Great Ships

By Adam Zagajewski b. 1945 Adam Zagajewski

Translated By Clare Cavanagh

This is a poem about the great ships that wandered
                   the oceans
And groaned sometimes in deep voices, grumbling about fog
                   and submerged peaks,
But usually they sliced the pages of tropical seas
                   in silence,
Divided by height, category, and class, just like our communities
                   and hotels.
Beneath the deck poor emigrants played cards, and no one
While on the highest deck Claudel gazed at Ysé and her hair

And toasts were raised to a safe trip, to coming
Toasts were raised, Alsatian wine and champagne
                   from France's finest vineyards,
Some days were static, windless, when only the light seeped      
Days when nothing happened but the horizon, which traveled   
                   with the ship,
Days of emptiness and boredom, playing solitaire, repeating   
                   the latest news,
Who'd been seen with whom in a tropical night's shade, embracing   
                   beneath a peach-colored moon.

But filthy stokers tirelessly tossed coal into open   
                   flaming mouths
And everything that is now already existed then, but
                  in condensed form.
Our days already existed and our hearts baked
                   in the blazing stove,
And the moment when I met you may also have existed,
                  and my mistrust
Brittle as a faience plate, and my faith, no less frail   
                  and capricious,
And my searches for the final answer, my   
                disappointments and discoveries.
Great ships: some sunk suddenly, arousing consciences   
                and fear,
Gaining deathless fame, becoming stars
                of special bulletins.
Others went peacefully, waned without a word in provincial   
                ports, in dockyards,
Beneath a coat of rust, a ruddy fur of rust, a slipcover of rust,
                and waited
For the final transformation, the last judgment of souls and
They wait as patiently as chess players in Luxembourg Garden
                nudging pieces a fraction of an inch or so.

Source: Poetry (February 2005).

 Adam  Zagajewski


Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945; as an infant he was relocated with his family to western Poland. He lived in Berlin for a couple of years, moved to France in 1982, and has taught at universities in the United States, including the University of Houston and the University of Chicago. Zagajewski writes in Polish; many of his books of poetry and essays have been translated into English.

Zagajewski was considered . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Time & Brevity, Relationships


Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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