The Collected Poems 1956–1998 (2007)
This outstanding new translation brings a uniformity of voice to Zbigniew Herbert’s entire poetic output, from his first book of poems, String of Light, in 1956, to his final volume, previously unpublished in English, Epilogue Of the Storm. Collected Poems: 1956-1998, as Joseph Brodsky said of Herbert’s Selected Poems, is “bound for a much longer haul than any of us can anticipate.” He continues, “for Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry adds to the biography of civilization the sensibility of a man not defeated by the century that has been most thorough, most effective in dehumanization of the species. Herbert’s irony, his austere reserve and his compassion, the lucidity of his lyricism, the intensity of his sentiment toward classical antiquity, are not just trappings of a modern poet, but the necessary armour – in his case well-tempered and shining indeed – for man not to be crushed by the onslaught of reality. By offering to his readers neither aesthetic nor ethical discount, this poet, in fact, saves them frorn that poverty which every form of human evil finds so congenial. As long as the species exists, this book will be timely.”
Zielony Balonik book club notes:
We chose and discussed the following poems (page numbers refer to the ecco edition).
Journey to Kraków (p.72)
To what extent is Herbert the boy reading, and / or the man speaking to the boy? The books are Polish classics, probably the boy’s school reading. He seems to come from a peasant family, certainly one where reading is not encouraged. They’re going to Kraków, a place of culture and literature. In the Polish text the man is presented as attractive (which the English ‘tall dark’ attempts to emulate, though it might seem sinister). The boy’s understanding of the books is uninformed and naïve, but his reactions of ‘rapture and condemnation’ are written of with approval.
Parable of the Russian Émigrés (p.122)
A well known poem in Poland. The whistle of the samovar reminds the émigrés of trains which might take them home but which in fact had brought them into exile in Poland, where they failed to integrate. Who is ‘Nicholas’, who tells this parable – a Russian who stayed? What is he trying to convince the speaker of? Perhaps not to choose to emigrate. (What is the difference between ‘émigrés’ and ‘exiles’ – the former expect to go home soon, the latter don’t?)
We have to love nature, but nature does not have to love us. Echoes of MacDiarmid’s (much longer) poem ‘On a Raised Beach’, which speaks more explicitly of stones containing the memory of aeons. Stones are also used in many cultures for healing.
Mr Cogito and the Movement of Thought (p.287)
Thoughts as images; thoughts walking around my head; how can they be received by others, especially my opponents? Thoughts as ‘herons’ – zoomorphic (we were reminded of Herbert’s poem ‘Caligula’, about his horse.)
Mr Cogito Observes a Deceased Friend (p.290)
Herbert as a poet of transformations.
Prayer of the Traveler Mr Cogito (p.347)
A genuine prayer, with a wide range of references, including one (which pleasingly to us is more or less local) to ‘the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides’.
Mr Cogito – The Return (p.349)
In two parts – the decision to return and the return itself; his reasons for doing so. But the return is hostile – he leaves comforts and safety for ‘misfortune’. It’s the little things he returns for – ‘childhood waters’, and so on – and because of his dislike of the kind indifference of where he is (the West). There’s also his (undefined) ‘wound’ which can only be dealt with – the word ‘healed’ isn’t used – in his ‘fatherland’.
Given the Conrad reference, a pun on navel / naval suggested itself, but only in English. Perhaps Conrad appears as an example of someone whose ‘umbilical cord’ has been cut, who has been uprooted. Herbert never used punctuation within his poems, and the syntax is usually clear, but we struggled to parse lines 6–8. The ‘cross of dough’ suggested something ideal becoming something everyday, material. In Siberia exiles made crosses of dough as this was the only material they had; Solzhenitsyn described Latvian prisoners in the Gulag making rosaries of dough.