If Eternal Enemies sounds like it's about gloom, pessimism and death, that's because it is.
It's about other things, too: friendship, love, beauty. These poems don't shrink from evil, but they don't scramble blindly after good, either. Adam Zagajewski's fifth book in English translation (here by Clare Cavanagh) is an elegant attempt to see clearly and truly -- and to live humanely despite abundant reasons in a fallen world to hate and despise hope.
Zagajewski, who'll read at the 43-year-old International Poetry Forum's final event, on April 14, lived in exile most of his life. He was born in 1945 in what was then Poland, before Stalin closed the Iron Curtain. He remained severed from his heritage, language and land until he recently moved back to Krakow. It's a city that saw the start of the Nazi genocide -- and a place that Zagajewski, the son of Jews, calls an "unchanging city / buried in the waters of the past."
The city may be buried in the past, but not the poet. In "Star," the first poem, Zagajewski keeps faith in "brightness," because "only brightness / can undo or save me." This despite the fact that "the sovereign of clocks and shadows / has touched my brow with his hand."
There are many adversaries, or dialecticals, in Eternal Enemies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). "Moments of deep joy" vie with "countless moments of anxiety" in "Poetry Searches for Radiance." In "Self-Portrait, Not Without Doubts," the poet asks himself whether "you hear laughter / or apocalyptic trumpets?" Turns out it's both -- "a dissonance, an ungodly grating."
Yet enemies can be allies in disguise. We just have to hear the dissonance clearly.
In the wedding-day ode "Epithalamium," men and women, those enduring opposites, end up facing "hours of anxiety, anger, even hatred / but also compassion, deep feeling." Only in marriage, Zagajewski argues, can eternal enemies, such as love and time, join forces. And only when love and time join forces are we permitted "to see other beings / in their enigmatic, complex essence."
Spinoza believed happiness came from realizing one's own "complex essence." The more you feel fully yourself, the more you feel alive. The philosopher also held that the truth will set you free. Because without it, you can't be you.
That's a tricky proposition. In "Self-Portrait," Zagajewski reminds himself, during a professional crisis of confidence, that he must walk the line between writers "underread" and those who are "proud and serious": "The territory of truth / is plainly small / narrow as a path above a cliff. / Can you stick / to it? / Perhaps you've strayed already."
He worries too much. Eternal Enemies doesn't stray.
Rarely have gloom, pessimism and death made you feel so alive.
Adam Zagajewski at the International Poetry Forum 8 p.m. Tue., April 14. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $12 ($8 students/seniors). 412-621-9893 or www.thepoetryforum.org