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Adam Zagajewski

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

I won't tell all regardless.

But even when I'm at a loss to define

the essence of freedom

I know full well the meaning

of captivity.

21 June 1945 - 21 March 2021


Adam Zagajewski


First there are plans then reports This is the language we know how to communicate in Everything must be foreseen Everything must be confirmed later What really happens doesn’t attract anyone’s attention


Czesław Miłosz


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn. A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Translated by Czesław Miłosz and Lillian Vallee


Wisława Szymborska


It was supposed to be better than the previous ones, our XXth century.

It will no longer have time to prove it,

its years are counted, gait unsteady,

breath short.

Too much has already happened

which was not supposed to happen,

and that which was to come

did not occur.

It had the promise of spring

and happiness, among other things.

Fear was supposed to leave the mountains and valleys.

Truth was supposed to reach its destination

more quickly than the lie.

Some misfortunes were supposed

never again to occur,

for example, war

and famine and so on.

The helplessness of the helpless,

trust and other such things

were supposed to be respected.

Whoever wanted to rejoice in the world,

now faces an impossible task.

Stupidity is not funny.

Wisdom is not joyful.


no longer is this young girl

etcetera, alas.

God was supposed finally to believe in a man

who is good and strong

but the good and the strong

continue to be two different people.

How to live – someone has asked me in a letter,

someone of who I was going to ask

the same.

Again and as always,

as one can see above,

there are no questions more urgent

than questions that are naïve.

Translated by Grażyna Drabik and Austin Flint


Adam Zagajewski


Bent under burdens which sometimes

can be seen and sometimes can’t,

they trudge through mud or desert sands,

hunched, hungry,

silent men in heavy jackets,

dressed for all four seasons,

old women with crumpled faces,

clutching something – a child, the family

lamp, the last loaf of bread?

It could be Bosnia today,

Poland in September ‘39, France

eight months mater, Germany in ’45,

Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt.

There’s always a wagon or at least a wheelbarrow

full of treasures (a quilt, a silver cup,

the fading scent of home),

a car out of gas marooned in a ditch,

a horse (soon left behind), snow, a lot of snow,

too much snow, too much sun, too much rain,

and always that special slouch

as if leaning toward another, better planet,

with less ambitious generals,

less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,

less History (alas, there’s no

such planet, just that slouch).

Shuffling their feet,

they move slowly, very slowly

toward the country of nowhere,

and the city of ono one

on the river of never.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh


Adam Zagajewski


I read your poetry once more,

poems written by a rich man, knowing all,

and by a beggar, homeless,

an emigrant, alone.

You always wanted to go

beyond poetry, above it, soaring,

but also lower to where our region

begins, modest and timid.

Sometimes your tone

transforms us for a moment,

we believe – truly –

that every day is sacred,

that poetry – how to put it? –

makes life rounder,

fuller, prouder, unashamed

of perfect formulation.

But evening arrives,

I lay my book aside,

and the city’s ordinary din resumes –

somebody coughs, someone cries and curses.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

A poem is like a human face—it is an object that can be measured, described, cataloged, but it is also an appeal. You can heed an appeal or ignore it, but you can’t simply measure its meter. You can’t gauge a flame’s height with a ruler.

— Adam Zagajewski


Adam Zagajewski


I enter the waiting room in a station.

Not a breath of air.

I have a book in my pocket,

someone’s poems, traces of inspiration.

At the entrance, on benches, two tramps and a drunkard

(or two drunkards and a tramp).

At the other end, an elderly couple, very elegant, sit

staring somewhere above them, toward Italy and the sky.

We have always been divided, Mankind, nations,

waiting rooms.

I stop for a moment,

uncertain which suffering I should


Finally, I take a seat in between

and start reading. I am alone but not lonely.

A wanderer who doesn’t wander.

The revelation

flickers and dies. Mountains of breath, close

valleys. The dividing goes on.

Translated by Renata Gorczyńska


Adam Zagajewski


I could never say anything about my mother;

how she repeated, you’ll regret it one day,

when I’m not around anymore, and how I didn’t believe

in either “I’m not” or “anymore,” how I liked watching as she read bestsellers,

always turning to the last chapter first,

how in the kitchen, convinced it wasn’t

her proper place, she made Sunday coffee,

or, even worse filet of cod,

how she studied the mirror while expecting guests,

making the face that best kept her

from seeing herself as she was (I take

after her in this and other failings),

how she went on at length about things

that weren’t her strong suit and how I stupidly

teased her, for example, when she

compared herself to Beethoven going deaf,

and I said, cruelly, but you know he

had talent, and how she forgave it all

and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston

to her funeral and couldn’t say anything

and still can’t

Translated by Clare Cavanagh


Adam Zagajewski


The rivers of this country are sweet

as troubadour’s song,

the heavy sun wanders westward

on yellow circus wagons.

Little village churches

hold a fabric of silence so fine

and old that even a breath

could tear it.

I love to swim in the sea, which keeps

talking to itself

in the monotone of a vagabond

who no longer recalls

exactly how long he’s been on the road.

Swimming is like a prayer:

palms join and part,

join and part,

almost without end.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh


Adam Zagajewski


for Czesław Miłosz

How unattainable life is, it only reveals

its features in memory,

in nonexistence. How unattainable

afternoons, ripe, tumultuous, leaves

bursting with sap; swollen fruit, the rustling

silks of women who pass on the other

side of the street, and the shouts of boys

leaving school. Unattainable. The simplest

apple inscrutable, round.

The crowns of trees shake in warm

currents of air. Unattainably distant mountains.

Intangible rainbows. Huge cliffs of clouds

flowing slowly through the sky. The sumptuous,

unattainable afternoon. My life,

swirling, unattainable, free.

Translated by Renata Gorczyńska and C. K. Williams


In Zagajewski’s best poems, he has succeeded in making the space of the imagination connect with experience; things seen and heard and remembered in all their limits and sorrow and relished joy have the same power for him as things conjured. Colm Tóibín (The Guardian, 2004)

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