Adam Zagajewski, “Gulls” (from “En Route”)

The idea of travel can possess me with guilt.

How dare I try to leave? To see something more, something new? If I were truly grateful, I would try to make the most of where I am.

If I were truly capable, I guess, I could spin straw into gold.

*

Zagajewski, in this excerpt from En Route, describes an experience specific to travel. 

I go somewhere new. It feels different in a way I can’t quite articulate. I want to describe that feeling with what power I have, as if I am an explorer seeing a continent for the first time.

I want to capture the awe of Silent, upon a peak in Darien. Generations of readers would not object. The awe is a bonus. What they really want is an insight into the nature of insight. Why arrival in a new place enhances our sensitivity. How this can be brought home.

I don’t know the conditions underlying the writing of what’s below. I do know it has to speak to what’s common, what’s necessary. “Eternity doesn’t travel, / eternity waits” fails otherwise:

Gulls (from En Route, in Poetry)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Clare Cavanagh)
 
Eternity doesn’t travel,
eternity waits.
In a fishing port
only the gulls are chatty.

I know what doesn’t create this. It’s hard to get from expensive vacations for the purpose of demonstrating status. It’s hard to get from pure indulgence. From times which can be only bliss, where nothing challenging can be considered.

Some people will try to build a profound statement upon a lack of want. The reason why this collapses isn’t because they can’t say something beautiful or thoughtful. The problem is that people who need such a statement aren’t themselves moved from one blissful moment to the next.

*

Eternity doesn’t travel, / eternity waits. You’ve arrived, as a traveler yourself, at the docks. You’re watching fishermen get their boats ready, unload fish, bustle about. They’re constantly in motion and have no time to speak. 

You notice, behind it all, an infinite sea of blue. All these manmade constructs, all these activities natural and unnatural. And then, just a scratch away, a sea, an ocean. A world with unknowable depth, extending god-knows-where. 

Eternity waits. The blue, the depth, the other world has always been. You’re there, in a fishing port, and now it’s clear to you. It’s nothing that would make sense to the fishermen, or should make sense. Part of you is eager to say that this is a tendency among travelers to say high-sounding things. 

Only the gulls are chatty. Are we gulls for visiting and commenting? The poem slyly hints at this. And it provokes this thought: What’s wrong with that? The gulls traverse the deep blue and eat all the same. They’re travelers and survivors too, making the most of every moment. A “most” that isn’t wanton indulgence or paralyzing fear. Maybe the insight into the nature of insight has to do with saying something in the first place.

1 Comment

  1. Maybe the gulls chat about aesthetics, in their own way of course! These eternalised gulls. This feels like “Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn”.

    Strange how the humble reconfigures the meanness of meaning.

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