Thursday, May 15, 2008

Zbigniew Herbert

A Description of the King

The king's beard on which sauces and ovations
fell until it became heavy as an axe
appears suddenly in a dream to a man condemned to die
and on a candlestick of flesh shines alone in the dark.

One hand for tearing meat is huge as a whole province
through which a ploughman inches forward a corvette lingers
The hand wielding the sceptre has withered from distinction
has grown grey from old age like an ancient coin

In the hour-glass of the heart sand trickles lazily
Feet taken off with boots stand in a corner
on guard when at night stiffening on the throne
the king heirlessly forfeits his third dimension

"His poems, even in English, seem to me finer than anything currently being written by any English or American poet." - A. Alvarez, The New York Review of Books, 18/7/1985

"If the key to contemporary Polish poetry is the selective experience of the last decades, Herbert is perhaps the most skillful in expressing it and can be called a poet of historical irony. He achieves a sort of precarious equilibrium by endowing the patterns of civilization with meanings, in spite of all its horrors." - Czeslaw Milosz, Postwar Polish Poetry (3rd ed., 1983)

Polish poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1988) easily stands beside Nobel Prize laureates Milosz and Szymborska, part of a remarkable literary tradition. Very much an Eastern European writer, his work is also of interest beyond that particular region (and those particular times).

A Ballad About Us Not Ceasing To Exist

Those who sailed out at dawn

but will never come back
they left their trace on the surface --

at such times into the deep of sea falls a shell
beautiful as a mouth turned to stone

those who walked the sandy trail
but did not make it to the shutters
although the roofs were already in sight
within a bell of air they have shelter

and those who orphaned only
a cold room a few books
an empty inkwell blank sheets --

indeed those did not die completely

their whisper wafts through thickets of wallpaper
in the ceiling a flat head lives on
of air water lime earth
a paradise was fixed for them their angel of wind
crumbles the body in hand
they will carry upon the meadows of this here earth

Herbert's anti-hero Mr.Cogito, subject of many of his poems, is one of the more inspired characters in modern literature, an ideal vehicle for Herbert's talents.

Mr. Cogito's Legs

the left leg is quite normal
one might even say optimistic
a little short perhaps
fleshy smiles
with a finely fashioned calf
the right one

with two scars
one along the achilles tendon
the other ovate
pale pink
ignominious souvenir of an escape

the left one
inclined to leaps
loving life too much
to risk it

the right one
nobly stiff
mocking danger

here he comes
on both legs
the left one like Sancho Panza
and the right
resembling the adventurous knight
Mr. Cogito
through the world
limping a little

Herbert's fascination with other subjects -- painting, for example, or other things Dutch -- served his poetry well, and also made for interesting subjects.

Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus says:

Go on sonny but remember that you are walking and not flying
the wings are just an ornament and you are stepping on a meadow
that warm gust is just the humid earth of summer
and that cold one is a brook
the sky is full of leaves and small animals

Icarus says:

The eyes like two stones return straight to earth
and see a farmer who knocks as
under oily till
a grub which wiggles in a furrow
bad grub which cuts the bond of a plant with the earth

Daedalus says:

Sonny this is not true The Cosmos is merely light
and earth is a bowl of shadows Look as here colors play
dust rises from above the sea smoke rises to the sky
of noblest atoms a rainbow sets itself now

Icarus says:

Arms hurt father from this beating at vacuum
legs are getting numb and miss thorns and sharp stones
I cannot keep looking at the sun as you do father
I sunken whole in the dark rays of the earth

Description of the catastrophe:

Now Icarus falls down head first
the last frame of him is a glimpse of a heal childlike small
being swallowed by the devouring sea
Up above the father cries out the name
which no longer belongs to a neck or a head
but only to a remembrance


He was so young did not understand that wings are just a metaphor
a bit of wax and feathers and a contempt for the laws of gravitation
I cannot hold a body at an elevation of a great many feet
The essence of the matter is in having our hearts
which are coursed by heavy blood
fill with air
and this very thing Icarus did not want to accept

let us pray

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