Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Adam Zagajewski's 'To Go to Lvov': "It Is Everywhere"

Yellow car in street of Lvov, Grigory Kravchenko, 2007. Used under Creative Commons license

Since late last year, and particularly in the last few weeks, Ukraine has moved briefly into the world's fickle spotlight. No one knows exactly what will happen to its government or to its people, but the events of recent years have taught many nations to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

The focus at this moment has moved away from the bloodshed in Kiev's Euromaidan to the largely pro-Russian Crimean peninsula, but a city in western Ukraine called Lviv, or Lvov, has also received attention. Lviv was part of Poland until 1939, when it came alternately under Russian and German control. Since the end of the war, it has been part of Ukraine, and most of its Polish residents were deported. It was also once a major Jewish centre - most of its Jewish population died between 1941 and 1943.

Lviv is one of the cities which in recent days has allied itself with the protestors in Kiev, threatening a decisive movement away from Russia and towards Europe, even independence. It made me think of one of the most famous and beloved poems by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, 'To Go to Lvov'.

TO GO TO LVOV (Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski)

Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov in 1945, and he and his family were among those who were expelled in the same year, to central Poland. Amidst all the news about Ukraine, I was thinking about how it must shape a human being to live in places where borders shift, and cities change names and countries. 'To Go to Lvov' is partly about this: Lvov has become a sort of mythical place, a Borgesian city where "snails converse about eternity" and the stones murmur. The speaker isn't even sure if it is real or not. This happens when you know a place only through family stories, or when you lose it in childhood. But there's more to it: more that I can't really understand, coming from a stable country and a stable background - more so than what most people in this world experience.

I appreciate poetry's accuracy; it can give its readers a greater capacity for empathy. I wasn't born at the end of a war, we weren't refugees, we didn't live in countries where the borders kept shifting or where genocide had recently occurred. I've lived in three different countries, but those choices were entirely my own, more for pleasure than out of necessity. But poetry at its best breaks the boundaries of language to achieve such emotional accuracy that, through a poem such as this, a reader such as myself can glimpse the inner landscape of the people shaped by such events.

'To Go to Lvov' is a classic Adam Zagajewski poem. It remains in a delicate balance between darkness and optimism. As the poem goes on, the shadows draw in more and more thickly, like the clouds covering the sun.

[...] and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye   
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death   
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

What is most terrible and wonderful about this conclusion is when the speaker says "why must every city/become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,/and now in a hurry just/pack..." We all know why so many Jews, and others, had to pack in a hurry; generally they were going to exile, often death. But then the sun emerges from the clouds: "go breathless, go to Lvov, after all/it exists, quiet and pure as/a peach. It is everywhere." Zagajewski turns around all the loss and grief and death implied. Instead of being nowhere, Lvov is everywhere. There is hope for everything that we have loved.



  1. Hey, Clarissa! I've been following the situation in Ukraine pretty closely, but it's like you said: how much do we really know about it? Reading about it on the news is one thing, living there in uncertainty and fear is quite another.

    I really liked the poem and the idea of poetry as a means to empathy. Indeed, news reports, more often than not, induce a certain indifference in us. Aren't we all incredibly desensitized to human suffering when presented in the news? Of course, their main goal is to inform, but how should we react when learning about war and conflict?

    Anyway, as always, I love coming to your blog and discovering great poets. Speaking of which, congrats on the publication of your poems!

    1. Hey Paula - it's so nice to hear from you. I was wondering how you were doing. I miss your culture and fashion blogs, especially the culture blog! I'm guessing life has been keeping you busy, but I hope you're well...

      The situation with Ukraine and Russia is particularly complex and the media, as always, tends to be moree interested in sensationalism than truth. Everyone's got their own agenda...and it is also very obvious that within Ukraine itself, different people feel very differently about the crisis depending on where they are, their background, and just who they are as an individual.

      I do know one thing - the path of least resistance is generally to put a whole bunch of people in the same box and stick a label on them, but that can also be the starting point for all kinds of dangerous prejudice. I really think poetry helps so much with the valuable glimpse of individual experience. If you see people as individuals it's much harder to just stereotype them.

  2. One of my favourite poems. My dad was living in Lwow in 1939. He was taken by the Russians to Siberia in 1940, age 10. From there he travelled to Kazakhstan , Uzbekistan, Persia ( now Iran) palestine and Egypt, befor arriving in Liverpool in 1947.

    1. Your father must have had an amazing and difficult life. I love this poem too. Adam Zagajewski's poems have a way of seeming deceptively simple but striking very deep into essential human experiences. They've got that conversational-but-transcendent quality I love in a lot of Central and Eastern European poetry.