(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Zbigniew Herbert’s posthumous collection is an unusual compilation of his poems that have not previously been translated into English. It draws upon his earliest volume of poems, Struna áwiatła (1956; chord of light), his middle volumes Hermes, pies i gwiazda (1957; Hermes, dog and star) and Studium przedmiotu (1961; study of the object), and his last volume,Elegia na odejácie (1990; elegy for the departure). While it would seem to be a catchall group of remaindered poems that have not been translated into English, it is still a very impressive collection. It provides a selection of his poems from his earliest to his latest, and the poems are both powerful in their own right and of historical interest as they trace the effects of World War II and the subsequent takeover of Poland by the Soviet Union.

Herbert’s style is pristinely simple and direct and very powerful in its statement and language. His primary subjects are memory and history, although he also has a group of prose poems from the middle period that have an ironic take on animals and ordinary objects. His primary poetic method is contrast and juxtaposition. He often sets up an ideal reality and then contrasts it to the terrible reality of the twentieth century.

“Three Poems by Heart” deals with the loss of memory of those who have been lost. In the first section the speaker states, “I can’t find the title/ of a memory about you.” The memories are tantalizingly absent: “circling above my head/ empty as a forehead of air/ a man’s silhouette of black paper.” They are always present but can never be touched by the speaker of the poem. How to remember or remain in touch with those who have been lost is an important subject for Polish poetry, as the poems of Herbert and Czesław Miłosz clearly show.

The second section is more explicit about the loss of memory: “living—despite/ living—against/ I reproach myself for the sin of forgetfulness.” Human “hands” cannot “transmit the shape of your hands.” However, these dead “Shadows gently melt” from consciousness and touch: “let us not allow the dead to be killed.” If the memories can be grasped once more, it will be like “a worn profile of Roman coins.” The metaphor is very beautiful and very powerful as it connects the heroic and lost ancient world to modern-day Poland. The poetic effort is to see that the dead shall not be forgotten, and the role of the poet is to be a bard who remembers the dead.

The last section of the poem sets up a contrast between an ideal, prewar world and the current world. The ideal world is one where the women “patiently carried from the markets/ bouquets of nourishing vegetables.” Children play by the statue of a “Poet.” The contrasts are total: The men never return, children “had a difficult death,” and “the lips of the Poet/ form an empty horizon.” In the last line, Herbert alludes to the heroic ancient world once more; the city is only ashes “and flies to a high star/ where a distant fire is burning/ like a page of the Iliad.” However, the society that has been obliterated is more like Troy than victorious Greece. The role of the poet in a healthy society is clear in this and a number of other poems. If the poet is silent or his art is made to serve a corrupt state, the society has no center, no life.

“A Ballad That We Never Perish” is also about the memory of those who are lost or do not return. The first of these are the heroic voyagers who “sailed at dawn/ but will never return.” They have become part of nature as they “left their trace on a wave.” In contrast, there are those who leave behind “only/ a room grown cold a few books/ an empty inkwell white paper.” These are the poets of the city, and their fate is different. They are not turned into objects of nature, but remain within the society as “wallpaper” and “ceiling.” Again, the place of poets in society is central to these poems. Their “paradise was made of air” and they will be “carried over the meadows of this world.” They remain a part of the world even after they have left it.

“About Troy” is a poem about the city that was defeated and destroyed by the Greeks in the Homeric battle for Helen. Its loss and destruction mirror the lost world of Poland in the wartime period that Herbert lived through. In the first part of the poem, the speaker asks for the proper lament for a lost world; it “needs a chorus/ a sea of laments.” The poet should be “mute/ as a pillar of salt” to do justice to the terrible events taking place.

The second part of the poem describes the dead returning to their lost city. Those dead walk “as if on a red sea of cinders” as the “wind lifted the red dust.” The final images of what Troy is now are very precise: “a cripple plays/ on a harmonica/ . . . the poet is silent/ rain falls.” Herbert’s use of silence as the proper way to describe and mourn for a society that has been completely destroyed is a persistent and effective poetic device in the book, especially in the early poems.

“Architecture” is a poem that praises the art of...

(The entire section is 2113 words.)