Sunday, June 28, 2009

`A Classical Isle of Sanity'

“I was twenty-four and trying to live authentically in the Present. I had no idea that I wasn’t, that I was simply living in some benign erasure of the past. But I was lucky. In Zbigniew I had found a friend who was almost a classical isle of sanity.”

The late Larry Levis was a middling poet with supreme good fortune in friends. As a young man, he served as Zbigniew Herbert’s chauffeur when the Polish poet taught at UCLA in 1970-71, and he describes their unlikely friendship in “Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles.” The Herbert he renders confirms the impression formed by those of us who know him only through his words. He is surpassingly modest and thoughtful, indelibly European, cultured, a bemused alien in the Southern California of Charles Manson and the Eagles. It’s touching to know Herbert (who never learned to drive) and his wife Katrina bought a 1960 Ford Fairlane in Los Angeles, and chilling when the poet remembers the only time he drove an automobile:

“`It was after a meeting of the Underground. The boy who drove for me was waiting in the car. But dead. The Nazis shot him. Just one shot, a style they had. I came out later . . . I saw him. I had to learn fast. I pushed the boy over to other side of car seat. I drove. Just one time. With the dead boy beside me. I drove.’”

Levis wrote a poem about the experience, “For Zbigniew Herbert, Summer, 1971, Los Angeles,” and here’s “Sequoia” (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter), one of the rare traces of California that shows up in Herbert’s work:

“Gothic towers of needles in the valley of a stream
not far from Mount Tamalpais where in the morning and
evening thick fog comes like the wrath and passion of the ocean

“in this reservation of giants they display a cross-section of a tree the coppery stump of the West
with immense regular veins like rings on water
and someone perverse has inscribed the dates of human history
an inch from the middle of the stump the fire of distant Rome under Nero
in the middle the battle of Hastings the night expeditions of the drakkars
panic of the Anglo-Saxons the death of the unfortunate Harold is told with a compass
and finally right next to the beach of the bark the landing of the Allies in Normandy

“the Tacitus of this tree was a geometrician and he did not know adjectives
he did not know syntax expressing terror he did not know any words
therefore he counted added years and centuries as if to say there is nothing
beyond birth and death nothing only birth and death
and inside the bloody pulp of the sequoia”

In the glory of a New World tree, the largest in the world, Herbert perceives the abattoir of Old World history – “the bloody pulp of the sequoia.” There’s a wistful quality to Levis’ remembrance. Partly it’s the madness of those years, and being young, and remembering them in middle age. It’s Levis not meeting Herbert again, and the uncertainty of communications between East and West during the Cold War. Saddest of all is knowing that Levis died in 1996 at the age of 49, and Herbert died two years later, age 73.