Closely Watched Refrains

The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 BY Zbigniew Herbert. Ecco. Hardcover, 624 pages. $34.

The cover of The Collected Poems: 1956-1998

As one familiar with Zbigniew Herbert's work in successive versions and volumes, I did a double take when I noticed that Alissa Valles is the translator of Herbert's Collected Poems. I had anticipated seeing the names John and Bogdana Carpenter, the couple who have translated the Polish poet's work for twenty-five years with Ecco press. But the hallucination didn't end there; Valles's name rhymed in my imagination with that of Lillian Vallee, who translated Bells in Winter (1978), the first book by Czeslaw Milosz to have an impact in the English-speaking world. In turn, I recalled it was Milosz and Peter Dale Scott who had first brought Herbert into English, in their influential work Postwar Polish Poetry (1965) and in a selected poems in the Penguin Modern European Poets series. Rather than retranslate their versions, Valles has chosen to reprint them (with some slight alterations). In any event, it has proved the rarest case for a single hand to provide a viable translation of anyone's collected poems.

Herbert, along with Yehuda Amichai, Edmond Jabès, and Tomas Tranströmer, is one of the few postwar poets whose work both is on the highest plane and comes over with terrific velocity in English. Despite the impossible task of creating an exact equivalent of a poem, a poet is translatable if their tone, even their mentality, can be sensed—as if by osmosis—by a foreign reader.

Herbert's stark, hard, clear sound is manifest as early as his second book, Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, Dog and Star), published in 1957:

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me

I mean no slight to say that he doesn't get any better than this. These lines made me think twice, as they inevitably recall George Herbert's poem "The Collar" ("I struck the board, and cry'd, No more") and highlight the direct line from the English metaphysical poets to the Lwów native.

If anybody was ever "stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again," it was Zbigniew Herbert of Warsaw. His work is suffused with a longing for world culture. He would skip town whenever he could get clearance, and he made enough trips to Italy and Holland to write the essays on art that constitute the captivating Barbarzynca w ogrodzie (The Barbarian in the Garden, 1962) and Martwa natura z wedzidlem (Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas, 1993). These books have as much to do with the conditions under which Italian and Dutch painters worked as they do with Herbert's ability to travel to see the paintings whose "realism" offered him so much solace and affirmation. But mostly, Herbert is forced back on imagination; his thought stream moves along several currents: history, philosophy, and music. One could almost compose a poem out of a list of the historical figures who people his poems. If anyone ever gave history and its players a spin, it was Herbert. Consider this passage from "Mr. Cogito and the Imagination":

—Pascal's night
—the nature of a diamond
—the prophets' melancholy
—the wrath of Achilles
—the fury of mass murderers
—the dreams of Mary Stuart
—the fear of Neanderthals
—the last Aztecs' despair
—Nietzsche's long dying
—the Lascaux painter's joy
—the rise and fall of an oak
—the rise and fall of Rome

What a marvelous juxtaposition leaps out at the end—the history of a tree alongside and equal to the history of the ruined city.

The form of lyric minimalism that Herbert constructed in Struna swiatla (Chord of Light, 1956), his first book, is the one he employed throughout his career. It is congruent with the writing that Samuel Beckett was doing at that time, but unlike Herbert, Beckett had journeyed through many stages to get to that degree of reduction. With Herbert, the form of his poetry remained consistent; it is the timbre of his lyric voice that deepened.

Herbert's solution to the restraints forced on him by one totalitarian regime or another was always to evolve personae—favoring historical figures, as in the famous "Elegy of Fortinbras," dedicated to Milosz; and, later, Mr. Cogito. Had history not backed him into a corner, I doubt he would have employed this imaginary friend's services, which are, after all, conceptual; as a result, the poems that feature him as a speaker are both more patently absurd and more erratic than the rest. "Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought" ends on this buoyant, negative note:

when he is cold
he will attain the state of satori

and he will be as the masters recommend
vacant and

Herbert rescues this antic poem with the unexpected pairing of apparent and impalpable opposites. He never forgets the advice given at the Café des Poètes to the desperate Orpheus by a bourgeois gentleman in Cocteau's Orphée: You must astonish us.

Herbert's vision of history stands at an almost polar opposite to that of C. P. Cavafy—to whom he's ritually compared—and Robert Lowell's History. History attains fluidity within Herbert's unpunctuated lyric drift. The absence of paraphernalia—information, data—is a boon to momentum and allows the poet to enact swift metamorphoses from myth to history to the myth of history. For Herbert, myth is not at a remove from reality but a lens, a mode of magnification. Where other great poets offer a cornucopia of strategies, ways to get at the "shifting riddle," to use Boris Pasternak's phrase, that life under the Communist aegis imposed, Herbert registers change through change of focus, not of form. Herbert was not in search of new approaches; he never deviated from his commitment to evolving new sounds through his inviolable gift of "absolute ear" while staying within the domain of the lyric. His best poems don't read like those of a man who sat down at his desk and wrote a poem; they read like those of a man who has no desk and whose poems burst in when he is far from any amenities ("Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp"). They are wonderfully congruent with the existential condition:

I arrived too late
for the last transport

I stayed in the city
which is not a city

. . .

I am enjoying
some time off
outside time


With Herbert, the ground is literally, as well as metaphysically, shifting underfoot. It is as if he went to sleep one night, and the next morning, Warsaw was gone, in Milosz's phrase "a century in an hour." No poet has better articulated an awareness of just how history can be diverted by force—in its various perversions. Herbert will typically blend the experience of looking at Italian or Flemish painting with the shouts of soldiers (German or Soviet) in the streets. Changes in regimes are scathingly mocked in "Regicides":

not one of them managed to change the

course of history

but a dark message passed from generation

to generation

so those small hands are worthy of our

careful reflection

the small hands in which trembles the

sureness of a blow

I would imagine that his experience of being in the Resistance throughout the Nazi occupation of Poland added layers to a temperament characterized by acidic logic and revealed a short fuse that might otherwise have remained unlit. He and his alter ego, Mr. Cogito, with their ironic take on history, systematically destroy human illusion and the kind of thinking that led in the '30s to an Eastern Europe with Germans on one side and Russians on the other. One reason he's "stuck inside of" Warsaw is that as soon as World War II ends, its insidious replica, the cold war, begins to impinge.

The remarkable fluency that Valles attains and maintains over nearly six hundred pages may owe something to her complete immersion in the translation process over a relatively short period of three years. She is nothing if not tuned in to Herbert's eerily astringent voice. Her introduction testifies to this sensitivity to tone: She chooses to defend having changed a passage of the Milosz-Scott translation of "Apollo and Marsyas" in order to convey more precisely the sound the flayed Marsyas should make. In Polish, the fourth stanza reads:

tylko z pozoru
glos Marsjasza
jest monotonny
i sklada sie z jednej samogloski

Milosz and Scott originally translated this as follows:

only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
and composed of a single vowel

Valles's version restores the stifled shriek of "A" that gives Herbert's poem so much of its bite. The form of the satyr's distress embodies a refusal to elaborate, and you can see, even in these five lines, how much more condensed and impacted Herbert is in Polish. Valles writes:

I chose to remove the "aa" added, restoring the simple "A" of Herbert's poem. To my sense it is crucial that though this poem is "composed" around a cry of pain, Herbert does not explicitly sound it in the poem, but points to it and portrays it in a series of metamorphoses—a landscape, a choir, a petrified nightingale. To translate it into a cry is to remove animating ambiguities in the poem.

Herbert's treatment of Marsyas and Apollo is no less political than Ovid's. This is a brilliant and perplexed parable of victor and victim—the pain the victim is subjected to gives rise to new sounds beyond the range of the oppressor's hearing. Marsyas accomplishes the unthinkable by striking fear into an impervious god. And once this happens, the old regime will inevitably topple.

This new collection ensures that Herbert's work will continue to send powerful signals, as the poet reports from his besieged city: "the siege is taking a long time our enemies have to take turns / nothing unites them apart from the desire for our destruction."

Mark Rudman's book of poems Sundays on the Phone—the final volume in the Rider quintet—was published in 2005 by Wesleyan University Press.