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—
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…
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