cover image Slight Exaggeration: An Essay

Slight Exaggeration: An Essay

Adam Zagajewski, trans. from the Polish by Clare Cavanaugh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-26587-8

It’s hard to categorize Polish poet Zagajewski’s (Unseen Hand) luminous book, perhaps best characterized as an extended meditation on life and art. No chapters or titles anchor readers, though there are breaks between sections. But despite the text’s diffuse quality, distinct themes emerge. First, it’s a meditation on displacement: shortly before the poet’s post-WWII birth, the Soviets annexed the Polish city of Lvov and sent Zagajewski’s family to Gliwice, a city recently transferred from German to Polish control. Throughout the book, he wanders frequently: to France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.S. Second, Zagajewski insists on the importance of history, a touchstone pulling him ever backward to WWII and the period immediately prior. Third, he insists on the particular rather than grand theory: “All systems are finally a mental poison, the rotten apples of the mind’s life.” Not until two-thirds of the way through does the title’s meaning emerge: it’s how Zagajewski’s engineer father once summed up a passage of his son’s poetry, and Zagajewski celebrates this phrase as a definition for poetry in general. This rich, insightful book has a depth that pulls the thoughtful reader in, and it offers the welcome perspective of an unabashed intellectual with a lifetime of experience to share. (Apr.)