Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)
Here’s a poem from Adam Zagajewski’s 2011 collection, Unseen Hand (translation Clare Cavanagh):
At intermission a man in a corduroy jacket emerges from backstage, lays his hands on the piano like an experienced obstetrician, and vanishes, while the heedless audience breathes deeply. We're alive, the musicians say; We're listening, say the elegant ladies. And the performance continues, although the night has long since seized the city's strategic points and Venus shines with its cold beam.
An intermission is when things happen upon which many other things depend. Zagajewski’s insights into this “inter” — this “between space” — appear in the flow of his images and lines.
First the given: a man in a corduroy jacket (you can think about the corduroy, it’s a nice touch); he “emerges from backstage”; he performs expertly, a laying on of hands (we begin to connect this happening with something other). It’s over before it begins. It makes everything go better, we know when we think about it later.
The audience is heedless: who pays attention to such things (well, the poet for one, his readers for others, thanks to him). The poem expands into the human dimension: the musicians, the ladies at the concert. Their various roles, their awarenesses, each relative to its kind (the musician’s “I’m alive” captures the doubleness of that vernacular expression, both hum-drum and ecstatic). The ladies speak somewhat patronizingly: “we’re listening,” staying within their concepts, as it were.
The “performance” (per- means through — and through — formance, the whole poem, the whole world, shot through with structures, forms, intelligible, unintelligible, trivial, personal, common, transcendent).
The syntax opens up, the sentence builds, our breathing becomes more “something” (faster? deeper?) as if we are listening to the music and getting into it. Now the space is the whole city, now the space is the whole earth, the whole human world, looked over by the star — or one star in particular.
THAT star: Venus. The evening star. Venus, born of sea-foam. Venus, home-wrecker, heart-changer, mind-bender, THAT transformative Venus? But she’s an it — the poet will not “anthropomorphize” the goddess! But what an it! Her “beam” is cold (not warm, not fuzzy: cold). She’s “outside” all that momentousness, yet somehow it happens thanks to her absolving “beam.” “Beam” goes back to Germanic “tree”; this “beam” is THE structural support of all this happening. But she doesn’t “beam”! There’s a world of difference there.
Zagajewski has made the “intermission” a moment that reveals the world of contingency in light of the “ontological difference” which remains “relative” to the world of relativity. The ultimate “vertical” is relative to the “horizontal.” The absolute IS “relative.” He mentions Venus because he has to; that’s his mindfulness expanding the poem to include the moreness, the excess of reality.
That’s a “metaxological” reading of this lovely, small, intensely calm poem by a poet who deserves a much bigger audience.It reveals the world between the anonymous piano tuner and the storied transcendent Venus.