Mas­ter of last lines

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Cour­tesy HarperCollins

Alchemy of de­spair and con­so­la­tion: Zbig­niew Her­bert

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