ZBIGNIEW HERBERT is among the very best living European poets. A generation younger than Czeslaw Milosz, he has also emerged in recent years as a conscience and spokesman for the Polish nation. In Report From the Besieged City, John and Bogdana Carpenter have translated Herbert's most recent volume of poems; the work covers the period of the crisis in Poland and it is somewhat retrospective in tone. Herbert writes about the present, but he is also reflecting on what his art has been and has had to be in Eastern Europe.
Born in Lvov in 1924, he was a schoolboy during the Nazi occupation of his country, and he trained as a soldier in the underground before going on to the university in the postwar years to study philosophy and the history of art. And his sense of history is deep. He is the kind of writer for whom nothing has ever happened only once. Traveling in Western Europe when martial law was declared in Poland, he might have chosen not to return. But he did return, and he wrote about it, or, rather, he wrote about a world in which, for ages, generals have been seizing power to restore what is called public order in what is called a time of national crisis in order to return the republic to what is called its true path. That is his report from the besieged city.
Herbert is an ironist and a minimalist who writes as if it were the task of the poet, in a world full of loud lies, to say what is irreducibly true in a level voice. His art has been compared to a calligrapher's -- deft strokes, black on white, economy of motion; his chosen ground is a narrow and difficult human freedom, the freedom to think and see clearly, even if only in the privacy of one's own head. This explains the name of a character, Mr. Cogito, through whom some of Herbert's later poems are spoken. That somewhat comic and ironic persona stands for the fact that, in some circumstances, it is not our bodily freedom or the authenticity of our emotions that makes existence real, but our ability, however halting, to continue to think. One imagines that such a limitation of means in poetry would require a great purity of style. And that is the testimony of Polish readers. Czeslaw Milosz has said that the writing is "crystalline and austere."
Reading Herbert in translation, therefore, one is always more or less imagining the original poem. Easy to translate in one way, since there are no verbal pyrotechnics, he is impossible to render in another. Absolute command of the ordinary materials of one language are the hardest thing to convey persuasively in another. Earlier translations of Herbert by Peter Dale Scott and Milosz were surprisingly good. These renderings by the Carpenters are a little wooden, but faithful to Herbert's dry, somewhat rigorous poetic procedures, and they are able to render other kinds of light his language glints with. Not great, but good enough. And they have performed the essential service of giving us a timely text of this remarkable writer.
Plainness of speech is the rueful subject of several of these poems. In "Mr. Cogito and the Imagination," for example, Herbert writes:
Mr. Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination
the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts to him . . .
he adored tautologies
dem per idem
that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth
This stance is based on the assumption that the ultimate power of poetry is witness. Truth,Not Hope might be carved above the entrance to Herbert's work; in one of the poems addressed to the young writer Ryszard Kryniki, he reflects on an era when "only nakedness was left to us":
too easily we came to believe beauty
does not save
that it leads the lighthearted from
dream to dream to death
none of us knew how to awaken the
dryad of a poplar to read the writing of clouds . . .
we took public affairs on our thin
recorded suffering the struggle with
tyranny the lying
but -- you have to admit -- we had
opponents despicably small
so was it worth it to lower holy
to the babble of the speaker's platform the black foam of newspapers
in our poems Ryzard there is so little joy -- daughter of the gods
too few luminous dusks mirrors
wreaths of rapture
nothing but dark psalmodies stammering of animulae
urns of ashes in the buried garden
THOUGHTNESS is the aim of Herbert's poetry, his poems on political themes are not reportorial. Here his method is much more that of a fabulist. In "Babylon," "The Divine Claudius," "The Murderers of Kings," and in the title poem, "Report From the Besieged City," he writes about events in the distant past or in some unspecified time to suggest the endlessly repetitive cruelty and injustice of human societies -- and the perpetual struggle against them. "Report From the Beseiged City," widely read in Poland as a poem of the army's seizure of power, is the story, for Herbert, of any city:
I am supposed to be exact but I
don't know when the invasion
two hundred years ago in December
in September perhaps yesterday at
everyone here suffers from a loss of
the sense of time.
all we have left is the place the attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples specters of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be
I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
monday: empty storehouses a rat
becomes the unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
wednesday: negotiations for a ceasefire the enemy has imprisoned our
I am not sure that these brief quotations will convey the sense of a fierce, steady moral imagination which this volume conveys as a whole. Nor have I mentioned the special triumphs of the book like "Mr. Cogito and the Soul" in which that gentleman, feeling soulless, reflects like some eternally cuckolded husband out of Dostoevsky on the reasonableness and necessity of sharing his soul with others since there obviously aren't enough to go around, or "Prayer of Mr. Cogito -- Traveler," a poem which is moving partly because of the plainness of its gratitude:
-- I ask You to reward the ancient
white-haired man who brought me
fruit from his garden without being
asked on the burnt island where the
son of Laertes was born
as well as Miss Helen on the misty
isle of Mull in the Hebrides who received me in a Greek manner and
asked me to leave a lit lamp by the
window at night facing holy Iona so
the land's lights would greet each
also all those who showed me the
road and said kato kyrie kato
The rarity of poems like this in Herbert's work give them a kind of grandeur; the vision of Report From the Besieged City, though its clarity seems heroic and though it glints with gallows humor, is not usually so tender. But neither is the history of Poland. Polish poets wrote a poetry of hope in the 1840s that moved all of Europe; they wrote a poetry of despair in the 1880s; and a poetry of hope in the 1920s, and a poetry of prophetic terror in the 1930s, and a poetry of resistance to that terror in the 1940s. They have been a kind of symbol, a weathervane of political emotion, for the rest of the world for the last two centuries. One can only not notice this cyclical pattern for so long, and Herbert notices. His resistance takes the form of refusing not to notice, and refusing to feel that the history of oppression, of force begetting force begetting force, because it is tedious and repetitive, is any less wrong. His own struggle, clear-eyed and stubborn, is to find a language which salvages from history the forms of personal and social integrity, so that he can write, as he does at the end of "Report From the Besieged City": "The only thing we have not disgraced is our dreams." And, adamant though he is, he can envision the terms of healing:
My defenseless country will admit
and give you a plot of earth under a
willow -- and peace
so those who come after us will
the most difficult art -- the forgiveness of sins.
Readers of the book will want to see more of Herbert's work. The Ecco Press has annunced that it will be reprinting the Scott- Milosz translation of the Selected Poems in the near future, and a volume of Herbert's essays, The Barbarian in the Garden, has been translated and will be available from the Carcanet Press this fall.
Robert Hass' most recent book, "Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry," won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism.