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This review is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

OFF COURSE ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI, Mysticism for Beginners, translated by Clare Cavanagh (Faber and Faber) £7.99
JUDY GAHAGAN, Crossing the No-Man's Land (Flambard) £6.95
ROBERT GRAY, Lineations (Arc) £8.95
W.N. HERBERT, The Laurelude (Bloodaxe) £8.95

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski's third book investigates a pervasive sense of being off course and the corresponding sense of a better way. The experience recorded in the first lines of 'A Quick Poem', which opens the collection, announces the predicament:

I was listening to Gregorian chants
in a speeding car
on a highway in France.

The creaking rhyme may be the translator's early signal that Zagajewski, though sincere, is not precious. The speaker is going nowhere in particular and the beguiling spiritual authority of the music of the 'sweet monks' troubles him:

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.

Elsewhere, Zagajewski seems most restless when trapped in the velvet jaws of irony:

Sometimes in museums the paintings speak to me
and irony suddenly vanishes
                                           ('Self-portrait')

Oh, tell me how to cure myself of irony, the gaze
that sees but doesn't penetrate
                                           ('Long Afternoons').

This is not a catastrophic condition but it is unfulfilling, a 'narrow, fettered life'.

Resistance can be a grim affair - 'We must live, / the hangman whispers' ('Whatever Happened') - but several poems gamble on evoking truly better ways of conducting life. In 'For M.', childhood beckons, 'the land ...


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