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Stones and pebbles

The Collected Poems 1956-1998 Zbigniew Herbert Translated from the Polish and edited by Alissa Valles, with additional translations by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott Ecco: 600 pp., $34.95

February 25, 2007|Benjamin Lytal | Benjamin Lytal teaches at the Pratt Institute and writes fiction.

WE do not know what role Zbigniew Herbert played in the Polish resistance. We do know that he was active underground, beginning in 1941, when Hitler's forces took the city of Lwow from the Red Army, which had occupied it in 1939. But Herbert's extensive literary output did not address Polish affairs very directly. His prose explored the art of the Mediterranean, and then of the Netherlands, and his poetry, though profoundly one of experience, was not a poetry of witness.

Postwar Polish poetry has had a relatively robust reception in America: Czeslaw Milosz, in particular, has long been a name in literary circles, not least because his nonfiction has reinforced the political stature of his poems. But other giants, like Milosz's fellow Nobelist Wislawa Szymborska and like Herbert, who died in 1998, have always demonstrated that their poetry's late golden age has not been circumstantial. Ecco, long a publisher of Herbert through his early translators, John and Bogdana Carpenter, now makes a canon-molding gesture with "The Collected Poems: 1956-1998." Foreign poets rarely get such treatment here, but few are as universally powerful as Herbert.

Even a poem that seems to relive violent danger, such as "Answer," in which Herbert writes that "we'll have to jump up and run / amid a din of short dry salvos / to that longed-for other shore," soon becomes universal: "everywhere earth is the same / it teaches wisdom everywhere." Everywhere and in every time, we are in danger.

Planetary time -- or an equivalently awesome concept of the abyss and emptiness -- pervades "Collected Poems." In "Troubles of a Minor Creator," the young Herbert writes that "each of us must build from scratch / his own infinity his own beginning / the hardest is to cross the abyss / that yawns beyond a fingernail."

Herbert's recourse in his poems to bigger perspectives seems, tonally, to indicate stoicism. In an elegy for his teacher, the philosopher Henryk Elzenberg, Herbert writes that "Your severe gentleness delicate strength / Taught me to weather the world like a thinking stone." And in a poem called "Pebble," he writes: "The pebble / is a perfect creature [ ... ] its ardor and coldness / are just and full of dignity." Yet in a poem to Marcus Aurelius, Herbert warns the author of "Meditations" that barbarian hordes will destroy Rome and chaos will supersede stoicism.

Good night Marcus put out the light

and shut the book For overhead

is raised a gold alarm of stars

heaven is talking some foreign tongue

this the barbarian cry of fear

your Latin cannot understand

Herbert praised the stone and the pebble not because they were dumb to the world -- after all, his stone is "a thinking stone" -- but because they are cool, able to retain their shape and composure under totalitarian pressures.

One of Herbert's most famous poems, "Apollo and Marsyas," is in fact a poem of complaint. According to Greek and Roman myth, Marsyas was a satyr who boasted that he could out-sing Apollo, the god of music and poetry, and lost the eventual contest: As a result, he was flayed. In Herbert's vision, the real contest took place after Marsyas was flayed, when a last cry of lament emerged from his skinless, radically vulnerable body. Herbert writes that the voice of Marsyas, though "seemingly composed of a single vowel, A," in fact conveys the "inexhaustible wealth" of the man's exposed 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

But Apollo cannot endure the sound of this suffering. He wonders if it will lead to a new kind of art -- Herbert's, for example. Though Herbert, as his younger compatriot Adam Zagajewski explains in an introduction, witnessed the horrors of World War II "from a certain distance," and though Herbert idealized the toughness of the stone, he must also have sympathized with Marsyas.

The role of the classics in Herbert's work has led some to call him a classicist. But his art is more broadly elemental than that, and almost everything that appears in his poetry has a timeless quality; for this reason he is not the author of dazzling images. Rather, the strength of an image is contextual and has to do with its fittingness. The rare description of a woman, for example, can be prized more for its plausibility, as a quick bouquet of description, and its humanity than for its visibility. Herbert imagines his own forefathers studying Livy, the ancient Roman historian, but getting distracted by springtime, when "all my grandfather's and great-grandfather's thoughts ran panting to Mizia / singing in the garden showing her decollete and goddess-like legs to the knee."

His best images describe metaphysical actions and motions. A parable about writing, "The Stars' Chosen Ones," outlines a moment of failure:

the poet covers his eyes

with his feathered hand

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