Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Reflections of Experience

I'm still looking through A Book of Luminous Things, which includes amazing work from poets around the world. The following work, by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, has stuck in my mind since I read it. It is translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass (128):


In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.

Adam Zagajewski

The Beauvais Cathedral (the St. Pierre de Beauvais) is a thirteenth century cathedral in Beauvais, France. Like other gothic cathedrals in Europe, this structure is awesome in its size and beauty. The medieval builders were hoping to construct the largest and tallest cathedral in France.

It's difficult for me to express what this poem does for me, but it has something to do with the speaker's second-hand viewing of this huge, beautiful structure. Even in a small, backwards reflection, he recognizes and is struck by the building's grandness. The reflection of the cathedral, encapsulated in a tiny, mirrored image, still retains the power to connect the speaker with the object.

It reminds me of poetry, and of art in general. We cannot represent exactly an object, an idea, or even a thought in a poem. Consider Wallace Steven's "A Study of Two Pears." He writes several stanzas describing two pears, each a different description but each true, and and eventually admits that he can't fully communicate the experience of viewing a pear. But the reader, nonetheless, can identify with the sensation of seeing the pears, and with the struggle of trying to describe them. We cannot accurately communicate the truth of our experience with words, or paint, or any medium, but the attempt is still inherently valuable.

So the speaker is not actually experiencing viewing the cathedral; he is viewing a representation of it; but even the representation has power and value, because it allows us, if only "for a moment," to connect with the experience.

Another interesting note: The builders of the Beavias Cathedral, in either their poor planning or poor materials, did something wrong; and the high vaults collapsed in 1248. Apparently, there is still discussion in the architectural world about why the collapse happened; no one is sure. So the speaker is viewing something not only "great" in something "small," but also something that speaks to humanity's flaws and, possibly, hubris. But still, flaws and all, it has the power to move us.

Like a poem. Inherently flawed, because it cannot accurately communicate the speaker's experience, but inherently valuable because of its attempt.


Billy said...

cool. impressive

cj white said...

I love these short ones. This one makes me think of holding the Chicago Sears tower between my fingers as a kid. Perspective is a powerful thing. Adam not only puts the bulk of the cathederal within the tiny confines of a mirror, but also compresses decades of construction into a sudden moment in his view. Fascinating how he pulls it all together in just 4 lines.

Amy said...


Yes, you're right; the imagery not only makes something big appear in something small, but also makes several decades of hard labor to build the cathedral fit into one moment. So cool.

Gilbert Koh said...

I don't know this poet nor have I ever heard of the Beauvais Cathedral until now.

However, immediately after reading the poem (and before finishing the rest of your post),

I perceived two layers of meanings in these two lines:

"great things dwell in small ones
for a moment."

The first layer, of course, is that the poet is describing the image of the cathedral appearing - "dwelling" - in his rearview mirror.

The second layer, a considerably more subtle one, is that the poet is describing God dwelling in the Cathedral.

The physical grandeur of the cathedral notwithstanding, it of course pales in comparison to God. Therefore the presence of God in the cathedral is described as a "great thing dwelling in a small one".

I was not sure why, however, the poet would add the bit about great things dwelling in small ones but only "for a moment".

It is easy enough to understand in the context of the rearview mirror (the image will soon disappear as the car drives on) -

however, the "for a moment" bit about God dwelling in the cathedral did not make sense to me until I read the last bit of your post, which talked about the collapse of the cathedral.

Perhaps this event meant that the cathedral could no longer be used as a cathedral? And therefore God no longer "dwells" therein?

That may be why the poet says that "great things dwell in small ones" but only "for a moment".

Anonymous Poet said...

Thanks for the insightful analysis, Gilbert.