

What is hatred?

I found the phrase
'There are blows so terrible...
Don't ask!'
I don't....

What is a poem?

Poetry summons us to life, to courage
in the face of the growing shadow. 

Zagajewski's Without End, like an artist's retrospective, is a timeline. I read, and hear, the poet again. A younger Zagajewski writes of complacency:

Don't let poems lull you
just don't read them you haven't got time
time's got you grips you in its fist
its claws if it's a bird
chokes you slowly you think it's only asthma 

A decade passes and he writes of quiet strength:

That force that grows
in Napoleon's dreams
and tells him to conquer Russia and snow
is also in poems
but is very still. 

Another decade passes and the poet writes of learning

I read poets, living and dead, who teach me
tenacity, faith, and pride.

And later, when the poet might have been driven to his knees by the world, Zagajewski writes a clear-eyed hymn to beauty and horror:

You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
And leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

When the poet read in 2001, I listened. When I read the poet in 2002, I heard. When I reread the poet in 2017, I understood that Zagajewski's poems are still speaking to me. 

It's April. Go find poets. Listen to them

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2975

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