John Keats, in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," first described scenes of sylvan revelry before proclaiming, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." In "Fragment of a Greek Vase" Zbigniew Herbert takes a different lesson from the ancient world. Describing the image of a dead Greek soldier, he writes:
he has closed his eyes
renouncing the world
leaves droop in the silent air
a branch trembles touched by a shadow of flying birds
and only the cricket hidden
in Memnon's still living hair
proclaims a convincing
praise of life
Herbert's world-view was indelibly shaped by two events: the Nazi invasion of Poland when he was 15 and the subsequent Communist takeover after the war. His poems are filled with elegiac images of a gentler past juxtaposed with the grim realities that replaced them. In "Three Poems by Heart" he writes first of "the children in our street / scourge of cats / the pigeons-- / softly gray" and then later comments, "the children on our street / had a difficult death / pigeons fell lightly / like shot down air." And in "The Ardennes Forest" even descriptions of wild strawberry leaves and ripening wild pears cannot erase the deeper associations with that place of wartime slaughter: "a charred cloud / forehead branded by black light / and a thousand lids pressed / tightly on motionless eyeballs."
Indeed, the dead are seldom absent from these poems. Herbert describes the objects in a still life as "violently separated from life." In the prose poem "Bears" even A.A. Milne's famous character becomes a potential victim : "Children who love Winnie-the-Pooh would give them anything, but a hunter walks in the forest and aims with his rifle between that pair of small eyes." Herbert, who died in 1998, used a wide variety of poetic forms to explore the power of memory, the betrayal of the past, and the bonds between the living and the dead. Beautifully translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, Elegy for the Departure is a fitting requiem for its author. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
Many consider Herbert's work the equal of his fellow Polish poets Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz, nobel laureates both; his death this past summer sadly precludes his joining them. Although his more familiar poems couch their approach to the public and political in the terms of the personal, this luminously translated collection expressly represents Herbert at his most lyrical. A beautiful prose poem, "The Button" (below in full) captures a dilemma of the lyric mode?the need to balance the particularity of subjective experience with a meaning accessible to others: "The best fairy tales of all are about us, how once we were small. I like the one about how I swallowed an ivory button. My mother was crying." This volume brings together work uncollected in English from throughout his career, culling from his early works of 1956-1969 and from a 1990 volume. The poems quickly move from obscure, self-consciously modernist fragmentary meditations marked by flashes of brilliance to assured, confident wholes, though there are standouts among the early efforts. "Chosen By The Stars," for instance, superbly reworks the Icarus myth to explore the poetic psyche, while the meditation "What Our Dead Do" ("out of gratitude/ we imagine immortality for them/ snug as the burrow of a mouse") shows, with masterfully understated irony, how the dead structure the imagination of the living. His recurring alter ego "Mr. Cogito" (who "always defended himself/ against the smoke of time") returns in the later poems, "so when the hour comes/ he can consent without a murmur// to the trial of truth and falsehood/ to the trial of fire and water." In sum, this collection will only serve to broaden and deepen our appreciation of this remarkable late-century poet.
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