Questioning, Imagining, Mythologizing: “Lwów” in the Poetry of Adam Zagajewski

Magdalena Kay, University of California, Berkeley

This paper analyzes the problematic nature of “home” in the work of Adam Zagajewski, one of the foremost Polish poets writing today. Zagajewski expresses a unique vision in which wandering, questioning, and cultural liminality play a central role. Establishing roots is a problem for Zagajewski. His birthplace, Lwów (currently Ukrainian L’viv) is mythologized precisely because it is unattainable: Zagajewski’s family was a part of the great migration of Poles from Lwów westwards. Zagajewski’s conception of the “home city” is simultaneously concrete, even historicized, and abstract, dwelling in the realm of ideals. The deep paradox of his personal situation is that he is not a citizen of the country that holds his home city; the paradox of his poetry is that it rests upon a fundament that is largely imaginary. Is the old Lwów an insubstantial chimera, and can it be dismissed as a mere psychological “construct,” or should it be viewed as a solid reality buttressing Zagajewski’s exploration of self and home? This paper considers the dual claims of historical position (facts of citizenship, of migration, and of temporal situation) and of the poetic and idealistic imagination. Zagajewski has exercised a tremendous influence on contemporary poetry because of his attention to history, but few scholars have discussed the equally potent claims of imaginative idealism. Yet, this idealism is one of his most innovative qualities. It results in an aesthetic and ideational viewpoint that defends the constructive potential of art while refusing to radically separate art from its socio-political context.

Zagajewski’s “Lwów” exerts its force upon the poetic speaker both as a historicized “lost Jerusalem” and as the construct of personal desire. His masterpiece “Jechac do Lwowa” (translated as “To Go to Lvov”) posits Lwów as an aesthetic repository that serves as the endpoint of the speaker’s quest. The poem is structured teleologically, yet the speaker constructs his goal in the course of his journey. The facts of ontology are superseded by desire in a manner that proclaims the superiority of imagination over historical “fact.” Movement is a key component of this poetry, and idealism is inherently dynamic in Zagajewski’s work. Lwów becomes an ever-expanding concept whose nature can only be understood by accounting for its historical unavailability. The lost city is a psychological need. This paper will clarify the intellectual work that Zagajewski’s poems undertake in their transformation of Lwów from site of historical tragedy (forced migration) to imaginative ideal. Zagajewski’s work reveals how the emotionally-charged concept of “exile” can be reimagined. Instead of writing a eulogy for a lost homeland, Zagajewski turns his birthplace, Lwów, into a set of values and images. As the poet’s desire grows and changes, so the goal of his quest changes as well. Place responds to vision. Zagajewski’s work presents Polish poetry with a rich form of imaginative idealism that looks forward to a dynamic future instead of lamenting an unavailable past.