Polish poet Adam Zagajewski – one of my favourite poets, whose New and Selected Poems I revisit often – probably didn’t expect to become a ‘9/11’ poet. But on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (or close enough thereto), it’s interesting to think that a poem written a year and a half before the attacks has become ‘the most memorable verse statement on the tragedy’, as The Daily Beast puts it.
Of course, Zagajewski was thinking back to Stalin’s purges and the Holocaust – those hauntings that have been all but forgotten by younger generations, except as paragraphs in history books. You can read more about Zagajewski’s inspiration here:
And the poem itself? It’s a lyric with a light touch, but one that recalls ‘earth’s scars’ with a sense of sorrow and weariness.
I like Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco’s definition of poetry as ‘el museo de un segundo’ – the instant museum (or the museum of a second, an instant). A poem can offer an impression and a memory in a handful of words – sometimes the very same words. And therein lies part of its power. And why poems written about one catastrophe can speak to people who experience another, different kind of catastrophe.
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
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.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh