Adam Zagajewski's "Transformation" (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

Thoughts on not writing.

Transformation

I haven’t written a single poem
in months.
I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper,
pondering the riddle of power
and the reasons for obedience.
I’ve watched sunsets
(crimson, anxious),
I’ve heard the birds grow quiet
and night’s muteness.
I’ve seen sunflowers dangling
their heads at dusk, as if a careless hangman
had gone strolling through the gardens.
September’s sweet dust gathered
on the windowsill and lizards
hid in the bends of walls.
I’ve taken long walks,
craving one thing only:
lightning,
transformation,
you.

from Mysticism for Beginners (FSG, 1997)


I’ve been thinking of the first two lines of this poem ever since I first read it a few months ago. They’re not much, the first two lines, but the honesty of them is striking.

I find that honesty and clarity in so much of Adam Zagajewski’s work. In this same collection — Mysticism for Beginners — he has a poem titled “Cello,” which ends:

The cello has many secrets,
but it never sobs,
just sings in its low voice.
Not everything turns into song
though. Sometimes you catch
a murmur or a whisper:
I’m lonely,
I can’t sleep.

It’s that intense, near-spiritual act of description that translates this poem into the realm of the universal. And I feel this poem in conversation with today’s, particularly that line:

Not everything turns into song
though.

That feeling seems to sit at the heart of today’s poem, where there is so much of the ordinary world lingering, and so little song. At the end, you feel the speaker’s need for music:

I’ve taken long walks,
craving one thing only:
lightning,
transformation,
you.

And I guess that’s why I find myself drawn again and again to this poem: I, too, haven’t written a single poem in months. I have tried to live humbly. Have definitely failed at that. So I guess I haven’t really tried. But I’ve certainly pondered. I’ve wavered in my anger, wavered in my rage. I have wondered about compassion — its purpose, the patience it requires. I’ve thought of loneliness and grace. I’ve thought of exhaustion and injury. I’ve thought about labor, and what it means to work and what it means to work too much. I’ve written about poems, too. About so many. But I haven’t written a single one.

And I wonder why that is. The other night, I was talking with my old friend Julian, who is now on the verge of completing his PhD. It was just after his birthday, and now the two of us are both 30, which is not that old (or maybe it is), but is certainly old enough to think about what it felt like to be younger. And I was telling him about what it felt like to write when I was 23 or 24 — how intense it seemed, and how constantly that intensity hummed, like any second was a second when I could be writing. Life felt lived in that zone of almost-ness — the story almost formed, the poem almost begun. On the phone, the two of us talked about cultivating a newfound permission for openness. Accepting the way the doors look in the room of where we are. Letting the labor of life be the act of cultivating an openness for the gift — of what? wonder, perhaps — to come to you, rather than in forever attempting to be the agent of wonder. I am trying to be open now, but I miss living in the almost-ness of the about-to-be-begun poem.

Lately, I’ve been reading The Raft Is Not the Shore — this conversation between the Jesuit anti-war protestor Daniel Berrigan and the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s a beautiful book: critical and charming and generous and full of moments that feel the kind of true you wish was mirrored back at you when you looked out at the world. There’s a moment when Berrigan says:

So, the question of selecting, meditating, having some interior life of one’s own in the midst of all this, becomes quite important. Especially in such times as these, to have a modest estimation of one’s own life — that’s a very important form of sanity. Just to keep the big world or the big lie at a distance; in order to be available to a few people, in order to do one’s work well.

I feel that attempt toward interiority at work in Zagajewski’s poem today. I feel it immediately:

I haven’t written a single poem
in months.
I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper,
pondering the riddle of power
and the reasons for obedience.
I’ve watched sunsets
(crimson, anxious),
I’ve heard the birds grow quiet
and night’s muteness.

Instead of the outwardness of the act of writing — the consideration of an audience, the exteriority — Zagajewski’s speaker draws inward, and, as such, seems perpetually engaged in, as Berrigan says, a “modest estimation of one’s own life.” There’s a kind of passivity at play. Big questions are pondered. The sunsets are anxious. The speaker, perhaps, feels small in the midst of things. And still, at the end, there is that lingering desire. The longing for something — or someone — to strike through the quiet.

Maybe the question is: what happens when it feels as if your art has abandoned you, particularly in a world you perpetually feel abandoned by? I’m thinking of another passage from The Raft Is Not the Shore, this time spoken by Thich Nhat Hanh:

I think that when you decide to do something in order to become yourself, and your thinking and your aspirations become one, you might find that you are quite alone. People will not understand; people will oppose you. A kind of loneliness, a real exile, settles in. You may be with your parents, with your friends, with your community, but you are in exile practically because of that situation.

I believe that the work of art can be an act that allows people to more fully become themselves. And I believe, too, that such labor can lead to loneliness. It can lead to loneliness for so many reasons. The loneliness of spending so much time on your art and not having enough (or any) money to show for it. The loneliness of bearing the kind of witness that might lead to art, and feeling alone in your noticing. The loneliness of the work itself: the hours spent up early or late. The loneliness of justifying any of it. The amount of times I have omitted the fact that I am a poet when asked what do you do. I think, perhaps, because I am ashamed. Or because I assume that I will have to over explain myself. It’s funny how often I assume the worst intentions when it comes to my art. People just won’t understand. That, too: a kind of loneliness. Self-imposed, but lonely still.

What happens then, when, in that state of loneliness, you feel your art has left you? When you haven’t written a poem in months? When you resign yourself to a life of humble pondering, and you take long walks, and the sky is beautiful and anxious, and the birds exist — they sing and then they grow quiet — and all is as it is, and you still, at the end of that day, and each day that follows, crave your art? I don’t know. It’s hard for me, in such a moment, not to feel shame, not to want to burrow deeper into that self-imposed loneliness. Something feels lost and unretrievable.

That is, perhaps, the problem with associating art with some kind of economic idea of work. As in: if you don’t produce, you are failing in your labor. And then, if and when you do produce, you begin to — consciously or unconsciously — attach all of these ideas to your work. These notions of what success — a purely economic term — must look like or feel like. And how you might feel bad for such notions, but how you might need to really consider them, because you might need to be supported for your art, which is now also a kind of economic work, which is now necessary for you to live. Do you see how complicated it can get? How painful, perhaps, to try to produce art in this world when you really just want to create it? I guess what I am trying to say is that it’s hard. To call yourself an artist can be such a difficult and complex thing, can work all sorts of intricate knots into your own identity. It’s why I still hesitate to call myself an artist at all.

In moments like these, when the work feels distant and the world feels ever-present in all of its often weird and often oppressive and often beautiful and often strange and often terrifying ways, I try to remind myself of grace. It’s a reminder that has its difficult days and its easier ones. But it’s something I have to make the effort to remind myself of always. I try to offer myself grace for the work of being alive. It’s a kind of work that manifests itself differently for each of us, but it is work for each of us nonetheless. I try to offer myself grace because I believe that if there is not compassion — for the self, for others — at the center of this wild and messy thing, then there is a void at the center, and that void will be filled with something other than grace, but something regardless, and maybe something worse. I’d rather choose grace, even when it’s hard. The grace to say that it is okay if I do not write a poem today. The grace to say that the act of writing is also the act of living: noticing the bird on the fire escape, the mother pulling her son’s mask over his nose on the subway, my friend back in the classroom trying to teach physics to a room full of students while a bee buzzes itself through an open window. (For what it’s worth: I took off my shoe and tried to shoo the bee away, distracting the students from the lesson, and failing in my mission. I loved every second of it.)

There’s a passage in David Searcy’s new book The Tiny Bee That Hovers at the Center of the World that I love. In the chapter, he writes about the depression that followed divorce, and how he and his friend Chuck — both moving from middle to old age — tried to construct this tiny machine that would give the illusion of communicating with outer space. He writes:

Well, first of all it had to look good. Through my wintry, sad opacity of mind it had to glow. Give forth that clear, intuitive, radiant sense of functional intercession. Get the faceplate — heavy aluminum; no more cardboard — going first. Establish that. The circular screen, the lights and toggle switches. Then attend to theory or whatever passes for it. One can always plead conceptual art, of course. Concept or no. But that’s not it. Chuck understood. Start with a beautiful thing, then bring the angels to it.

That final sentence — I will think about it for a long time. Start with a beautiful thing, then bring the angels to it. I want to think of that not as a way to define the act of creating art, but as a way to define the act of life itself. Start with a beautiful thing, then bring the angels to it. I think of the angels as the transformation longed for in Zagajewski’s poem. But I also think of that word — transformation — and how it means not necessarily to change one’s likeness, but more so to move across and through and beyond an idea. This, I think, requires grace. The grace to say it is okay. The grace to say the way I am an artist today does not have to be the same as yesterday. The grace to say I am starting today with a beautiful thing. I want to move to that kind of permissiveness with myself and my art. I want to allow myself stillness, to remove expectations that feel stifling, borrowed from oppressive structures. I want to give myself permission to simply notice. Not everything turns into song. Maybe that, too, is a kind of song. And maybe, just maybe, when the angels come, I won’t be too caught up in myself to see them.