Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Days

Château de Amboise, Where Leonardo Is Buried

King François I of France invited Leonardo Da Vinci to move to Amboise, where he lived in a splendid house within walking distance of the Chåteau de Amboise. Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem musing on Leonardo’s last act on the Loire in France.


He lives in France now,
calmer and much weaker.
He is the jewel in the crown. Favored
with the monarch’s friendship.
The Loire rolls its waters slowly.
He considers the projects
he left unfinished.
His right hand, half-paralyzed,
has already departed.
His left would also like to take its leave.
And his heart, and his whole body.
Islands of light still
stand sentry.

“Far from Dawn”

I have just finished reading a poetry collection that was the best I have read in half a century. Over the past month or two, I have read several poems by Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021). His Mysticism for Beginners is full of startling images, deep insights, and even clarity, which is rare in contemporary poetry. Here is the first poem in the book:

A Quick Poem

I was listening to Gregorian chants
in a speeding car
on a highway in France.
The trees rushed past. Monks’ voices
sang praises to an unseen God
(at dawn, in a chapel trembling with cold).
Domine, exaudi orationem meam,
male voices pleaded calmly
as if salvation were just growing in the garden.
Where was I going? Where was the sun hiding?
My life lay tattered
on both sides of the road, brittle as a paper map.
With the sweet monks
I made my way toward the clouds, deep blue,
heavy, dense,
toward the future, the abyss,
gulping hard tears of hail.
Far from dawn. Far from home.
In place of walls—sheet metal.
Instead of a vigil—a flight.
Travel instead of remembrance.
A quick poem instead of a hymn.
A small, tired star raced
up ahead
and the highway’s asphalt shone,
showing where the earth was,
where the horizon’s razor lay in wait,
and the black spider of evening
and night, widow of so many dreams.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

Polish Poet Adam Zagajewsky (1945-2021)

We lost another great poet last year when Adam Zagajewsky died in Kraców, Poland. He is one of a handful of Central and Eastern European poets whose work I have come to love, poets like Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Anna Szymborska, and Boris Pasternak. This is one of my favorites among his works:

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
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 going 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.

The translation is by Clare Cavanagh.


Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski

Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski

Increasingly often and striking powerful chords, Eastern Europe calls to me. While I was looking for something else on my shelves, I pulled out Adam Zagajewski’s Unseen Hands and started scanning it. Here is a poem of his called “Metaphor”:


Every metaphor is a failure, said
the very old poet in the hotel bar,
turning to his rapt pupils.
The very old poet was in fine form
and said, with a wineglass in his hand:
It’s the fundamental problem of incarnation,
the things we love, the unseen things,
take flesh, of course, in what can
be seen and said, though never
absolutely, one to one,
so it follows that there’s always a little too much
or a little too little, the seams remain on the surface,
fingers jut, buttons, umbrellas, fingernails,
uncollected letters in azure airmail envelopes,
the sense of shortfall or excess remains,
someone is ominously silent, someone else
summons help, the ice cracks, the ambulance
arrives, too late, alas, but just wait,
thanks to this, thanks to this incongruity,
thanks to this inexplicable rupture,
we may keep chasing the chimera of metaphor,
all our lives we walk in darkness,
in a dim forest, we track the trail of simile,
imperfect, just like my
speech, just now reaching
its conclusion, although there is
no doubt much more to add,
but I fear that I’m already
growing weary and seem
to hear sleep calling.

I can just imagine the very old poet beginning to nod off, somewhat dismayed by the imperfection of language. Just as, I might add, I am beginning to nod off as my bedtime hour approaches. I like the use of the word “incarnation” to describe metaphor, an “unseen thing taking flesh.”