Tina Barr, PINK MOON

You can find this week’s poetry book review at Escape Into Life — just follow this link: https://www.escapeintolife.com/book-reviews/pinkmoon100888/

Yes, I know I’m behind, but I’ll be back next week with more.


photo by Bethany Reid


Adam Zagajewski, TRUE LIFE

TRUE LIFE, Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanaugh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 120 Broadway, New York 10271, 2019, 80 pages, $16 paper, www.fsgbooks.com.

I have been a fan of Adam Zagajewski’s poetry ever since his “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” appeared in the New Yorker the week after 9/11. I bought his selected poems, Without End (2002), some time ago, and on a visit to Phinney Books during this spring’s Independent Bookstore fest, I picked up this slim book of his late poems. It was published in Polish before his death (his dates are 1945-2021), and only recently appeared in this gorgeous translation by Clare Cavanaugh. It is full of delights.


Figs are sweet, but don’t last long.
They spoil fast in transit,
says the shopkeeper.
Like kisses, adds his wife,
a hunched old woman with bright eyes.

—Adam Zagajewski

Each week, I tell myself to 1) read a book of poems, and 2) share a brief appreciation and a poem—easy, peasy, right? So far I’ve been unsuccessful. For this blogpost, I ended up doing a deep dive into all-things Zagajewski (pronounced Zaga yef ski). As people say, “I went down the rabbit hole,” and I have spent most of the day there. Now I’m back, not to drag you down with me, but to point the way for your own exploration.

For one thing, I learned that who Zagajewski was goes beyond the stock, “one of the most beloved poets in the world,” “the acclaimed Polish poet,” as he is usually introduced. Born in Lvov, Poland, as I had previously read, he moved as an infant with his family to Western Poland.

Well, yes, but so much more that that.

Lvov, Poland, is now Lviv, Ukraine. When the borders of Poland were redrawn after WWII, Zagajewski and his family, along with many other Poles, were forcibly moved (a journey of two weeks, in cattle cars—Adam was four months old) to the German city, Gliwice, which had been ceded to Poland. Given Adam’s tender age, being in exile, being a refugee, may not have marked him as such, but Adam’s forebears were unwilling to cede their geographical identity. Writing a tribute to his friend, Ilya Kaminsky quotes a few passages from Zagajewski’s memoir, Two Cities, and explains the title’s significance:

In Gliwice, Adam’s father, an engineering professor, couldn’t afford a desk. Instead, he nailed four metal food cans to a small table, where he piled book after book about Lvov. For decades, he kept buying maps and guidebooks to the city. As if Lvov existed. As if he could simply return.

–Ilya Kaminsky

I share all of this to explain how another of Zagajewski’s significant poems, “To Go to Lvov,” suddenly bloomed into full-color life for me. (Kaminsky’s essay, “Going to Lvov: A Poet of the Human Soul,” appeared in The Yale Review; it contains this poem and others, and you can find it here: https://yalereview.org/article/going-to-lvov.)

Zagajewski, in his memoir, also writes of walking, as a boy, with his grandfather through the streets of their adopted city. “I walked the streets of Gliwice. He walked the streets of Lvov” (qtd. by Kaminsky). Somehow it seems fitting that in many of the poems in True Life, the poet takes us along on his walks through old European cities, haunted by the past:

Santiago de Compostela

Light drizzles as if the Atlantic
were examining its conscience

November no longer pretends
Rain dowsed its bonfires and sparks

Santiago is Spain’s secret capital
Patrols arrive day and night

Pilgrims wander its streets, exhausted
or eager, like ordinary tourists

A woman sat by the cathedral
she leaned on her backpack and sobbed

The pilgrimage is over
Where will she go now

Cathedrals are only stones
Stones don’t know motion

Evening approaches
and winter.

—Adam Zagajewski

I have to emphasize how he employs these strange comparisons, surprising, opaque images:

Light drizzles as if the Atlantic
were examining its conscience

Sometimes even stranger:

When night draws near
the mountains are clear and pure
—like a philosophy student
before exams
(from “Mountains”)

In “Kardamyli” (a town in Greece, given in 146 BC by the Roman emperor to the Spartans), Zagajewski asks, “What can a person who is a poet do— / in the army, a hospital, the world?

My answer: one could do worse than write these poems. As Kaminsky shares:

Adam insisted that a poem can be both an elegy for what happened and also a hymn to life. He gave us, if not a healing, then a way to go on, to give each other a measure of reprieve, music, and gentleness.

—Ilya Kaminsky, “Going to Lvov: A Poet of the Human Soul” (The Yale Review, May 6, 2021)

“[A]n elegy for what happened and also a hymn to life.” Just gorgeous.

You can learn more about Zagajewski, and find videos of him being interviewed or reading, all over the Internet. Obviously, I recommend Kaminsky’s essay. And, if you don’t know his poem, “Try to Praise the Mutiliated World,” please (please) visit this page to find it.

You can also find it at this blogpost from last year: https://www.bethanyareid.com/adam-zagajewski-1945-1921/.


WHAT THE PAIN LEFT, Sandra Noel. Kelsay Books, 502 South 1040 East, A-119, American Fork, Utah 84003, 2024, 56 pages, $20 paper, Kelsaybooks.com.

Although it is always a pleasure to read poems by Vashon Island poet Sandra Noel, this book felt very different from the two I have previously reviewed, Hawk Land (2022) and The Gypsy in My Kitchen  (2015). Dedicated to her husband, who died in 2022, What the Pain Left is painted from a different palette. Though crafted with Noel’s eye for detail, her heart for nature, here the “commotion / of silver-scaled abundance / falling from nets” in “Love and Marriage,” feels doomed from the start. In “We Speak About Death Over Burgers and Fries.” I was amazed at Noel’s poise in navigating the trajectory of this book, encompassing a 40-year history: courtship to death and out the other side, alone.

I will catch you
or we will fall together
maybe there is another level
in this warren
a way out of the labyrinth.

end lines from “Down the Rabbit Hole”

Of course there is no other way out of life, and perhaps that’s why the poems are often spare, more spare than I’ve noticed in Noel’s previous books. They are tender with feeling, and accessible; for the most part, Noel omits punctuation, placing together lines about a heron abruptly with “tragedies / float noisily by” (“In the Shadows”). Unexpected capital letters intrude, and exclamation marks. All of which seem to be insisting on making sense of what feels senseless, an illness, ineffectual treatment, and untimely death. This praise from the back cover, felt apt:

Part diary, part love letter, Noel’s humor, gratitude, and self-awareness keep these poems honest and truly from the heart. –Katy E. Ellis

The cover art is by Sandra Noel, herself, a watercolor painting of Gaibo Whaling Station, Wadaura, Chiba Prefecture, Japan. In the poem, “Love and Marriage,” the whaling station provides a metaphor—at least, so I thought—for the messiness of life:

Love and Marriage

Every morning
we walked to the whaling station
bought hot sweet coffee in cans
from a machine on the street
too early for the sun but not the market
as vendors shoveled crushed ice
into large blue bins
and elegant fishing boats glided
alongside the dock
their holds full and ready to disgorge.

As we sipped our coffee
arm in arm
I listened to the talk of local women
understanding nothing
and everything as women do.

Then I saw your sea blue eyes
bright with promise
the same way you looked at me
gazing over that commotion
of silver-scaled abundance
falling from nets onto the dock
into the waiting bins of ice
and hopeful buyers with their yen
fish sorted from fish
squid, octopus, sea squirts
and smaller, even stranger creatures.

You pushed me forward
when the crowd thinned out
kneeling, picked up wriggling globs
telling me their scientific names
as my eyes wandered to seabirds
frenzied by the blood and entrails
where women cleaned fish in seawater
then, over your beautiful shoulders
to the sea, bright blue
the great Eastern Sun slowly rising
turning the bay into liquid gold.

“Are you listening to me!?”
“Yes,” I said, “Yes of course!”
and when I think of that first lie
I remember all the others
the kind that make a marriage work
but destroy a love affair.

—Sandra Noel

Notice how the lack of punctuation makes some lines ambiguous. Is it the local women who understand nothing, as women do? or is it the I, listening, who understands nothing? The latter interpretation makes, “Then I saw your sea blue eyes” a kind of homecoming, a moment of pure understanding. That the poem’s ending feels unresolved, or imperfectly resolved (going on a couple beats too long, or cut short?), is a simulacrum of a life ended too soon, and part of what makes this collection of poems so moving.

You can learn more by visiting Noel’s website, Noel Design. Or visit her book page at Kelsay Books.

Good Poetry for Hard Times

I have mentioned my upcoming class, Good Poetry for Hard Times, to you before, and posted the announcement on my Home page with other events, but this evening I’m taking a moment to promote it again. In short:

My Creative Retirement Institute (CRI) class begins May 24 and continues for a total of four Fridays, on Zoom, 1-3:00.  As far as I know, anyone can take a CRI class (do you have to prove you’re retired? I don’t think so), and they are inexpensive.  This class is $58.

For some backstory, I first proposed to teach a Zoom poetry workshop. CRI doesn’t do craft classes, it turns out, but rather than simply say no, they asked if I would consider teaching a class about poetry, and I said yes.

The first title was Your Memorable Poem (like my workshop last year), but someone at CRI didn’t like that title. We came up with Good Poetry for Hard Times because I had been thinking a lot about Gaza, Ukraine, Nigeria…political division in our own country, mass shooti… Okay, I’m going to stop there. My thought was, Who has time to read (or write) poetry? Does the world need another poem? Shouldn’t I be doing something?

When I asked my journal that question, these are some responses my brain came up with:

1. Reading poetry (writing poetry, too) is doing something. It makes us pause and catch our breath. It can bring us joy (it definitely brings me joy).

2. A good poem, shared at the right moment, brings breath and joy and hope to the recipient, too.

3. To expand on that, poetry (all art for that matter, and joy, too) is not a luxury. We need it.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence … The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

—Audre Lorde

4. How is poetry a necessity? William Stafford called it a way of paying attention, and what could be more useful today than a habit of attention? Not distraction, not self-medicating. Attention.

5. Poems help make sense of loss. They are vehicles for emotion, and when we see that this poet — famous, obscure, long long dead — felt what we feel, then at the very least we feel less alone.

6. In times past, when poets retreated into the mountains (Basho, Yuanming) or into monasteries (Gerard Manley Hopkins), or into their upstairs bedroom (Emily Dickinson), what were they retreating from? How did their poetry help them to survive? (How might their poetry help us to survive our times?) Nothing too shocking or earth-shattering, but these are the questions I would like to sit with for a while.

What will each class look like?

I’m cobbling together a handout of about 50 poems that inspire me. At each session, I’ll read several poems aloud, pausing over each poem to introduce the poet, and offering context I find useful. I will also talk through what I find intriguing, healing, inspiring, memorable about each poem. Other participants (are they students if there’s no prep and no homework?) are encouraged to break in with questions or to add their comments and insights to mine. (I am HOPING people will want to talk about the poems.)

I predict that the time will fly by. So, here’s why I’m promoting it:

The class is a go, but it is slightly under-enrolled, and I’m really really hoping for a few more people. All motivations welcome:

  • The person who slept through poetry class in high school, but is ready now to see what all the fuss is about. “What’s this I hear about poetry being good for your brain?”
  • Someone who read Priscilla Long’s Dancing with the Muse in Old Age and could use an introduction to poetry before beginning his own writing practice.
  • Anyone who has been reading and writing poems for years, but, like me, finds this particular conversation timely and intriguing.

The creation of art, okay, just the attempt at the creation of art, as well as the appreciation of it, is both an enlarging of the world and an expanding of consciousness.

—Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness

If you — or someone you know — fits into any of these categories, here’s the link for CRI: https://www.edmonds.edu/programs-and-degrees/continuing-education/creative-retirement-institute/

I hope to see some of you there. White hair not required.


[I believe this link will take you directly to the course description: https://www.campusce.net/edmondsarts/Course/Course.aspx?c=1491]