“Shell” by Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanaugh

Adam Zagajewski is a great example of a poet I don’t “get” 70% of the time. Which does not stop me from enjoying his work. Reading it, especially out loud, is like drinking a really deep red wine. A Corbières,* maybe—something dark and weird and a little hard to understand, but when it’s good, it’s so good. You don’t need to know right away what it “means.”

Certainly he’s a little dark. He can’t seem to help it; he comments on this is in another poem. This compulsion I do understand.

Zagajewski is Polish; his poems are translated into English, in this case by Clare Cavanaugh. I don’t remember anyone tipping me off about him. So how did I—decently educated and decently well-read, not particularly erudite or cosmopolitan—even find him in the first place? The poem above comes from a slim little silver-green volume called Mysticism for Beginnners. So probably that explains it.

Shell has foreign rhythms, and it was a hard poem to memorize. I spent hours walking “the streets and canyons” (trailed by crows, no snow), getting it wrong, wrong, wrong. Time well spent.


*Oh Lord, this makes me want to start filing the poetry on my shelves as if in a wine cellar. Which poets are bone-dry Australian Rieslings, and which Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? Maybe I should file my poetry with the wines in my basement closet cellar…

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