A Polish Poet Leaves Verse Behind, but Not His Lost City

Adam Zagajewski
Credit...Daniel Malak

When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.

By Adam Zagajewski
Translated by Clare Cavanagh
275 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s splendid new book of prose, “Slight Exaggeration,” is constructed of untitled anecdotes, essays and meditations, some mere sentences long. Writing on art, family, war, ideas, ideology — pretty much whatever his mind settles on — Zagajewski is in fact always writing about displacement. Readers of his poems will recognize his preoccupation with Lvov, a city lost to his parents and their friends after Poland ceded it to the Soviet Ukraine after World War II. With it, they also lost culture, beauty and any sense of being at home. “It pains me to know I never lived there,” Zagajewski writes, lauding “the city’s hills and the many spires of its churches.” He notes “the clean sky in May” and, in the next sentence, “the horror of war and occupation (but I didn’t endure it, didn’t see it).” This acknowledgment of Zagajewski’s own displacement from displacement makes his longing much more than attractive nostalgia.

“Slight Exaggeration,” published in Polish in 2011 and fluidly translated by Clare Cavanagh, is delightful to read straight through as it riffs, zags and circles. But you could drop down anywhere in this sometimes diaristic, sometimes belle-lettristic book and find something interesting. On creative types: “Of all artists, painters strike me as the friendliest.” On his antisocial Uncle Jozef’s refusal to join the family’s regular Sunday afternoon gatherings: “Jozef in his pajamas, surrounded by family members dressed normally, … is like Poland under the partitions. A country that’s lost its statehood, its autonomy, but hadn’t completely vanished.” That’s a poet’s leap from the anecdotal to the symbolic, but you probably couldn’t do it in a poem, where it would seem too didactic and stagy.

Zagajewski’s father is a central figure here, and Zagajewski’s portrait is loving: A “lonely man, fragile … happiest in the mountains. We’d sit on a mountain meadow. … He’d say nothing, just gaze in silence. … At a certain moment, my father’s calling … became comforting my mother, the constant permanent, daily creation of an optimistic vision. … Just air force exercises, he said, when bombs began to burst everywhere on Sept. 1, 1939. … Nothing to upset us. … There won’t be a war — these were my father’s historic words, by which he granted his wife, my mother, an extra 15 minutes of peace. He prolonged the interwar era by a quarter of an hour especially for her.”


Zagajewski can seem anachronistically highbrow: “Poets who listen to pop music — their numbers are growing — don’t seem to have … mystical leanings.” Once I unroll my eyes, I can see that Zagajewski is much attracted by “the ineffable,” by which he means, I think, what can’t be perceived entirely by the senses. He pokes fun at himself about this, or allows his father to. A journalist asks about an essay in which Zagajewski claimed settled people prefer painting while displaced people prefer music, “the most metaphorical of the arts” — metaphor being that which moves the literal toward the ineffable. “Slight exaggeration,” says Zagajewski’s father, an engineer — unwittingly giving name to this book. Zagajewski retorts: “A good definition of poetry … a slight exaggeration, until we make ourselves at home in it. Then it becomes the truth. But when we leave it again — since permanent residence is impossible — it becomes once more a slight exaggeration.”

If Zagajewski’s insistence on the highbrow — his conflation of ideas and taste, his highly confident pronouncements on aesthetic value — can seem a touch unbecoming, it’s worth noting that to be discerning, to be intellectual, in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, was to create space for independent mind and spirit — that is, to resist, survive and remain human. That’s Zagajewski’s heritage, and something we in America might give thought to just now.