Notes of Solidarity is a new daily series of mini-essays, poems, and reflections on the Russian war in Ukraine by some of Wales’s leading literary figures. Today, former National Poet of Wales Gwyneth Lewis recalls the legacy and power of the work of Adam Zagajewski.
One day, in his poetry seminar at the Graduate Writing Division of Columbia University in New York, Joseph Brodsky interrupted his class to have us read a poem that had just been published in, I think, The Nation. It was written by a young Polish poet called Adam Zagajewski, whose work was just becoming known in America. The poem has been ringing in my memory since the Russian invasion of Ukraine:
To Go to Lvov
To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
Translated Renata Gorczynski
Brodsky drew our attention to the detail of dew on a suitcase which nobody but a refugee could have noted. Zagajewski’s family were forced to flee from Lvov, in the Ukraine, to Gliwice in Poland when he was a baby. We’ve been watching the same traumatic partings described in the poem – ‘people bade goodbye / without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry/ mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death/ awaits you, why must every city/ become Jerusalem and every man a Jew’ – and asking the same question without a question mark. This great anthem has no answer except its own rhythms of longing and exultation and is, as Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky has written in his obituary of Zagajewski in the Yale Review ‘despite everything, in the age of mass murder, a lucid moment’.
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