Training Our Memory

Adam Zagajewski, Another Beauty
Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Memoirs of a young poet who studied in Krakow.  Mostly it is the short aperçus that captured my attention and interest, plus the method of writing a narrative, broken up  time-wise here and there, and then he comes in with more epigrams.  He offers extended portraits of women whom he rented from, his teachers (“Professor Leszczynski never removed his green overcoat”), other students and poets, acquaintances (“He was a bachelor, a gallant gentleman, a troubadour ready to serve any lady in the most disinterested and noble fashion”) whereas my portraits are all too brief – I need to flesh out much more fully.    He reviews his time in Paris and the US as well as his love for classical music, such as Mahler’s 9th and the glorious first movement, or Schumann’s third piano concerto.  He regrets becoming a poetic ideologue and propagandist. I ordered this book on impulse, thinking his structure would be convergent with my own, but it’s not:  mine is bolder! (Or, some may say, more chaotic). 


Some passages—

I’d try to summon up that whole vanished culture, killed off by the Germans and Russians, the large apartments with paintings on their walls, the vast bookcases, and most of all the clear sight and free souls of people who had chosen their own convictions, who had handpicked their pessimism, people who didn’t live yet in the shadow of that Moloch, the one and only all-consuming Party.

Inscription on a gravestone found in North Africa:  “I, a captain in the Roman legions, have thoroughly considered the following truth.  There are only two things in life, love and power, and no one can have them both at once.”  

We talked about growing older at a friend’s house yesterday. One friend will soon be turning sixty, which depresses him. We talked about youth and the way that commercial art, film for example, holds no room for age.  Someone had written a screenplay in which a thirty-seven year old woman had a passionate love affair. The producer said, “She’s too old. Thirty-two tops.” But growing old isn’t a tragedy as long as your mind stays supple, the world’s spectacle still engages you, your curiosity doesn’t flag. No abyss divides youth from age.

But who ever listens to birds, who has the time and patience to stand stock-still before a garden throbbing with a blackbird’s vernal song?     A certain traveler who knew many continents was asked what he found most remarkable of all. He replied:  the ubiquity of sparrows.

One Chinese poet – Tu Fu? Li Po? – pierced the curtain time had hung between us with the speed of lightning. The dead hadn’t vanished entirely; you had to train your memory to  receive as many signals from the past as possible. And not just this, they had to be in usable condition. We write poems while listening to the dead – but we write them for the living.


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