Auto Mirror (from A Book of Luminous Things)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Czeslaw Milosz & Robert Hass)
In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.
Striking, how this strikes. A massive, beautiful cathedral – the work of hundreds, if not thousands – appears for a moment.
The wrinkles building the drama are more than incidental. First, the speaker sees it in a “rear-view mirror,” “suddenly.” Going about his business, he has already passed the cathedral. It may not be possible to go back. It is probably not possible to seriously contemplate as he is driving. Taking him by surprise, it is a genuine combination of shock and awe.
A revelation of the Du mußt dein Leben ändern sort? That brings us to the second singularity: Beauvais is famous for not being finished. We are talking about a gigantic, amazing, perfect-in-its-own way work of man. The speaker glimpses the “bulk” of it; his own vision of the incomplete is incomplete.
We are brought to a third strangeness. “Great things dwell in small ones for a moment” – something about this experience was a whole, if only for a second. Maybe it was whole because it was momentary. Strictly speaking, all that happened was a building showed itself in a mirror. That is, on a literal level, the great thing in the small one.
It is certainly possible for the speaker to continue driving, like nothing happened. Or maybe he stops driving and changes his life. I couldn’t be bothered with this dualism. Another poem I read today was about how the expectations of love are too idealistic nowadays. The same things that break a relationship lead to trying to go one’s way merrily after it. It’s like all our choices have to be put in this moralistic cloak, where we always know better or become better no matter what choices we make. The only thing this process serves to do is reveal our pettiness. We want to be stronger than everything, and this starts looking really stupid when we consider how small some of our lives are at times. In a similar vein, I suspect that if we spoke about the speaker changing, we’d be reinforcing a cliche: his sensitivity to the cathedral would be tied to an automobile’s mirror.
Beauvais isn’t presented as dedicated to God or mighty and wondrous in its timelessness. It is a reflection of the efforts of many nameless others, as there seems to be an indirect contrast with the speaker’s “I,” the medieval and the modern. That’s the greatness, and it dwells in our speaker for a moment. Whether it is the seed of anything more, well – that depends on what they have to say.