Thursday, July 22, 2010

`From Words to Worms to Stars'

Here is an early prose poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Episode in a Library,” from Hermes, Dog and Star (1957), translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott:

“A blonde girl is bent over a poem. With a pencil sharp as a lancet she transfers the words to a blank page and changes them into strokes, accents, caesuras. The lament of a fallen poet now looks like a salamander eaten away by ants.

“When we carried him away under machine-gun fire, I believed that his still warm body would be resurrected in the word. Now as I watch the death of the words, I know there is no limit to decay. All that will be left after us in the black earth will be scattered syllables. Accents over nothingness and dust.”

Herbert begins with a portrait of reader-as-vivisectionist. This is how students are taught to read poems, scalpel in hand. The blonde girl betrays no sense of enjoyment. The poem is meat but not sustenance. She might as well be disassembling a clock. Herbert takes the next unhappy step. Even poems left undissected are not immune to “the fatal corruptions of time,” as Sir Thomas Browne puts it in Religio Medici. In the face of our vanity comes “nothingness and dust.”

Late in Owls Head, Rosamond Purcell describes her exploration of the three-story barn on the grounds of William Buckminster’s eleven-acre scrapyard in Maine. She finds a collapsed bookcase holding shelves of decaying volumes, rotten beyond reading:

“There must be some evidence of narrative inside these books. I get to work. The pages are delicate, sealed in clumps, with the hollows between webbed with chitinous shrouds. There is no way to penetrate the pages without destroying them. Inside is a story of organic processes unintended by any author. I peer into these transitional hollows where the elements have been traded – type for ash – and wherever such a translation occurs I search for some visible resolution of decay. I am examining this fulcrum of decrepitude as if it were a thing. Inside these small-scale caves I observe a process of dissolution that is going on, all the time, in the cosmos everywhere – from words to worms to stars.”

I like the quiet transition from “narrative” to “story.” We look for meaning and make it up where none can be found. What Purcell finds is not a thing but a process, an inexorable one, no respecter of human vanities, though all is not lost in the movement from “words to worms to stars.” Kay Ryan says “Tenderness and rot / share a border.”


William A. Sigler said...

Vanity is not particularly fond of mirrors that picture "nothingness and dust," yes, but maybe the mirror has vanities of its own.

Wistawa Szymborska offers this, from a trip to a "Museum":

"The crown has outlasted the head.
The hand has lost out to the glove.
The right shoe has defeated the foot.

As for me, I am still alive, you see.
The battle with my dress still rages on.
It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!
Determined to keep living when I'm gone!"

(tr. Baranczak and Cavavagh)

Cynthia Haven said...

What an amazing passage from Herbert, and you are convincing me to get around, finally, to Sir Thomas Browne's "Religio Medici" (it comes with Dorothy Sayers's endorsement as well).

Joseph Brodsky, also, was fascinated with decay, and the color gray, which he thought was the color of time.

Volkov's transcripts may not be entirely reliable but this quotation rings true: "One of the most grandiose opinions I ever read in my life I found in a certain minor poet from Alexandria, who said, 'Try during your life to imitate time. That is, try to be restrained and calm and to avoid extremes. Don't be especially eloquent, but strive for a monotone.' He went on. 'But do not be upset if you cannot do this during your life. Because when you die, you will be like time anyway.' Not bad? Two thousand years ago!"

I have tried, and failed over the years, to identify the minor Alexandrian poet.