Master of last lines
ONE of the wonders of art — so inseparable from catastrophe — is that so much great poetry since 1945 has sprung from the rubble of Poland. That country has two winners of the Nobel prize for literature, the incomparably sardonic Wislawa Szymborska and the majestic Czeslaw Milosz, and a possible future candidate, some say, is Adam Zagajewski, who is thriving in the US.
And there is the great Zbigniew Herbert ( 1924- 98), who was as good as any and possibly the best. Herbert was introduced to the West in 1968, thanks to the translations by Milosz and the flashy Cold War pitch of English critic A. Alvarez.
Few artists survived World War II and its aftermath with such spiritual strength and poetic brilliance. To read through his life work is as bracing and as inspiring as having to take in retrospectives of several great painters at once: rooms of Goya, for instance, or Rembrandt. Herbert would have liked this juxtaposition with painting. He wrote devotedly of the old masters. His Still Life with a Bridle is a study of the Dutch painters, whose serene interiors seem to have served a therapeutic function.
After all, once the killing had stopped, once the concentration camps had been cleared, and the physical and the trembling psychological reconstructions began, the simplest things might be healing. I bequeath to the four elements all I had in my brief possession to fire — thought may fire flourish to the earth I love too much my body that fruitless kernel and to the air words and hands and longing superfluous things all that remains a drop of water let it go between the earth and sky let it be transparent rain frost’s fern snow’s petal . . .
This is called Testament and its last line is one that rings through all of Herbert’s work: I won’t return to a source of peace.’’
The miracle of Herbert is that his lines seem to cut, time after time, afresh into tragedy. Imagine a stone called Untold Suffering, half of it buried in the earth of compassion. This is the site of Herbert’s work: he chips away, sometimes modestly, at times in the grand manner, toiling and sometimes even clowning, never singing, always waiting for the right silence. His poems wound with specifics — the image of an old woman crossing the street, or of his shellshocked uncle after the war — as much as they do with generalities. I can’t think of a poetry that delivers more poignant unsayables.
His first book, Chord of Light, was not published until 1956, a long time after his teenage experience of the Russian invasion of his city of Lvov in 1939 and the part he may have later played in the Polish resistance against the Nazis. You can feel the struggle to reconstruct utterance. He employs Christian imagery but does not rest in Christian faith. A consolation is the Greek and Roman classics, sources that would never fail him. Another was trust in the seeing of things all over again. When that was not enough: I shall sit immobile my eyes fixed upon the heart of things a dead star a black drop of infinity
Herbert’s second book, Hermes, Dog and Star ( 1957), contained his response to the Russian invasion of Budapest: We stand on the border and hold out our arms for our brothers for you we tie a great rope of air
Here the poem is called To the Hungarians , but when it was first published it had no title and was undated: his only concession to censorship, the all too brief notes at the back tell us. ( The charming introduction by Zagajewski is also too short.)
With Study of an Object ( 1961) the philosopher in him stepped out to dance lightly and ironically on the pin that Poland had left. But where to locate beauty in a wasteland, and how to repair oneself, and for what, exactly? Despite Herbert’s detached, self- reflective air, the poet is never far from the existence of others. The poem Our Fear drives into a part of the mind that is beyond politics: the dead are gentle to us we carry them on our shoulders sleep under the same blanket close their eyes adjust their lips pick a dry spot and bury them not too deep not too shallow
Herbert was a master of lacerating last lines, as he was of that form called the prose poem, which gave free reign to his constantly surprising metaphors: witty, aphoristic, acidic. A form that most poets kill with cleverness is tuned with bitter magic.
In 1974 he expanded his agility by introducing an alter ego into his work. Mr Cogito, a poet past his prime’’, goes / through the world / staggering slightly’’, but is free to reflect on all manner of things, from the nature of hell (‘‘ a retreat for artists’’) to arguments against music’’ (‘‘ celestial medicine / steam whistle of moods’’). The pathos of Mr Cogito was something to behold: Mr Cogito holds in his arms the warm amphora of a head the rest of the body is hidden seen only by touch . . . So by the middle of his life, Herbert had us laughing, even if while quietly weeping. Mr Cogito stayed with him until the end, a lively player in four more books full of yearning.
Overall, Herbert’s poems were a continuous alchemy of despair and consolation: they can almost be read as the same poem. But there was a movement, a flow into a delta. For me the poem that brings much to a head is Journey, published in Elegy for the Departed ( 1990). It is unusually expansive and full of a deep music some may want to call a late style: If you set out on a journey, pray that the road is long . . . so that you measure yourself against the world with your whole skin’’.
This great, long book, one that everybody who cares about poetry should own, bears out what Seamus Heaney wrote of Herbert: that he was
a poet with all the strength of Antaeus . . . He shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.’’
Alchemy of despair and consolation: Zbigniew Herbert