Monday, October 30, 2017

`A Bashfulness of Feeling'

Sunday would have been Zbigniew Herbert’s ninety-third birthday. With Dante and Montale, he is the foreign-language poet I most often read. I favor his classical qualities -- irony, wit, stoicism, terseness, respect for tradition – and his refusal to compromise with his nation’s tormentors. I’m told he was a difficult man, especially in later years – cranky, intransigent, a drinker. That means nothing. Now we have only his words, amply translated, to console us. They most often concern, as he says in “Mr. Cogito Thinks About Blood,” “the obese history / of fatal human errors.” Here is “To the River”:

“River—hourglass of water metaphor of eternity
I enter you more and more changed
so I could be a cloud a fish or rock
while you are the same like a clock that measures
the metamorphoses of the body and descents of the spirit
slow disintegration of tissues and love

“I who am born of clay
want to be your pupil
and learn the spring of the Olympian heart
o cool torch rustling column
bedrock of my faith and my despair

“river teach me stubbornness and endurance
so in the last hour I become worthy
of rest in the shade of the great delta
in the holy triangle of the beginning and of the end”

Herbert neatly reverses Heraclitus. Humans are fluid. A river is unchanging, as are certain works of art – ridiculous thoughts to the corrosive, postmodern mind. In his essay “To Describe Reality,” Herbert writes:

“. . . irony is not cynicism but a bashfulness of feeling. What on the surface seems pessimistic is in fact a stifled call for the good, for the increase of the good, for the opening of the conscience.”

[All poems quoted are from Report from the Besieged City (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1985). The prose is from The Collected Prose 1948-1998 (trans. Alissa Valles, 2010).]

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