Wednesday, March 04, 2009

`In His Old Threadbare Nimbus'

“The favorite poets of Polish school-children are not only leading Polish poets such as Wisława Szymborska (Nobel prize winner 1996), and Zbigniew Herbert but also include Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke and Emily Dickinson, among others.”

This announcement comes from the Evens Foundation, an organization I had never heard of before Sunday. I don’t know about the accuracy of the claims but they’re certainly encouraging. Good taste in poetry is rare in any population but a vision of Polish school kids sitting around and savoring the fourth “Duino Elegy” or “J'aime le souvenir de ces époques nues” is a genuine balm. Inevitably, one wonders how American school-children might respond if asked to name their favorite poets. Elizabeth Alexander? Among the poets named by the Polish kids, one notes the presence of four languages and the absence of writers of “inspirational messages” and the grosser forms of sentimentality.

I don’t bring books with me to school, though I could read them during my 30-minute lunch and 15-minute break, but I don’t want to give the impression of goofing off or, worse, being a reader. I have to think of the children. Instead, each working day I transcribe or print a passage that has moved me in my recent reading and keep it in my pocket. I can pull it out in the staff room while eating my turkey sandwich and quietly remove myself to other surroundings.

If you scroll down on the Evens Foundation page I linked to above, you’ll come to 19 videos of Poles reading their favorite poems, part of a program called “Poetry Unites.” Several of the writers represented are new to me but consider some of the others: Larkin, Horace, Shakespeare, Milosz, Tadeusz Różewicz and Elizabeth Bishop. Whether the readers genuinely live with and enjoy the poems is debatable, I suppose, but I’m touched that awareness of such eminent writers is alive in the Polish population. I’m particularly touched by 15-year-old Marta Kuczyńska, who reads Herbert’s “The Seventh Angel” in the original Polish, with English subtitles. Such poise, articulateness and generosity of spirit in a young person seem almost supernatural. She says of Herbert’s poem:

“This poem, in a way, confirms the imperfection of the world, even when issues of the Higher Order, such as the host of angels, are concerned. God let into his host an angel who was the opposite of the other angels, I mean a black one.”

I took a copy of “The Seventh Angel” with me to work on Monday, my most challenging day since I started working in the schools. Typically, Herbert gets around to the subject of art and artists. Here’s the conclusion (in Alissa Valles’ translation):

“the Byzantine artists
when they paint all seven
reproduce Shemkel
just like the rest

“because they suppose
they might lapse into heresy
if they were to portray him
just as he is
black nervous
in his old threadbare nimbus”

Tuesday was easier – three hours as the substitute assistant office manager in a grade school. I filed two student immunization records, stacked eight boxes of copy paper, wiped tables in the cafeteria, used a wireless microphone to dismiss kids from trash-free tables in the lunchroom, tied shoe laces for three kids during playground duty, delivered bags of live crickets to five second-grade classrooms, laminated 27 pieces of paper for four teachers, divvied up mail in teachers’ mail boxes and answered the school telephone seven times. All that time I carried in my hip pocket a copy of Herbert’s “Journey.” Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough used the first four lines (apparently in her own translation) as the epigraph to “In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden,” the essay I wrote about on Tuesday. The poem’s final section (in Valles’ translation) is most memorable, the part I meditated on most often at school:

“So if there is a journey pray that it be long
a true journey from which you do not return
a copying of the world an elemental journey
a dialogue with nature an unanswered question
a pact forced after a battle

“a great atonement”


elberry said...

You got to work the laminator? Whoah! On my KSF ("Knowledge & Skills something") review i had to put something in the "what are your major achievements in the last 12 months?" and could only come up with "learnt to use laminator."

i instantly abused my new powers, printing special badges for myself and my favourite Speech Therapist. She told me i was crazy but i could tell she was really moved.

Anonymous said...

Barbarzyńcy obserwują !