Cogito, ergo sum, wrote René Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” Mr. Cogito, a twentieth century human being, the citizen of a small European nation, and at least occasionally the alter ego of poet Zbigniew Herbert, does a lot of thinking in this collection of Herbert’s poetry from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Mr. Cogito, not surprisingly, confronts the philosophical problem as to precisely what constitutes the self; what makes up human identity in a world full of others, past and present; where Mr. Cogito ends and where others—animal, vegetable, or mineral—begin; and how one individual lives among others.
Herbert’s earlier work, including Struna ´wiata (1956), Hermes, pies i gwiazda (1957), Studium przedmiotu (1961), and Napis (1969), deal in historical and political ironies, chief among them the question of art (or form) confronted with unspeakable experience. Herbert, like many of his contemporaries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, had a thorough education. During the Nazi occupation, he began writing underground, just as he studied and fought underground; when the war ended and the Stalinization of Polish life began, that did not essentially change.
Avant-garde in its avoidance of rhyme and punctuation, its use of idiom and casual diction, and classical in its spareness and clarity, Herbert’s poetry rarely makes direct mention of contemporary events, yet it expresses the collective experience of Poland with unsparing intelligence. The poet often speaks in the first person plural, reserving the “I” for a figure from history or myth, distant in time or space. However, the speech and sensibility of these figures are as close to the readers of Herbert’s time as those of the morning newspaper.
In “Elegy of Fortinbras,” one of his best-known pieces, Fortinbras addresses the dead Hamlet with the pragmatic coolness of a twentieth century enlightened tyrant, contemptuous of fancy and as skilled in inventories as he is in invasion: “Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project/ and a decree on prostitutes and beggars/ I must also elaborate a better system of prisons/ since as you justly said Denmark is a prison.”
The irony inherent in conversations between the powerful and powerless underlies much of Herbert’s work, and his rejection of both the style and the substance of Poland under communism made publication difficult for him even after the thaw of 1956. Report from the Besieged City (1983), written while Poland was under martial law, was his first work to be published abroad, and even before it appeared in his homeland.
Ironic detachment (not to be confused with moral indifference) has been a hallmark of Herbert’s poetry from the beginning, and Mr. Cogito is no exception. Mr. Cogito is not a fixed character with a stable point of view, and Herbert himself called him neither a mask nor a persona but a method for distancing, “objectifying.” His points of reference are Herbert’s beloved humanist tradition—Greek mythology, ancient history, philosophy—yet the book is clearly more personal than Herbert’s earlier ones. This is particularly true of the opening poems, where Mr. Cogito looks at his own reflection, remembers father, mother, and sister, and contemplates returning to his birthplace. In “Mr. Cogito Looks at His Face in the Mirror,” he sees features he would rather not belong to him: close-set eyes, the better to spy out invading tribes; big ears, the better to hear rumbling mammoths. Those same eyes and ears, he protests, have absorbed Veronese and Mozart, but “the inherited face” shows the descent of the species with all its animal fears and ancient passions, and Mr. Cogito regretfully concludes that it, not he, wins.
“About Mr. Cogito’s Two Legs” is an anatomical version of two different attitudes toward life: one leg is boyish, well-shaped, and energetic, ready to dance or run away at any moment, to survive for the love of life; the other is thin, scarred, and rigid. One is not better than the other; rather, they might be compared to Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, and the combination is not crippling. Mr. Cogito simply staggers slightly as he makes his way through the world.
Distressed by the presence of others within himself, he...
(The entire section is 1775 words.)