About My Mother

by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

copyright ©2014 by Adam Zagajewski / Translation copyright © 2018 by Clare Cavanagh.

I could never say anything about my mother:
how she repeated, you’ll regret it someday,
when I’m not around anymore, and how I didn’t believe
in either “I’m not” or “anymore,”
how I liked to watch as she read bestsellers,
always turning to the last chapter first,
how in the kitchen, convinced it’s not
her proper place, she made Sunday coffee,
or, even worse, filet of cod,
how she studied the mirror while expecting guests,
making the face that best kept her
from seeing herself as she was (I take
after her here and in a few other weaknesses),
how she went on at length about things
that weren’t her strong suit and how I stupidly
teased her, for example, when she
compared herself to Beethoven going deaf,
and I said, cruelly, but you know he
had talent, and how she forgave everything
and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston
to her funeral and couldn’t say anything
and still can’t.

Notes on the Poem

We were deeply saddened to learn this past week of the passing of beloved and revered Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewki, who left us on World Poetry Day. We are immensely grateful for the work he left us, especially so because we got to celebrate that life's work in person when Zagajewski received the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award in 2016. In his Griffin Lifetime Recognition tribute, trustee Mark Doty referred to Zagajewski's best-known poem in English, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World". As the news of Zagajewski's passing was almost cushioned amidst a global day celebrating poetry, so did his magnificent poem come before us achingly well timed and so needed in the wake of the horrors of September 11, 2001. As Doty noted:
"Our capacity for praise may feel itself feel mutilated, it will be at times terribly difficult to find in ourselves the strength to praise, but Zagajewski’s essential poem reminds us that it is the human necessity to try. For what do we have, without praise, besides irony or bitterness? These poems make the work of affirmation more available to us; they remind us — gently, sometimes sardonically, but always with great compassion for what is mutilated in us — that the lucid moment is still possible."
While "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" has taken on worldwide significance, it does so with elements and observations on a small and intimate scale. Doty's wise assessment of what the poem achieves can also be applied to "About My Mother", which was part of Zagajewski's memorable Lifetime Recognition reading: The poem's narrator is able to scrutinize and gently mock his mother, but not praise her. While cataloguing her foibles, the narrator is actually ruefully self-aware ... "(I take after her here and in a few other weaknesses)" "and how I stupidly teased her" ... but not enough to correct his soft cruelties before it is too late. In this stricken portrait of the most profound regret and shame, sketched lightly but indelibly and therefore the more achingly poignant, Zagajewski reminds us all to appreciate and praise before it truly is too late ... and nothing more can be said.

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