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The Philosophy of 3 AM

The Collected Poems, 1956–1998

by Zbigniew Herbert, edited and translated from the Polish by Alissa Valles, with additional translations by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott and an introduction by Adam Zagajewski
Ecco, 600 pp., $34.95

Zbigniew Herbert, who was born in 1924 in Lwów and died in Warsaw in 1998, was one of the great poets of our time. His compatriots Czeslaw Milosz and Wyslawa Szymborska, who were both awarded the Nobel Prize in recent years, may now be more famous, but he surely belongs in their company, as this book with its many truly extraordinary poems fully demonstrates. Herbert was the most original of the three and the funniest. Only a mixture of seriousness and comedy could do justice to his experience, which included wartime horrors, totalitarianism, and exile. Tragicomedy was his specialty. In Herbert’s early poem “Five Men,” the condemned, who are to be led before the firing squad at sunrise, spend their last hours among the living talking about dreams, automobile parts, a sea voyage, an adventure in a whorehouse, a fatal error in a poker game, and how vodka is best, since after wine you get a headache. Herbert wrote the kind of poems these five men would not have had trouble understanding on that final night.

The Collected Poems, 1956–1998 contains the nine collections of poetry that Herbert published in his lifetime, most of them put into English by Alissa Valles with the exception of seventy-nine poems translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, which were first published as Selected Poems in the Penguin Modern European Poets series in 1968. This book introduced Herbert’s poems to American readers. I’m willing to bet that no one who read them ever forgot them. Written during the bleak years of Stalinism in Poland and not published until later, they convey what it was like to have lived through some of the darkest years of European history, and yet they are not political poems in any conventional sense. They are too complex for any such reductive label. Here, for instance, is a poem Herbert wrote when he was fifteen about a couple making love as bombs fell on their heads:


The forests were on fire—
they however
wreathed their necks with their hands
like bouquets of roses
People ran to the shelters—
he said his wife had hair
in whose depths one could hide
Covered by one blanket
they whispered shameless words
the litany of those who love
When it got very bad
they leapt into each other’s eyes
and shut them firmly
So firmly they did not feel the flames
when they came up to the eyelashes
To the end they were brave
To the end they were faithful
To the end they were similar
like two drops
stuck at the edge of a face

(translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Herbert always said that he had no use for that “puffed-up monster with a murderous eye,” the Hegelian spirit of history. “I wasted years learning history’s simplistic workings/the monotonous procession and the unequal struggle/between the thugs at the head of addled crowds/and a handful of the righteous and reasonable,” he wrote in a poem. He didn’t arrive at that knowledge just by reading books. As a fifteen-year-old, Herbert witnessed his hometown occupied by the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and some nineteen months later by the Nazis after the alliance collapsed and Hitler attacked Russia. Lwów, a bustling city with a mixed population of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews, was changed within a few days into a concentration camp, Herbert remembered. One of his teachers was killed, he said, by “history’s schoolyard bullies,” while others were thrown in jail. Herbert joined the Polish resistance movement and continued his studies at an underground university. With mass slaughter, forced deportation, and widespread fear, he must have seen plenty.

In 1944, before the city was once again taken by the Soviets, Herbert’s family escaped to Kraków. After the Red Army arrived, he attended lectures at the university and drawing classes at the Academy of Fine Arts while obtaining a degree in economics at the Trade Academy. As a former member of the anti-Communist Home Army, he was regarded as politically suspect. He kept a low profile, working at different jobs, as an editor of an economic journal, a bank clerk, a shop attendant, an accountant and timekeeper in a cooperative, a librarian, and eventually as an administrator in the Association of Polish Composers. One difficult year, he supplemented his income by selling his blood. Not until 1950 were his poems published in a magazine, and his first book, Chord of Light, did not come out until 1956, when he was already thirty-two years old. He later attributed his reluctance to fall on his knees before the mighty not to his bravery or strength of character, but to his sense of taste: an inability to bear the regime’s execrable rhetoric, its torturer’s dialectic and reasoning without grace. In other words, aesthetics saved his soul: beauty played a subversive role in his refusal to become one of the corrupted.

From the very beginning, Herbert’s poems had one distinguishing quality. They dealt with complex experiences and ideas in the plainest language. Well aware that he was using an impure tool of expression, banalized and subject to abuse every day, he still strove to make words mean what they mean. For Herbert, a bird is a bird, slavery means slavery, a knife is a knife, death remains death. That makes him easier to translate, of course, than poets who are attracted to rich verbal texture and symbolism. Still, his idiomatic, unpunctuated free verse and his fondness for dramatic monologues as well as his frequent and subtle use of irony do present a challenge. Herbert has been lucky in his translators. Alissa Valles’s renditions here, despite an occasional awkward phrase, inevitable in a book this big, are admirable.

The greatest surprise, perhaps, for any first-time reader of Herbert’s poetry is his many poems on Greek and Roman antiquity. These are not the respectful versions of myths and historical figures one encounters in contemporary verse in which the poet questions neither the philosophical nor the ethical premises of the original, but are radical reevaluations from the point of view of someone who has experienced modern wars and revolutions. What Herbert does is introduce Achilles to Hitler. We read in one poem about Nike, goddess of victory, who hesitates and remains frozen on seeing a youth ride off to his death in a war chariot. In another, more terrifying poem, Herbert speculates about the ending of the story of Marsyas, the foolish satyr, who after finding a flute Athena tossed away teaches himself to play it and thoughtlessly challenges Apollo, the god of music, to a contest. He loses and the god exacts payment for his insolence by having him flayed alive and nailed to a tree:


The real duel of Apollo
with Marsyas
(absolute ear
versus immense range)
takes place in the evening
when as we already know
the judges
have awarded victory to the god
bound tight to a tree
meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument
only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
and composed of a single vowel
in reality
Marsyas relates
the inexhaustible wealth
of his body
bald mountains of liver
white ravines of aliment
rustling forests of lung
sweet hillocks of muscle
joints bile blood and shudders
the wintry wind of bone
over the salt of memory
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument
now to the chorus
is joined the backbone of Marsyas
in principle the same A
only deeper with the addition of rust
this is already beyond the endurance
of the god with nerves of artificial fibre
along a gravel path
hedged with box
the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete
at his feet
falls a petrified nightingale
he looks back
and sees
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
is white

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

In Ovid’s version, the action ends with the victory of the god, but Herbert is curious about what happens after, so he keeps him around long enough to hear, with a “shudder of disgust,” what torturing a human sounds like. Apollo represents an aesthetic so pure that it has no place for sufferings of mere flesh and blood. As he hurries away, he wonders whether out of Marsyas’ raw pain a new realistic art may arise some day. The tree and the nightingale show more compassion for the pain of the mutilated body than the god who is too busy congratulating himself on his idea. Perfection is inseparable from indifferent cruelty; that is how Stanislaw Baranczak reads this poem in A Fugitive from Utopia, his authoritative study of Herbert’s poetry.1

One little prose poem in Collected Poems, 1956–1998 is called “Practical Recommendations in the Event of a Catastrophe.” My father, who came from the same part of the world, used to ask me from time to time, “Where are we going to immigrate next?” He was a cheerful pessimist who never lost sight of the fact that our reprieve from history may be temporary. Neither did Herbert. Strategies for physical and spiritual survival were his constant worry. In a very funny and terrifying poem called “Attempt at the Dissolution of Mythology,” the Greek gods end up by being exiles too. They gather and decide to disband their racket, join rational society, and somehow make do. Late in the evening, they take the road into town, with false documents in their pockets and a handful of copper coins. As they cross a bridge, Hermes jumps into the river. They see him drowning, but do not try to save him, debating instead whether this was a bad or a good omen.

This next poem is also about displaced persons. It describes the fate of hundreds of thousands of Russians who left their homes during the Revolution:


It was in the year twenty
or perhaps twenty-one
the Russian émigrés
came to us
tall blond people
with visionary eyes
and women like a dream
when they crossed the market-place
we used to say—migratory birds
they used to attend the
soirées of the gentry
everyone would whisper—look what pearls
but when the lights of the ball were extinguished
helpless people remained
the gray newspapers were continuously silent
only solitaire showed pity
the guitars beyond the windows would cease playing
and even dark eyes faded
in the evening a samovar with a whistle
would carry them back to their family railway-stations
after a couple of years
only three of them were spoken about
the one who went mad
the one who hanged himself
she to whom men used to come
the rest lived out of the way
slowly turning into dust
This parable is told by Nicholas
who understands historical necessities
in order to terrify me i.e. to convince me

  1. 1

    Harvard University Press, 1987.

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