How Clowns Go

I confess that I thoroughly enjoy end-of-year stories with titles like “Those We Lost,” roundups of the best-known celebrity deaths before we move on in the new year, and get on with the business of more or less forgetting the dead and buried. They’re the top specimens of The Grim Reaper’s harvest from the previous season laid out in one cornucopian basket. This year I pictured him making last-minute rearrangements for the eleventh hour death of Joan Didion before plopping Betty White on top like a bunch of grapes, because the guests were already arriving.

On the one hand I hate-read them, the way we all read media to second-guess the priorities of our sources and the company we keep. You think, “Why such fawning over [I will not speak ill of recently deceased mediocrities] when you haven’t even mentioned Robert Bly?” You shudder at the breadth of love bestowed on downright dumb personalities. Then you whipsaw between finding out that someone you had a soft for had died without your noticing, in my case for 2021 Stephen Dunn, and the realization that another such as Ferlinghetti had actually still been alive so recently!

A grumpy part of me bristles at celebrity deaths for the habit my friends have taken up, of paying them overly effusive respects. It almost feels dis-respectful. “I liked Sound of Music too, but let Christopher Plummer’s family have the last word here.”

I was genuinely touched this year at the passing of Charlie Watts, one of a handful of drummers who created the rhythm of my early life, and did it with understated flair. Death, however, demands utter honesty, and I also felt a pang when the drummer Graeme Edge died. Though I spent years embarrassed by my early teen obsession with the Moody Blues, and especially their poems that Edge wrote, give credit where it’s due. He turned lots of people on to popular poetry, and that was poetry as I knew and loved it then.

Around the same time that Days of Future Past came out in 1967, a 22-year-old poetic force was emerging in Poland.

I think I first encountered Adam Zagajewski the way most of my friends did, with his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” published in The New Yorker shortly after September 11th. Years later a friend loaned me one of his collections, and I’ve had his poem “How Clowns Go” memorized more or less ever since.

“How Clowns Go” could be a good title of an article about dead celebrities, come to think of it. Death, I am supposing, looks very similar to the widely famous and to the rest of us the closer and closer it gets. I only found out months after the fact, when talking with some Polish guests at the restaurant I manage, that Zagajewski had died back in March.

Zagajewski in 2017

I was not surprised to read that, like Charlie Watts, he had a soft-spoken air about him. With verses like those, who needs bombast? His obituary in The Guardian summarized his poetry like this:

He preferred to use traditional free verse (“Rhymes actually irritate me, a bit like the bell calling you to kneel in church”) and avoided poetic experimentations as his focus was on communication and understanding, yet still engaging in “a dialogue with the imagination”. He demanded that poetry tell the truth (“we write to understand the world,” he claimed), and once wryly concluded that “some French poets say Polish poetry is just journalism, because you can understand it”.

That is poetry as I know and love it now.

How Clowns Go by Adam Zagajewski

An old clown hands out flyers at the station
for a traveling circus. No doubt
this is how clowns go—replacing vending machines (or children).
I watch him carefully: I want to know how clowns go.

The captivating balance between sadness
and mad, infectious laughter slowly slips;
each year the furrow in the cheeks grows deeper.
What’s left is the desperately oversized nose

and an old man’s clumsiness—not a parody
of healthy, silly humans, but a broadside
on the body’s flaws, the builder’s
errors. What’s left is the large gleaming forehead, a lamp

made of white cheese (not painted now), thin lips
and eyes from which a stranger coldly
gazes, perhaps the face’s next tenant—
if the lease on this grief can be renewed.

This is how clowns go—when the world’s great indifference
invades us, enters us bitterly, like lead between our teeth.

(Translated by Clare Cavanagh)