Thursday, October 8, 2009

Zbigniew Herbert

I hesitate to begin posting works by authors whose poems were not written in English. I don’t enjoy thinking about issues of translation and authority. More vexingly, Herbert wrote most of his work in Poland in the aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War. For an American reader, such work tends to raise political questions that are not central to this particular project.

I am not impugning Zbigniew Herbert, who was possessed of a strong ethical sensibility and has never been accused, so far as I am aware, of being anything like a fellow traveler with the Cold War-era Polish regime. I suppose it’s more that I, a privileged Westerner, feel oddly voyeuristic in my interest. My distance is of such temporal and political magnitude that reading his work feels a bit like indulging in communist oppression kitsch. This is not the fault of the poetry and has nothing to do with its author. I suppose I’ve never shaken the adolescent urge to identify with what I’m reading, and any attempt to relate to that excruciating post-war Eastern European set of experiences is doomed to involve melodrama on my part. In a way, for a nerd like me, Eastern Bloc poetry is the equivalent of a spy novel. The intrigue! The drama! The oppression! The fog!

The following poem is not political, so you needn’t interrogate yourself prior to reading it. “Elegy of Fortinbras” refers to Hamlet. As you may recall from 10th grade English, Fortinbras is the Norwegian Prince who marches into Castle Elsinore at the end of the play to survey the bodies and wreckage and assume the reins of the state. If you haven’t read Hamlet, this poem probably won’t mean much to you. Also, if you haven’t read Hamlet, you oughtn’t be wasting your time with this blog; you should be reading Hamlet. Spoiler alert: everybody dies.

Elegy of Fortinbras

for C.M.

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
there will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums drums I know nothing exquisite those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial

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
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

(translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz)

Zbigniew Herbert on Wikipedia

Zbigniew Herbert on

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