Adam Zagajewski’s triple take

A mirror is latent with triple take. A mirror has less to do with our peering into it, where we find ourselves stranded in dopplegängerland, than it does with the mirror itself looking at us looking at ourselves looking at ourselves. Mirrors are too schizoid to not be sentient. Concepts of identity and perspective spazz on the glassy plane, beyond the reach of psychology and conventional philosophy. The distance between subjective and objective gets weird where mirrors are concerned.

That must be why a mirror in a quiet room has such a peculiar aura about it — it’s weary from persistent triple take. The slow metaphysical crisis of melancholy is an unavoidable risk from such thrice looking at things. Can a mirror be melancholy? I don’t see why not, so I say “sure.” It’s an occupational hazard for mirrors and for some rare poets.

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski doesn’t take phenomena for granted. In his poems, the confluence of time and substance is a complex event that involves thrice looking — he looks at phenomena; he looks at phenomena glancing back at him; he looks at himself taking it all in. Such intense peering can squeeze out astonishing organic metaphors.

Most people — even most poets — are satisfied with phenomena just being there, aren’t compelled to spiritually or aesthetically question it. Most poets appropriate time and substance in an imperious manner. Zagajewski is a superior poet because of his humility and quiet stupefaction in the presence of presence. Ego has been left far behind, in some dismal place where language is withered and mirrors are mundane.

Zagajewski’s poem below happens in a place that belongs to others. Owing to unfamiliarity, the poet experiences the surfaces of things with a metaphysical intensity. More than the everyday is reflected in this poetic mirror of thrice looking.


In Strange Towns
for Zbigniew Herbert

In strange towns there is an unknown joy,
the cold bliss of a new glance.
Yellow-plastered tenements where the sun
climbs like a nimble spider
exist, yet not for me. Not for me are the town-hall,
port, jail, and courthouse built.
The sea flows through the town in a salty
tide, sinking cellars and verandas.
At a street market, pyramids of apples
stand for the eternity of one afternoon.
And even suffering isn’t really
mine; a local idiot mumbles
in a foreign tongue, and the despair of a lonely
girl in a café resembles a patch
of canvas in a poorly lit museum.
Huge flags of trees flutter as in familiar places,
and pieces of the same lead-weights
are sewn to the hems of sheets, and to dreams,
and to imagination, which is homeless and wild.

Copyright © 1989, Adam Zagajewski
Translated by Renata Gorczynski and Benjamin Ivry


Posted by Tim Buck


2 thoughts on “Adam Zagajewski’s triple take

  1. Greetings, Tim. I enjoyed your essay – for many reasons – I might say, on many levels – which appends well, I think, to the theme of multi-tiered – the triple-take you explore. I became a Zagajewski fan for many reasons. Your exposition reflects (pardon the pun) one of them. Now, my first thought was, naturally, about pathetic fallacy – that no-no-land for so long, which now is back in favor – or “allowed.” This concerns, of course, the concept of a mirror’s looking, a mirror’s doing anything, an inanimate object’s having intention, producing. There are many who will argue that inanimate is not, in fact, so. I “allowed” myself to accept your premise. So, a mirror’s looking is one level that interests me. I also see mirror as metaphorical, because, in the world, we look at ourselves looking at ourselves – or many of us do – constantly assessing, adjusting, reassessing, and so forth, whether it is to fit in, make an initial good impression, or to judge a moral compass, to give some examples. We are sentient and self-aware beings; we reflect, and subjective and objective become one. I also find the concept of unavoidable melancholy interesting. It seems to me that the more one self-examines, or other-examines, or ruminates, period, the more a sense of melancholy will surface. Why is this? It is perhaps beyond the scope of a reply. But I think you are right, and I suspect the reason is embedded in the process of seeing itself, of study, of perceiving peculiar to humans. It has to do with what you’ve called “intensity.” And then there’s the matter of Zagajewski and his “quiet stupefaction” in the face of simply being, the strangeness of consciousness careening about the world. I have also found a lack of ego in Zagajewski – by which I don’t mean he never says “I.” He could say “I saw” throughout this poem for Herbert, and the work would retain its detachment. We have spoken often (elsewhere) of detachment and transmutation of very deep feelings, particularly negative or “sad” ones into a quiet “otherness.” This poem demonstrates such, and it’s not in some facile way, ie, in the (paradoxical) fact that Zagajewski repeats “not for me….not for me.” This poem, like its ending, has a wildness, a freedom about it, which I like regarding this poet. It is perhaps true that, beyond the imagery – the glimpses and their implied stories, the poet stews, wallows. But he never does it directly. The triple-watching in this poem is evident – the world as mirror (and one could say, as some do, that reality is each individual mind, anyway, and nothing “beyond”) “watching” the watcher, who is a kind of hunter/gatherer, also a sieve through which the world is processed, observations distilled. I agree that there is a lightness or “porosity” about this poem and many others by Zagajewski – I myself may not have selected that word – but it cohabits well with what I might have said, am saying now: the poem(s) breathe. That would have more to do with sound than sight. They are not weighted down by the poet’s consciousness. I might state that they “allow,” that they are hospitable. The great irony of this piece – and I am obviously insinuating that irony is good in a poem – is that while none of these things “are for me,” the poet, they inescapably are – or else he would not have taken the time to notate them in the form of a poem. The functional brain cannot escape phenomena and influence. Another thought I had, semi-humorously (and accidentally), was, what of a triple-mirror, such as one encounters in dressing rooms? But isn’t that quite the point – the constant feedback unto “eternity?”
    – Julie Shavin


  2. Adam Zagajewski quietly steps into a friend’s shoes, and looks around, noting what he sees while stepping along in those unfamiliar (and yet familiar) moccasins. Isn’t this what our mirror neurons enable us to do, to imitate others, to exercise empathy? Ignoring the glass on the wall, what allows us to develop language, but those mirrors we have in one another?

    Zbigniew Herbert lived, for many years, the life of an exile, as did the author of the poem. Herbert frequented the local museums, according to Zagajewski. This poem acknowledges that its narrator does not really belong to this place, which, in some ways, is a boon. The images, though infused with melancholy, are lively–some verge on a magical realism that causes the entire poem to tilt, as if it might, or might not, float away. It might wink at you, if you turn your back on it. I like what you said about porosity and transparency.

    Liked by 1 person

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