The Magazine

The Warsaw Concerto

Echoes of the classical past in modern Poland.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By COLIN FLEMING
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The Collected Poems 1956-1998

by Zbigniew Herbert

Ecco, 624 pp., $34.95

Political poets are rarely so elusive in their work as Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), as devout an anti-Communist as Poland produced in its world of letters, and an artist believing the most potent manifestos come laden in symbols.

Maturing at a time when the arts in Poland were subject to government specifications, Herbert wrote his early verse while working a series of menial jobs, studying in Krakow's various underground schools, and eventually arriving on a global level in 1968 with a collection jointly edited by Czeslaw Milosz, whom Herbert would later rail against for what he considered Communist sympathies. Literary irony doesn't get much richer than when one notes that communism was to prove so central to Herbert's literary stock-in-trade that it's almost impossible to imagine what kind of poet he would have become without being able to rail against its vices.

For readers unfamiliar with Herbert's verse, traversing the poems in this collection can be a somewhat arduous process of disentanglement, of working out allusions, encoded meanings, and some of the most fiery protests--couched in inspirational verse--to be found in 20th-century Eastern literature.

In "Apollo and Marsyas," probably Herbert's strongest claim to a canonical work, torture at the level of the individual (albeit of the Greek satyr variety) becomes metaphor for an entire culture coming undone, for no need, save the ego of the tormentor:

bald mountains of liver

white ravines of aliment

rustling forests of lung

sweet hillocks of muscle

joints bile blood and shudders

the wintry wind of bone

over the salt of memory

shaken by a shudder of disgust

Apollo is cleaning his instrument

A weapon being cleaned--not so much in disgust over an act as in the messy result of having so thoroughly eviscerated one's quarry (in the most unnatural of environments). A ghastly nonchalance, to Herbert's thinking, obscuring what ought to have been the central issue--murder, in Apollo's case; communism, in Poland's.

Herbert relished his mythological references, and his poems are full of all manner of literary material. Anyone and anything can be appropriated from the ancient texts and pressed into service as foil to Poland's shackled state: Thor with his hammer, or Hector with his courage, come calling in the name of more enlightened government, or sometimes stripped of their core attributes because of a parallel oppression.

Still, for all of the consistent political themes (communism as yolk of a people, communism as anathema to art) that were central to Herbert's work over his 50 years of composition, his late 1990s poems summon all of the attendant moods and imagery of the deathbed, political railings still intact. His range was impressive. Housing nine complete volumes of poetry, The Collected Poems posits Herbert less as formal creator and more as an author assuming narrative guises that were often a long way from the man himself, and yet entirely indicative of the artist who ultimately made the man.

Chord of Light (1956) introduces Herbert's strange superimpositions, in which images typical of the charnel house are crossed with the language of the factory, a ghastly mix of mass production and funerary gore. Elsewhere, the reader is dumped into an earthly hell of scorching deserts and rotting adobe walls, the stench of befouled blood going up over the cattle trail. Given Herbert's realist touches, we might as well be in the unsettled, ungoverned territory of the 19th-century American West rather than some Greco-Roman arena--which is more often the case--where the minotaur hunts for prey, as Apollo looks on.

Not that Herbert wasn't fond of wit and whimsy, especially when laughter, through the contrast of mirth and pain, reveals suffering's depths. In his fifth collection of poems, we're introduced to Mr. Cogito--an easy pun, but suggestive of a second self, all the same--who gets up to all sorts of shenanigans and discovers, in his daily encounters, a world where nostalgia, progress, and demagogues constantly clash and the man of conscience laughs, if not best, at least most knowingly. Hardly Buster Keaton Goes to Warsaw, but a nuanced absurdism all the same, tempered by thoughts of a beloved homeland held--spiritually, culturally, aesthetically--in irons. And so Herbert traveled, living in Germany and Paris and teaching for a spell in Los Angeles as he settled into the final phase of his life as poetical emissary. Spending his final years back in Poland, he mastered the cool, improbable art of juxtaposed extremes, producing a kind of transcendent accordance.

"Oh how sublime the peace of a fatal blow," he wrote in a series of elegies--at once a truism, terror, call to repose, maxim, and public shaming of a government whose people Herbert sought to render as no less than modern tragedians, oppressed by
the fates.

Colin Fleming, who writes for Art in America, is finishing a novel.