Mann Kann Nicht Alles Haben: A Meditation on the Poetry of Adam Zagajewski

Adam shows us in this piece how “we gravitate towards the art we see ourselves most reflected in, where there is space for us to enhance our own unique myth within the confines of the tale itself. If offers us an escape. It offers us a salvation.”  Sometimes that means finding new ways to say what we need to say. Adam’s piece is a personal and literary journey that combines poetry, memoir, and the art of reflection.



Those who don’t like it say it’s
just a mutant violin
that’s been kicked out the chorus.
Not so.
The cello has many secrets,
but it never sobs,
just sings in its low voice.
Not everything turns into song
though. Sometimes you catch
a murmur or a whisper:
I’m lonely,
I can’t sleep.

Sometimes I feel like my life is one long, slow goodbye to the people I love the most.

There are things that one learns when living abroad, or when living alone—the unholy alliance of independence wedded with the indomitable need for companionship, an ersatz closeness that can replicate whatever one has left behind. There is a reason ex-pats in an area seek each other out, like vampires they need to replenish their supply of blood from time to time—energy, understanding. Gauze a homesickness—unique to each individual—that can only be communally assuaged.

We live with our ghosts. Eventually we become the ghosts of others.


Houston, 6 P.M.


…It’s early evening here, the lamp is lit
and the dark sun swiftly fades.
I’m alone. I read a little, think a little,
listen to music.
I’m where there’s friendship
but no friends, where enchantment
grows without magic,
where the dead laugh.
I’m alone because Europe is sleeping…

I have a good friend who lives in Paris. It is an odd relationship, a complicated one and one simultaneously easier than any other I’ve ever had with a human being. Her name is R. We met in college, when she was three years younger than myself and I was on the verge of donning a mask that I would wear for the next ten years. R and I shouldn’t have been friends. At the outset I found her petty and annoying, her constant flirtations childish and grating, and that she would come to my room at night when all I wanted to do was sleep a few hours before a 6 AM 10-kilometer run drove me mad, but I never had the heart to kick her out, or ask her to leave, and though there was an implicit and underlying sexuality to these meetings they remained platonic for a very long time because for many of them my mind was busy not with her but trying to navigate the inner workings of a Madrid Metro I’d never seen.

I know she sensed this despite her repeated petitions to be given five more minutes, as though magically in that added time something might drastically change, but even then, at 19, she was not one to ever be a second. My young 20s were dominated by things I discovered too late. This was, perhaps, the one thing I knew from its outset.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the notion of being an ex-patriot lately, of being an American who has lived much of his 20s abroad; it is an interesting dynamic. I possess the chameleon like ability to blend in, to become absorbed in the culture that I’ve adopted, and it was a long running joke among the friends I might see that I was actually in the CIA because I always somehow seemed to find myself in a new country, a new situation and a new debacle monthly. But what one forgets is that time doesn’t stop. That while one is away people carrying on at home, and those bar meetings upon return become less frequent, the phone calls become shorter, the shared interests atrophy and the jokes, experiences and memories now belong to a different clique such that one isn’t sure where true home lies. The coldest, most honest thing I once heard from my former best friend was, “You left us. What were we supposed to do?”

I’ve long loved the poetry of Adam Zagajewski for its directness, its pith. The way in which a simple line-cum-historical allusion can encapsulate the gamut of human emotion in such a humble and profound way.


Poems on Poland

I read poems on Poland written
by foreign poets. Germans and Russians
have not only guns, but also
ink, pens, some heart, and a lot
of imagination. Poland in their poems
reminds me of an audacious unicorn
which feeds on the wool of tapestries, it is
beautiful, weak, and imprudent. I don’t know
what the mechanism of illusion is based on,
but even I, a sober reader,
am enraptured by that fairy-tale defenseless land
on which feed black eagles, hungry
emperors, the Third Reich, and the Third Rome.

Happiness mixed with longing. Sadness wedded to hope. Fear and bravado aligned. The subtle black comedy that accompanies the act of self-preservation. His is a masterful tact, but lately I have come more to him because I sense in him one who has also looked at both himself and his home from a grand distance and with the type of clarify brought only by the dual removes of space and time, and though my exile is chosen and his once forced, there are certain feelings that, for me, only his stanzas can fully articulate.

There is no set time that passes between when R and I speak to each other, but I have found myself in need of her counsel more and more lately, since for the first time in my life I find myself adrift on the European continent knot on my own terms, unprepared, scattered and vulnerable. I need her guidance. I need her strength because one of the cruelest lessons one with learn is that no matter where one has lived, how well one understands certain aspects of culture, espionage is always easier when one is alone and uncompromised, and that no matter what, one will always remain American in thought and action, and for those unlearned in the language of our ways, certain frustrations, ticks, and annoyances will appear hyperbolic charades or trite tantrums.

I tell R this, and she smiles, shakes her head and pulls at the string on a tea bag brewing inside the red porcelain mug that sits on a table in a kitchen 1000 KM away from my own. She is in Paris. I am in Central Germany. “Certain aspects of you,” she says, “are not made for this side of the Atlantic. Certain things will slowly drive you insane. Don’t expect her or them to understand.”

I listen to R’s use of them; it is one of the moments when the pendulum of her psyche identifies more as American than French. “But you’ve always needed a challenge.”

At 22 I had my own university classroom in California. At 24 I published a book that the director of the Writing Program at Harvard University called “muscular, intelligent and deeply felt.” At 25 I routinely taught Master’s level classes at a university in South West England. For the last five months I have traveled four hours round trip by train from Braunschweig to Hannover to stand in a playground as a gloried lunch-lady and watch grammar school children for three. There is a Kafkaesque absurdity too it. It has enacted a heavy toll, damaged me in ways I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

“You won’t say it.” R smiles at me. The string from the tea bag in her hand has been replaced by a small, blue lighter. “I know what you’re thinking. If she wasn’t you wouldn’t still be there. You’re not a man capable of wasting his time. I know. I used to have to beg for it.”

“How is he,” I ask.

“Three and a half years and still no ring,” she says.

R doesn’t know that she is the real reason I went to Paris. I said it was for the city. I said it was for research. I said it was for everything but the truth when I was 25. I wanted to be close to be someone I trusted. I arrived just in time to find her having moved in with a 44 year old man in the midst of a divorce and whom, I immediately realized, she could never be separated from. He took an instant liking to me, took it upon himself to include me often in meetings and gatherings until it became routine for our triumvirate to be rendezvousing for drinks on a Friday or Saturday night where my broken French and his probable desire for a glimpse into the past of the woman he now found sharing the apartment he once inhabited with his wife and children served as the kindling to light the fires that burned away nights in the Marais, on Pont Neuf and through the back alleys of St. Germain. There is nothing more surreal that coming up from the bowels of a smoke-filled club along the banks of the Seine to see the dome of the Pantheon framed by the bloodorange of a rising Parisian sun.

It was the second time in my life I convinced myself I lost to a European man.


Square D’Orleans

…In the center of the square a little fountain
shyly raises up two braids of water,
reminding us of what life really is.
We sit on the steps as nothing happens.
It’s also impossible to say
that we feel anything like sorrow.
Anxiety and frenzy (two
younger nations) have given way
to classical restrain…

Germany is a wonderful country. It is beautiful. Like all countries it has a history both brilliant and tainted. I’ve never met a more welcoming people. I’ve never met a people as unsympathetic and cold. They are regulated. They are dominated by rules, by bureaucracy, by how things are supposed to be. Order and rationality win out. There is both a worth ethic and an inherent complacency, a lack of drive and motivation I see. An acceptance of place and standing such that I feel at times like the motto of the Germans could be the phrase I most often hear when I attempt to explain my frustrations: Mann kann nichts alles haben. It is a phrase that grates against my American sensibilities, a phrase I have heard too often, too easily and with a flippancy that makes me feel like I am the crazy one who wants too much too quickly, because I must first get in line. “They haven’t really heard of the meritocracy here yet,” R says. “I’m French. I should understand it and still it drives me nuts.”

Each time I hear it all I can think of is a smiling, naive, yet pragmatic Jay Gatsby, now forever linked with Leonardo diCaprio pausing beside the pool that will eventually become his grave, responding the way that I do, But of course you can. Of course I can. I’m American. That is what we were founded upon, taught to believe. Not patience, but action. I am incapable so slowness. “There’s a fine line between ambition and sanity,” R says. “Remember Paris,” she says. “Remember how I taught you to slow down.”

When I lived in Paris I spent much of my free time in churches. I liked hearing the Catholic mass in French because the Catholic mass requires a certain level of ignorance of its ceremony for one to become fully immersed in it. It requires mystery, a suspension of disbelief that allows one to truly lose oneself in the beautiful performance of ritual myth, and it can be transcendent to be reminded in such a grand a ornate setting how small and insignificant one and one’s feeling really is, to believe, if only for a second, that there is something more than just this, to plead not be alone, and to listen to the music, the choral chanting and lofty polyphony that seemed to say, Don’t worry, you’re not.

“I want to meet her,” R. says.

“You’d love her,” I say. “She’d hate you.”

“It’s our histories,” R says. And I do not ask if she is referring to the personal or the political.


The Barbarians

We were the barbarians.
You trembled before us in your palaces.
You awaited us with pounding hearts.
You commented on our languages:
they apparently consist of consonants alone,
of rustles, whispers, and dry leaves.
We were those who lived in the dark forest.
We were what Ovid feared in Tomi,
we were worshippers of gods with names
you could not pronounce.
But we too knew loneliness
and fear, and began longing for poetry.

What I have always loved most in that poem is that the last line remains unwritten, the implicit and then we arrived at your gates, our drums and torches begging in our own, ignorant and violent way, to be let inside. That is how I feel, I tell R. On the outside.

“You’re the strongest man I’ve ever met,” she says. “The most confident and the most vulnerable.”

“She hates museums.”

“So do I.”

“She doesn’t understand poetry,” I say.

“What does that even mean,” R says, though I know full well she knows.

“It means she doesn’t understand poetry.”

“Is that essential?”

“Sometimes I don’t know.”

“You’ve always been too smart for your own good.”

One night in Paris, along the Seine, in the doorway of yet another bar I told her I could steal you away from him if I wanted. It was a lie. And that’s why I’ll never let you R said. It wasn’t. And he walked a few paces ahead, his hands clasped together against the small of his back and his head tilted upward so that one could tell his gaze was occupied by whatever transpired amongst the stars.

“You’ve always been searching for something you couldn’t conquer. You’ve always been searching for something that could break you. You’re bored by everything else. And you’re incapable of letting certain things go.” When she says this last part her voice trails off. It is her way of saying I met you too late and you met me too early, locked in the bittersweet security that the fantasy of an untested relationship will sustain a friendship invaluable. We are both too smart now to believe in anything else.

I watch her now. She does not look at me. She dips the tea bag in her mug once more. There are sounds coming from the background. The sound of a door closing the way it does when one is entering. There are subtle differences one learns to recognize over the course of a distant life. She smiles. “You’ll find a way,” she says. “You pretty much always di—.” She pauses before she can use the past tense, “do.”



Clear moments are short.
There is much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

I miss strange things. Little things: Blue Point Hoptical Illusion, the dive bars that still populate the Lower East Side of Manhattan, trains stations where people understand that the left side of the escalator is to be kept free for people running to catch a connection. For all its beauty sometimes the German language sounds like a collection of copper pots being thrown down metal stairs. I am a man whose mind works in nuance, in compound complex sentences and with implication. Here I am forced to exist in broken simple ones. I am relatively illiterate with written German. I have trouble with their version of the New York Post. My personality is based on quick wit and allusion to the subtle. It is like trying to box with both hands tied behind one’s back. I wonder how much of my self I ceed by choosing to remain here.

Abroad, I have fallen in love with Gatsby again. I do not think there has been so prescient an American writer as F.Scott Fitzgerald, someone who managed to articulate so simply, with one phrase, the entire myth of the American experience—Give me a hero; I’ll write you a tragedy. We are a people intoxicated with success; we are a people even more enthralled by the subsequent downfall. Schadenfreude. America is the embodiment of a Greek tragedy, of Daisy, of those standing in that room on a hot summer day claiming that she cannot give it all, even if that is what she promised. There are still limits. I want to ask R if she knows the difference between realization and resignation, and if so where those who laid the two side by side decided to draw the dividing line. I want her to tell me it’s more like a Venn Diagram that an traditional border, that the two overlap and that we might live in some great gray middle without the definitive gravity of final commitment. She senses this.

“I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear,” she says. “I’ve never before and I’m not going to start now.”

I know she has to go. She is agitated, but she is wrong. I’ve gone from completely self-sufficient to entirely dependent. Sometimes I wonder if the only thing I contribute is a greater mess and a second load of laundry. R doesn’t realize that what I want to ask her is something I know she has wrestled with too. I want to ask her if an apartment that has so much history void of her can ever be home.

“Did you ever wonder what would happen for her if you got up one day and decided to leave?”

“She’d go back to the way she was before.”

“Of course she would,” she says. “You can be cruel sometimes. You have no idea how mean.”


Where The Breathe Is


She stands alone onstage
and has no instrument.
She lays her palms upon her breast,
where the breath is born
and where it dies.
The palms do not sing,
nor does the breast.
What sings is what stays silent.

Poetry is an escape. Music is another. I am drawn to art that makes visible that lack, the gap and the void. I am drawn to moments where we all become Chief Joseph, where we have given all and admit to wisdom culled from great suffering, because when we reach a point where we will fight no more, for an instant it all makes sense. In music I find this most because a note and a tone can express more than ever the most blunt and concise sentence might. I would trade whatever writing skill I possess for the ability to sing, to be able to capture in one note what the process of a novel requires. R. is a trained soprano. She sings in a choir. She has invited me to watch many times. They always perform in a cathedral. I have never gone. I am afraid of what I might believe I hear. Instead I went to whatever other concerts I could find. I heard Brahms in St. Sulpice. I heard Handel in Notre Dame de Paris. I hear Vivaldi in Sainte Chapelle on one of my last nights in the city, a cold December evening where one hugged tightly to the blankets given to the audience and watched the breath from the mouths of a string quartet whose fingers, miraculously, managed to stay eternally warm.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, when I feel like I’ve managed to somehow indirectly invade the bower of another, I sit on the balcony with headphones and shuffle through music. Often I listen to the slightly strained falsetto of Bon Iver singing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” on the balcony of the apartment I live in at night when I can’t sleep. I listen to how he makes the work and creation of another intrinsically his own. How he manages to give it the most perfect masculine balance between acceptance and tragic hope, a stoicism that straddles pleading and begging but never relinquishes a death grip on pride and dignity. It says just enough. It leave just enough out.

“She doesn’t believe in poetry.”

“You want too much, Adam,” R. says. “You want what you are capable of and so much more. You’re exhausting.” The noises grow louder in the background. “You need to trust her. One day you’ll realize that she has something to lose, too.”

She turns her head and glances over her shoulder quickly. “Go have a glass of wine, for me.”

“Five more minutes,” I ask, and she smiles.

Her valediction is a silent one, the act of bending the fingers of her left hand forward three times, and then with a comic bloop, she is gone.



Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind

What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbours, memories…

I have a message on my phone from R. I assume it came as she sat on a bus or the Metro, in the midst of the busyness and concern that is her whole life: Sometimes you expend so much effort looking for the unseeable that you miss the obvious thing right in front of you. Passing d’Orsay. Thought of Lautrec’s women. Thought of you.

In 29 years I have done more than most will do in a lifetime. I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been more miserable, and I have needed to be able to write this essay for a long time. I’ve needed to begin to reconcile many things to myself. I’ve needed to throw the mask of the person I’ve been for the last decade away, even if the false skin of its fabric has grafted to my own. I am not sure what face pulling it away will reveal. I don’t have the courage yet to request a mirror.

I began writing because I needed to know the why of one event I still have not yet understood, and I have for long realized I never will. I continued because we are always searching within ourselves for something incommunicable, something that might be articulated through a sound or a note, a painting or a phrase. Longinus called it sublimity. I have learned that transcendence comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the quiet progression of piano chords and a gentle male falsetto, the words of a future Nobel Laureate mixed with a glass of red wine in the stillness of an early German spring evening. But Autumn is not wicked. At least it is honest in its intentions. The cruelest part of the year is March, who drums up the rebellion of summer, a revolt whose quick victory is often put down by April’s draconian rain.

I don’t just believe in poetry. I require it, perhaps it will teach me how one comes to accept  that a place another has inhabited for so much longer, built memories in, defiled and sanctified ignorant of you, can ever be home? How long is the process? Sometimes I fear it is eternal; the task of assimilation a never-ending one, but even then, after a lifetime of patient sanding, rough, jagged edges will remain.

This is a love letter for one woman written about another, such is the trajectory of an uncontrolled heart and an absent mind, and people will read an essay like this and ask themselves what are the true parts, the parts they should believe and trust because it is all built with the imprecise tools of perspective and memory, and I will tell them only the most painful moments, because we decide what hurts, for how long and how deeply. We decide who we let in, and why.

But sitting on the balcony of an apartment I doubt I will ever fully consider to be my own and staring out towards the Teutonic spires that rise from the reconstructed center of a city decimated by American bombs, I listen to a voice and I remember Paris. I remember all that has brought me to this moment, and I am struck again Zagajewski’s words:


Death of a Pianist

While others waged war
or sued for peace, or lay
in narrow beds in hospitals
or camps, for days on end

he practiced Beethoven’s sonatas,
and slim fingers, like a miser’s,
touched great treasures
that weren’t his.


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