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Good Letters

15221101821_df7492d443_z“Writing poems is a duel / that no one wins…” As I’m reading the poem that opens with these words, I think: this could be describing my life.

The poem is called “Writing Poems.” It’s by the superb contemporary Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, in his new collection, Unseen Hand. And in fact, nearly all the poems in this collection could be describing my life—because the “duel” that Zagajewski refers to is between opposites that battle each other, or sometimes balance each other, or sometimes swing back and forth between each other.

This is Zagajewski’s vision not only of writing poems but of living life. And it’s my own experience of living.

My husband has ongoing and seemingly interminable heart disease dis-ease, yet he delights in a phone call from our son and laughs heartily (hmmm, interesting pun) during a friend’s visit. His days are like Zagajewski’s poem-writing:

Writing poems is a duel
that no one wins—on one side
a shadow rises, massive as a mountain range
viewed by a butterfly, on the other,
only brief glimpses of brightness,
images and thoughts like a match flame
on the night when winter is born in pain

That shadow so huge that it’s a butterfly’s view of a mountain range: this is my life when I’m overwhelmed by my own chronic illnesses and my husband’s. We flutter weakly inside the shadow’s gloom. Then suddenly a match is lit: our distress recedes—even if only for the time it takes for a match to burn out.

Zagajewski’s poem continues with a litany of details of this duel, this “trench warfare,” as the poem also calls it:

calm contemplation of a brutal world,
explosive joy, ecstatic, unsatisfied,
regret, everything passes, hope, nothing is lost,
a conversation without a final word…

Zagajewski is a master of the tentative, the transient. These lines make me smile, so perfectly do they delineate my experience of the texture of living.

From ecstatic to unsatisfied in the space of a comma; from “everything passes” to “nothing is lost” via an unexpected solitary “hope.” And then that brilliant image of “conversation without a final word”: what image could better evoke our sense (my sense, at least) of an unfulfilled longing for completion?

For me, it’s the day-to-day unknowingness that’s so unnerving: not knowing how each of us will feel physically, not knowing how much longer we have together, not knowing when that inevitable final illness will strike. So I can be in “calm contemplation” one moment, then uneasily “unsatisfied” the next.

When I experience a “momentary truce,” as Zagajewski goes on to call the lulls in the “duel” that is his controlling metaphor, I celebrate it as a blessing.

Actually, my husband and I try to celebrate the entire duel as a blessing. With Psalm 16 we say (and pray to believe), “The lot marked out for me is my delight.”

But the unknowingness still weighs on us. That’s why so many of Zagajewski’s poems in this collection resonate with me: the many poems whose theme is life’s uncertainty.

In “Swifts Storming St. Catherine’s Church,” he muses on

my life unfinished, uncertain
made of joy and fear…

“Vita Contemplativa” ends:

So this is it. What we do not know.
We live in the abyss. In dark water. In brightness.”

This is Zagajewski’s core vision: simultaneously we live within opposites, or are hurled back and forth between them. Dark water, brightness. Joy and fear.

My husband has a day when he’s feeling pretty well, then suddenly chest pain and extreme fatigue grip him. Or, instead, suddenly he feels better—enough to do something that he loves, like gardening.

His experience is like that of passersby in Zagajewski’s “Joseph Street in Winter,” who seem aimless, then stop short—

like the gardener, who leans
against his shovel handle, dreaming,
and doesn’t see that war
has unexpectedly erupted
or that the hydrangea has bloomed.

Unexpectedly either of the opposites can manifest itself: the outbreak of war, the blossoming of hydrangea. (And the wild disproportion of these opposites! Can a hydrangea’s blossoming really balance the eruption of war? Zagajewski always makes us ponder what really matters.)

Though in my daily prayers, I pray to take whatever comes that day with equanimity, I can’t help but experience life as the mixture of bitterness and pleasure that Zagajewski evokes in these poems.

One particular poem with this vision stands out because this unsettling mixture is thrust on him by the world itself. The poem, “January 27,” reflects on the coincidences of this date:

On this Friday we didn’t know
what to celebrate and what to mourn—
it was Holocaust Memorial Day
and Mozart’s birthday.
Our memory was perplexed.
Our imagination lost its way.

Yet somehow, because he has a fundamentally optimistic spirit, Zagajewski can muddle through life’s perplexing opposites and come out at a poem’s close with an image of hope.

That’s why I cling to his vision at the end of “Self-Portrait in Airplane.” He’s so exhausted on the plane that he appears to be dead, holding his head in his hands,

but inside it a poem is being born.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Image above by Mark Collins, used with a Creative Commons license.


  1. Maureen on July 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

    I will have to read this collection. Your explication is wonderful, Peggy.

    • Peggy Rosenthal on July 5, 2016 at 9:01 am

      Thanks, Maureen. And yes, this book is a treasure.

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