The title of this brief six-stanza, twenty-eight-line poem in free verse recalls the seventeenth century Dutch paintings that Zbigniew Herbert greatly admires and strikes a note at once contemplative and pictorial. Narrated in the first person, it takes an unusual approach to a commonplace occurrence: a person looking at himself in the mirror. Instead of remarking how much he has changed over the years, Cogito questions who “wrote” his face. The question suggests that Cogito conceives of himself less in individual terms than in collective or historical terms—which is to say, less as a unique person and more as a cultural product, even a text (the one written rather than the one writing).
Contemplating himself synecdochically in the mirror, Cogito comes to see his face as a mirror reflecting the ways that history, including heredity, has shaped or misshaped him. He begins with the chicken pox, which wrote “its o’ with calligraphic pen” upon his skin, and moves on to the ancestors from whom he inherited the protruding ears and close-set eyes that worked to their advantage in the age of mastodons and marauders but that now make Cogito look comical. In the third stanza, this line of thought swerves in a more troubling direction as Cogito contemplates his low forehead filled with “very few thoughts,” the result of centuries of subservience to aristocratic rule during which “the prince” did the thinking for Cogito’s ancestors.
(The entire section is 423 words.)