Monday, November 06, 2017

`Birds Sat on the Poet's Hand'

Last month the Polish parliament passed a resolution declaring 2018 the “Year of Zbigniew Herbert,” an honor the poet is unlikely to have worn comfortably. Next July 28 will be the twentieth anniversary of Herbert’s death. In my copy of Mr. Cogito (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1993) is the obituary I clipped from the New York Times, and the review of Mr. Cogito by Stephen Dobyns from the same newspaper’s book review five years earlier. Dobyns writes: “I have read Mr. Herbert since the late 60’s, and I must say there is no other living poet whose work I enjoy as much or whom I admire more.” Herbert was rightly suspicious of honors bestowed by the state, and of governmental meddling and literary politics in general. In the third section of “Three Poems by Heart” (Elegy for the Departure, same translators, 1999) he writes:

“a Poet’s statue was in the park
children would roll their hoops
and colorful shouts
birds sat on the Poet’s hand
read his silence”

Pigeons are the ultimate critics when it comes to public statuary, whether the dignitary honored is Stalin or Mickiewicz. The poem is taken from Herbert’s first collection, Chords of Light (1956). The scene, we realize, recalls the war years: “the children on our street / had a difficult death / pigeons fell lightly / like shot down air.” Herbert the contrary classicist gets the final word:

“now the lips of the Poet
form an empty horizon
birds children and wives cannot live
in the city’s funereal shells
in cold eiderdowns of ashes

“the city stands over water
smooth as the memory of a mirror
it reflects in the water from the bottom

“and flies to a high star
where a distant fire is burning
like a page of the Iliad

Who can imagine a poet in the U.S. deserving of an honor like Herbert's? Impossible.

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