Given that Houston is my hometown, it pains me to say that it’s not a city—like Rome, Warsaw, Saint Petersburg, New York, Paris—given to poetry. “Houston, 6 P.M.” is a great and sly exception. That it starts with enchantment and disenchantment—“Europe already sleeps beneath a course plaid of borders / and ancient hatreds”—should tell you everything about the poem’s tough sublime. I’ve been reading Adam Zagajewski in translation since 1991. What I love about his writing is that he does not bother to quarrel with state authority. Instead, his poems are assertions of the law of individuality. His poems are occasions that summon us “to life, to courage.”
Houston, 6 p.m.
Europe already sleeps beneath a coarse plaid of borders
and ancient hatreds: France nestled
up to Germany, Bosnia in Serbia’s arms,
lonely Sicily in azure seas.
It’s early evening here, the lamp is lit
and the dark sun swiftly fades.
I’m alone, I read a little, think a little,
listen to a little music.
I’m where there’s friendship,
but no friends, where enchantment
grows without magic,
where the dead laugh.
I’m alone because Europe is sleeping. My love
sleeps in a tall house on the outskirts of Paris.
In Krakow and Paris my friends
wade in the same river of oblivion.
I read and think; in one poem
I found the phrase “There are blows so terrible . . .
Don’t ask!” I don’t. A helicopter
breaks the evening quiet.
Poetry calls us to a higher life,
but what’s low is just as eloquent,
more plangent than Indo-European,
stronger than my books and records.
There are not nightingales or blackbirds here
with their sad, sweet cantilenas,
only the mockingbird who imitates
and mimics every living voice.
Poetry summons us to life, to courage
in the face of the growing shadow.
Can you gaze calmly at the Earth
like the perfect astronaut?
Out of harmless indolence, the Greece of books,
and the Jerusalem of memory there suddenly appears
the island of a poem, unpeopled;
some new Cook will discover it one day.
Europe is already sleeping. Night’s animals,
mournful and rapacious,
move in for the kill.
Soon America will be sleeping, too.
Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov in 1945. His previous books include Tremor; Canvas; Mysticism for Beginners; Without End; Solidarity, Solitude; Two Cities; Another Beauty; A Defense of Ardor; and Eternal Enemies—all published by FSG. He lives in Chicago and Kraków.
Clare Cavanagh is a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and has also translated the poetry of Wyslawa Szymborska.
David Biespiel is the author of three books of poems, including The Book of Men and Women and a book of prose, A Thousand Faces.
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