Dead poets of 2021: Adam Zagajewski

Our second dead poet of 2021 is Adam Zagajewski. I’ve always been fond of Polish poets, and now I have a new one to love.



Mysticism for Beginners

by Adam Zagajewski

translated by Clare Cavanagh


The day was mild, the light was generous.

The German on the café terrace

held a small book on his lap.

I caught sight of the title:

Mysticism for Beginners.

Suddenly I understood that the swallows

patrolling the streets of Montepulciano

with their shrill whistles,

and the hushed talk of timid travelers

from Eastern, so-called Central Europe,

and the white herons standing—yesterday? the day before?—

like nuns in fields of rice,

and the dusk, slow and systematic,

erasing the outlines of medieval houses,

and olive trees on little hills,

abandoned to the wind and heat,

and the head of the Unknown Princess

that I saw and admired in the Louvre,

and stained-glass windows like butterfly wings

sprinkled with pollen,

and the little nightingale practicing

its speech beside the highway,

and any journey, any kind of trip,

are only mysticism for beginners,

the elementary course, prelude

to a test that’s been




Travel guru Rick Steves himself could not write a more enthusiastic paean to travel than Adam Zagajewski in “Mysticism for Beginners.” Here we have olive trees and outdoor cafes and art museums and travelers upon travelers—the speaker, who finds himself in Italy after having been to France, the German reading his book, soft-spoken Eastern Europeans (why timid?)—and, threaded throughout, beginning, middle and end, the freest of all travelers, birds.


For the swallows, herons, and nightingales the speaker sees and hears, boundaries don’t exist. There are no separate countries, cities and neighborhoods, only differences in terrain and weather. For the speaker, too, boundaries disappear. The days blend one into the other, the experiences of past trips bleed into the present one, and architecture blurs into landscape—


the dusk, slow and systematic,

erasing the outlines of medieval houses,


Ah, disappearing boundaries, the best. Perhaps the key feature of any peak travel experience. To be at once dislocated from one’s everyday life and at the same time rooted in a profound way to a universe of connectedness. Sometimes the connection is with other people, sometimes with nature, sometimes with the past. In this poem, it’s all three.


And therein we have mysticism for beginners. What begins with a wry, humorous observation of a man reading a book—a man from Germany, a country famous for its philosophers, and a book that could have been culled from the for Dummies series—grows into a beautiful and morbid meditation on the meaning of travel itself—


any journey, any kind of trip,

are only mysticism for beginners,

the elementary course, prelude

to a test that’s been



I’m puzzling through these lines, so help if you can. In my reading, he’s speaking of death, the ultimate unknown country. The idea of a test is ominous, a kind of final judgment, but this judgment has nothing to do with sins and good deeds—this one’s about understanding and acceptance. Are we ready for the disappearance of self, for universal unity, for neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female?


I’m also puzzled over which head of the Unknown Princess the speaker saw at the Louvre. It could be this one by daVinci, La Belle Ferronnière


or this bust which is absolutely hypnotic.


I suppose it doesn’t matter as both are arresting.




Poet, novelist and essayist Adam Zagajewski was born in 1945 in what is now Lviv, Ukraine. When he was a small boy, country borders were redrawn, and the family was expelled by the Soviet Union to central Poland.


He studied psychology and philosophy in Krakow. He was a protest poet in the late 60’s and became part of the Polish New Wave movement. His opposition to the Communist government led to his poems being banned. He wrote a manifesto with Julian Kornhauser calling for a literary realism in opposition to political propaganda. He also published an underground magazine


In 1982 he left for Paris, and later taught at University of Houston. He made his home between Houston and Krakow and died in Krakow this past March at age 75.



I didn’t realize I had already come across Zagajewski’s work. I had posted a fragment of his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” in a Thanksgiving post a few years back. He wrote the poem in the year 2000, but it drew worldwide attention in the days following 9/11. It’s one of those poems that seems always to speak to the moment. Here’s a piece about the poem and its cultural import from Newsweek.




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