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Eternal Enemies: Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
128 pp., $24.00
by David Skeel
On the Road
To open Adam Zagajewski's new book Eternal Enemies is to find oneself in motion. "To travel without baggage, sleep in the train / on a hard wooden bench, / forget your native land," begins "En Route." A few pages later the narrator wonders whether it was "worth waiting in consulates / for some clerk's fleeting good humor" and "worth taking the underground / beneath I can't recall what city" ("Was It"). Other poems find him in cars, imagining the "great ships that wandered the ocean," on a plane flying over the arctic, on more trains, and occasionally on foot.
Often the motion is not just from one city or country to another, but from one historical era to another. In "Notes from a Trip to Famous Excavations," for instance, the narrator sees "campaign slogans on the walls / and know[s] that the elections ended long ago," yet when a gate swings open, the past becomes present as "wine returns to the pitchers, / and love comes back to the homesteads / where it once dwelled." The poems move, as well, from concrete particular to the abstract and transcendent—from an epiphany, as Zagajewski once wrote in an essay, to the kitchen and "the envelope holding the telephone bill."
Some of poems' loveliest effects are achieved by juxtaposing one time or dimension with another, as in "Star," the opening poem. "I'm not the young poet who wrote / too many lines," the narrator recalls:
and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows
has touched my brow with his hand
Notice how the narrator links "narrow streets" with "illusions," and "clocks" with "shadows." Small gestures like these give this poem, like many in Eternal Enemies, a tone that is somehow both wistful and particular. So too do the precise, loving references to buildings and streets that will be unfamiliar to most American readers (such as "Long Street" and "Karmelicka Street" and "Staglieno"—the first two in Krakow, the third a graveyard in Genoa, Italy, if you're ...