Early in The Autobiography of an Execution, David R. Dow meets with a death-row inmate he suspects may not be guilty of murdering his wife, daughter and son. Henry Quaker played piano in church from the age of eight. In prison he has no keyboard but Dow notices him “strumming” the table as they talk. The lawyer, a knowledgeable jazz listener (already he has mentioned Frank Morgan, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum), compares his soundless playing to Bud Powell’s. Quaker enjoys the compliment and says he misses the piano. Dow continues the conversation:
“I said, Most of your problems I can’t do anything about.
“He said, I know. That’s okay.
“I thought of a Zbigniew Herbert poem I’d been reading: I imagined your fingers / had faith in your eyes / the unstrung instrument / the arms without hands.
“And many verses later: heroes did not return from the expedition / there were no heroes / the unworthy survived.”
The poem is “To Apollo” from Herbert’s first collection, Chord of Light (1956), as translated by Alissa Valles (The Collected Poems 1956-1998). Once a god, Apollo has been reduced by history to a broken statue, incapable of speech (“silence— / a fissured neck / silence-- / a broken song”) and no longer able to play the lyre. Apollo’s attributes evolved over time but Greeks and Romans honored him as god of music and poetry.
Dow seems to recall the poem because Quaker has no access to a piano and his music is silenced. Later in the book, he admits Quaker is one of the few death-row inmates he has befriended and whose company he enjoys, among the more than one hundred whose cases he has handled. For Herbert, Apollo represents the poet undone by history. Gods and heroes are dead. Dow is too tough-minded and unsentimental to speak of heroes, though some might think of him in such terms. In the poem’s final lines:
“only an empty pedestal remains—
the trace of a hand seeking a form”