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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Every Poem Tells a Story of the Tough Realities of Life : TWO CITIES: On Exile, History and the Imagination by Adam Zagajewski ; Translated from Polish by Lillian Vallee; Farrar Straus & Giroux $22, 254 pages

March 16, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

As a boy, Adam Zagajewski would take walks with his grandfather through the streets of Gliwice, an industrial town in western Poland. The boy was alive to all the sights and sounds around him; the grandfather was lost in a dream of Lvov, the stately city that he and hundreds of thousands of Poles had to leave in 1945 when the Soviet Union annexed the eastern part of the country, pursuant to the Yalta accords.

Of exiles, Horace wrote: "They change their skies but not their soul." Souls and skies are not so easily separated. The first part of this collection of pieces by a poet who left Poland for the West, casts about for an azimuth of meaning in the shifting firmaments of three generations.

He looks at a photograph of a great-uncle reading a newspaper at a cafe in Provence between the wars. Old photographs do not bring the past closer; they remove it further. The faded image holds the touching assurance of a present that seen now, many years later, conveys such fragile mortality.

"But of course," Zagajewski imagines it saying. "I belong to this moment, the light of the south is my light, the leaves of the plane trees are my favorite sunshade and I always learn about the world in this newspaper."

The comfortable life of a Polish professional family ended in Lvov at the same time that other comfortable lives--German, these--were ending in the western Polish towns where they had lived for centuries. "Millions of people were forcing resistant suitcases shut with their knees; all this was happening at the behest of three old men who had met at Yalta."

The boy's reality is his family's; it is also his own. Gliwice was always referred to by his elders as "the worse city." Nevertheless, he adds, "the worse city offered me various humble riches, starting with the roof over my head." In any life, particularly that of a young person, the present has its claims.

He recalls, as a youth, lying in a Gliwice park in autumn and noting the fall and decay of the leaves. He comments, with irony:

"Things were different with Lvov leaves. They were eternal, eternally green and eternally alive, indestructible and perfect; they moved as lightly and gracefully as dolphin fins. Their only flaw was their absence, and even their nonexistence."

*

Something of the same theme--the difficult dialogue of present and past--pervades the book's second section, a series of imaginary monologues, each in a different persona. One is that of a former secret policeman, another is that of a poet who wrote for the old regime. Zagajewski is fiercely suspicious of all who claim political, moral or aesthetic virtue. Thus, now that the Communist regime has fallen, and the battle, it seems, has more veterans than it ever had fighters, he gives his old poet some good lines.

Those who talk of the Stalinist days in Poland didn't know its vitality, the poet insists. They are like those who visit the scene of a fireworks display on the day after, and judge it as nothing but mud and burnt-out cardboard. Those who wrote poems about Stalin tried to write good ones. There was tremendous competition; only the best were published. "Not everyone could get in the columns of newspapers. Do you think that selling your soul was easy?"

More to the point, he continues--in this simultaneous satire of his own apologia and of those who easily dismiss it--in those days there was only one stage for talented and energetic young people to perform on.

"There was one world, one life. You awoke not in Stalinism, in scornful times; no, you awoke in bedclothes, in the body you knew to tears, full of needs and caprices. You awoke next to a woman you loved or next to a girl who was with you only because the other had dumped you. You were short of money. You were published and your family was proud of you. Your anti-Communist aunties were happy that their nephew wasn't just another face."

The book's last section is a kind of notebook of literary themes, many of which don't really make the leap from note to book. But one, "The Cynicism of Poetry," is worth all the rest. Poetry, the author writes, pretends to make use of real subjects--war, suffering, injustice, fading roses--but only as a way of getting written.

"Poetry fears that its secret will be discovered. One day reality may notice that the heart of poetry is cold. That poetry has no heart at all, just big eyes and an excellent ear. Reality will suddenly understand that it was only a bottomless source of metaphors for poetry, and it will vanish. Poetry will remain alone in the world, mute, empty, sad, and incommunicable."

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