Adam Zagajewski

praise the mutilated world

In my dream, I am standing in a small room with stone walls, like a prison cell, except for the bright white light. The room has been flooded with water. The water comes up almost to my knees. 

In the morning, the loud calls of birds. Jackhammers in the distance. 

The bruises on my arms are fading. The claw marks from the strange rash. But new ones appear in different places. A purple bruise the size of a soup spoon on the inside of my thigh. And another smaller one, just above the knee. On my left arm, near the elbow, small and brown, the size and shape of my fingertip. A matched set on my shoulderblades. Surely these are signs of carelessness. I am throwing myself around in ways I do not even remember. Surely this is a sign of my own inattention. 

In the evening, while I sit sucking down my cocktail through a straw, halfway around the world, men are setting themselves on fire. I read this in the dark, from my glowing screen.

We talk about patience, my friend and I. “I don’t like to wait,” she says. 

A white plate is set in front of me holding shrimp the size of my open palm. 

“No, no, I am not good at waiting either.”

At the far end of the bar, a couple moves methodically through a platter of oysters. They are laughing and touching each other on their arms and faces. 

They shouted three times outside the temple before they set themselves on fire.

He died in the fire he set.

M. returns late at night and tells me about the time spent with his parents. Over dinner, they talk about his father’s youth. “I never saw myself living in a town like this,” his father says. 

He drives them to their new home, the assisted living facility. As he pulls into the parking lot, his mother says, “This is the last place we will ever live.”

In the morning, we find our rhythms again after days of separation. The familiar choreography of care taking, of packing lunches and pouring coffee. 

There are moments, when he is gone, that I miss him so keenly I forget who I am. At night, when the house is quiet and dark, when I wander the empty rooms, longing. 

So how is it then, that when he is back, I can allow him to brush past me in the hallway, or I can see him stretched out on the floor with our son or I can watch as he sits reading in a chair - and not reach out for him, reach for him? How is it I am not always reaching?

They shouted three times outside the temple:

“This is the last place we will ever live.”

Before he leaves, we watch an improbable film with an improbable love. A wife imprisoned for murder, her husband visiting. He is forced to sell their home. When he tells her, she says, “Where will I picture you if not in our home? Where is it that I can picture you?”

I will picture you in our kitchen, standing at the counter, slicing bread. I will picture you at the kitchen table drawing, our son sitting next to you. I will picture you on the front porch, taking photos of our children on the first day of each new school year. I will picture you dragging the trash cans out to the curb at night and in the morning, dragging them back again. 

The hours are long. A feeling of unease. The gray sky threatens, but holds back rain. I make my lists. Take my notes, make my phone calls. What is this heaviness that settles in on me, even on the simplest of days? 

In a book left on my desk, I find this:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
– Adam Zagajewski (translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh)

Remember June’s long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the gray feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

I will picture you in a white room where the curtain flutters. I will picture you in June’s long days. I will picture you, a gray feather lost. 

You are the gentle light that strays and vanishes, then returns. 

I will picture you returning.