cover image Unseen Hand

Unseen Hand

Adam Zagajewski, trans. from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (112p) ISBN 978-0-374-28089-5

In his new book, Zagajewski stakes out, as firmly as ever, the position of poetry in a world where language's metaphysical registers have been largely usurped by the forces of political oppression. Zagajewski's poems unfold in communal, mainly European, settings: his streets, rivers and valleys, squares, cafes, and cities are also the sites of much 20th and 21st-century history. Yet these poems oppose grand pronouncements and renounce philosophical engagement; we see Zagajewski's continual evolution toward elegy and memory, but the role of poetry is still both vital and deeply limited. A poet has "only language, only words, images/ only the world," he writes%E2%80%94or elsewhere, "There is no truth, wise men repeat./ Summer evenings: festivals of swifts,/ peonies erupting in the suburbs." The poet who was once the voice of the revolutionary Polish "generation of '68" has become and is still the poet who taught us to "praise the mutilated world." In the end, these new poems, pitched at a register slightly lower than that of praise, offer a sort of quiet surprise%E2%80%94occasionally even delight%E2%80%94born out of wise and hard-earned skepticism: "Imagine a dark city./ That understands nothing. Silence reigns./ And in the quiet bats like Ionian philosophers/ make sudden, radical decisions in mid-flights,/ filling us with admiration." (June)