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Elegy for the Departure
     

Elegy for the Departure

by Zbigniew Herbert, John Carpenter (Translator), Bogdana Carpenter (Translator)
 

Available for the first time in English, Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems is an important collection from the late Zbigniew Herbert. Translated from the Polish by award-winning translators John and Bogdana Carpenter, these sixty-eight verse and prose poems span forty years of Herbert's incredible life and work. The pieces are organized chronologically

Overview

Available for the first time in English, Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems is an important collection from the late Zbigniew Herbert. Translated from the Polish by award-winning translators John and Bogdana Carpenter, these sixty-eight verse and prose poems span forty years of Herbert's incredible life and work. The pieces are organized chronologically from 1950 to 1990, with an emphasis on the writer's early and late poems.

Here Zbigniew Herbert's poetry turns from the public—what we have come to expect from this poet—to the more personal. The title poem, "Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp , is a three-part farewell ode to the inanimate objects and memories of childhood. Herbert reflects on the relationship between the living and the dead in "What Our Dead Do," the state of his homeland in "Country," and the power of language in "We fall asleep on words . . . " Herbert's short prose poems read like aphorisms, deceptively whimsical but always wise: "Bears are divided into brown and white, also paws, head, and trunk. They have nice snouts, and small eyes.... Children who love Winnie-the-Pooh would give them anything, but a hunter walks in the forest and aims with his rifle between that pair of small eyes."

Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems confirms Zbigniew Herbert's place as one of the world's greatest and most influential poets.

Editorial Reviews

barneandnoble.com
Zbigniew Herbert's death last summer prevented him from taking his place alongside fellow Poles Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Symborska in the lists of Nobel laureates. The release of ELEGY FOR THE DEPARTURE AND OTHER POEMS confirms that the selection would have been well warranted. The book consists of material spanning a period of nearly 40 years, including poems taken from Herbert's first three collections published in Poland, previously uncollected prose poems, and the entirety of the 1990 Polish collection of the same title as the present volume.

Given this variety of sources, ELEGY is appropriately diverse, varying in quality and scope. In particular, the prose poems are weaker, often lapsing into preciousness. The best pieces here are those from Herbert's second and third books; they are penetrating, provocative, and sharply focused in a way that the last poems sometimes fail to be in their eclectic musings. On the whole, however, the pieces gathered here are in the same poetic register: Herbert's unique perspective, implicit metaphysical system, and sparse, incisive tone are visible in even the earliest poems. His work takes place on a timeless, universal stage, one where a bystander present at the liberation of Barabbas, a bear, and a childhood inkwell are treated with equal weight. For example, the inkwell is elegized in the title poem of the book: "o ink/...like the sky at evening/for a long time drying/deliberate/and very patient/in wells we transformed you/into the Sargasso Sea/drowning in your wise depths." Herbert's attention to the quotidian is not frivolous but on the contrary manages to demonstrate the invisible webs of meaning that both include and transcend the everyday. The devastating years of World War II and its Communist aftermath functioned like a crucible for Herbert, enabling him to extract visions of a fundamental structure underlying the seemingly random and often tragic accidents of experience. Certainly it has allowed his work to escape the solipsism that entangles many of his American counterparts -- even at his most philosophical, reflective, or allusive.

As a result, Herbert's explorations of questions of life and death, beauty and ugliness, and good and evil are convincing and sincere. For example, the poems "Home," "My City," and "Country" conjure a sense of being adrift and alienated that, while it so clearly stems from the tragedy of 20th-century Poland, resonates in a universal chord. To prove the point, Herbert collapses the ancient past into the present and future apocalypse, evoking the same feeling in his descriptions of Troy and of the afterlife. Czeslaw Milosz has rightly called Herbert a "poet of historical irony," one who trawls the patterns of what has come to pass to find ways to come to grips with the modern era and the human condition. But, as Milosz also points out, the saving grace of this irony is Herbert's ability to direct it equally toward himself. He inserts himself into the person of Caligula when discussing the emperor's infatuation with his horse, and into that of an observer clamoring to free Barabbas.

This is so because Herbert's message is the inextricability of opposites, the inexorability of dualism. As his "Elegy to Fortinbras" (in SELECTED POEMS) explains, Herbert is no Prince Hamlet, and he treats himself with the same ambiguity as he does the universe. Perhaps his lesson is drawn from observing a country rocked by alternating waves of contradictory "isms" and political regimes. Indeed, in "Thorns and Roses," Herbert seems to be saying that the greatest falsehood is unilateral ideology:

Radiant and white
Saint Ignatius
passed near a rose
and threw himself onto the bush
injuring his body

with the bell of his black habit
he wanted to extinguish
the world's beauty
that sprang from the earth as if from a wound

and when he lay at the bottom
of the cradle of thorns
he saw
that the blood trickling down his forehead

congealed on his eyelashes
in the shape of a rose

and the blind hand
groping for the thorns
was pieced
by the sweet touch of petals

the cheated saint wept in the mockery of flowers
thorns and roses
roses and thorns
we search happiness

As impossible as a life without thorns may be, the world confounds us by making a life without roses equally so. ELEGY FOR THE DEPARTURE is ultimately affirmative, revealing the truth and beauty in the accidental and ephemeral -- or, as "My City" has it, the "stars of salt" on the ocean floor.

--Monica Ferrell

Ferrell
Zbigniew Herbert's death last summer prevented him from taking his place alongside fellow Poles Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Symborska in the lists of Nobel laureates. The release of Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems confirms that the selection would have been well warranted. The book consists of material spanning a period of nearly 40 years, including poems taken from Herbert's first three collections published in Poland, previously uncollected prose poems, and the entirety of the 1990 Polish collection of the same title as the present volume.

Given this variety of sources, Elegy is appropriately diverse, varying in quality and scope. In particular, the prose poems are weaker, often lapsing into preciousness. The best pieces here are those from Herbert's second and third books; they are penetrating, provocative, and sharply focused in a way that the last poems sometimes fail to be in their eclectic musings. On the whole, however, the pieces gathered here are in the same poetic register: Herbert's unique perspective, implicit metaphysical system, and sparse, incisive tone are visible in even the earliest poems. His work takes place on a timeless, universal stage, one where a bystander present at the liberation of Barabbas, a bear, and a childhood inkwell are treated with equal weight. For example, the inkwell is elegized in the title poem of the book: "o ink/...like the sky at evening/for a long time drying/deliberate/and very patient/in wells we transformed you/into the Sargasso Sea/drowning in your wise depths..." Herbert's attention to the quotidian is not frivolous but on the contrary manages to demonstrate the invisible webs of meaning that both include and transcend the everyday. The devastating years of World War II and its Communist aftermath functioned like a crucible for Herbert, enabling him to extract visions of a fundamental structure underlying the seemingly random and often tragic accidents of experience. Certainly it has allowed his work to escape the solipsism that entangles many of his American counterparts -- even at his most philosophical, reflective, or allusive.

As a result, Herbert's explorations of questions of life and death, beauty and ugliness, and good and evil are convincing and sincere. For example, the poems "Home," "My City," and "Country" conjure a sense of being adrift and alienated that, while it so clearly stems from the tragedy of 20th-century Poland, resonates in a universal chord. To prove the point, Herbert collapses the ancient past into the present and future apocalypse, evoking the same feeling in his descriptions of Troy and of the afterlife. Czeslaw Milosz has rightly called Herbert a "poet of historical irony," one who trawls the patterns of what has come to pass to find ways to come to grips with the modern era and the human condition. But, as Milosz also points out, the saving grace of this irony is Herbert's ability to direct it equally toward himself. He inserts himself into the person of Caligula when discussing the emperor's infatuation with his horse, and into that of an observer clamoring to free Barabbas.

This is so because Herbert's message is the inextricability of opposites, the inexorability of dualism. As his "Elegy to Fortinbras" (in Selected Poems ) explains, Herbert is no Prince Hamlet, and he treats himself with the same ambiguity as he does the universe. Perhaps his lesson is drawn from observing a country rocked by alternating waves of contradictory "isms" and political regimes. Indeed, in "Thorns and Roses," Herbert seems to be saying that the greatest falsehood is unilateral ideology:


Radiant and white
Saint Ignatius
passed near a rose
and threw himself onto the bush
injuring his body
with the bell of his black habit
he wanted to extinguish
the world's beauty
that sprang from the earth as if from a wound

and when he lay at the bottom
of the cradle of thorns
he saw
that the blood trickling down his forehead

congealed on his eyelashes
in the shape of a rose

and the blind hand
groping for the thorns
was pierced
by the sweet touch of petals

the cheated saint wept in the mockery of flowers
thorns and roses
roses and thorns
we search happiness

As impossible as a life without thorns may be, the world confounds us by making a life without roses equally so. Elegy for the Departure is ultimately affirmative, revealing the truth and beauty in the accidental and ephemeral -- or, as "My City" has it, the "stars of salt" on the ocean floor.

--Monica Ferrell

James Pollock
More than a fine translation of a single volume of poems, this book is a handsome collection of previously unavailable translations...the best introduction in English to one of the most important European poets of the second half of the century.
Biblio Magazine
Library Journal
Herbert was not just a great Polish poet but one of the great poets of the latter 20th century. This book collects poems not yet translated into English. Spanning from 1950 to 1990, they give a good feel for his development. The poems in Part 1, drawn from Herberts first collection, feature dislocated images of loss and melancholy and sometimes feel a little scattered. By his second and third collections, from which the poems in Part 2 were taken, Herbert has hit his stride; pared down, ironic, and showing the poets steely control, these exemplify his best work. Witty and full of biting social commentary, the chronologically arranged prose poems in Part 3 are better than most in the genre. Finally, Part 4 includes all the poems in the 1990 volume Elegy for a Departure and are indeed elegiac in tone. This volume does have the feel of collecting what is left, and libraries that can afford only one or two volumes of Herberts work should probably stick to Report from the Beseiged City or Mr. Cogito. But any library collecting seriously in contemporary poetry should include this work.Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Richard Eder
...Herbert...found a special genius for making all but indistinguishable the line between the sublime and the homely, the abstract and the material....After recalling all...that our world has lost, he concludes that he has never trusted the spirit of history, "dialectical beast on a leash led by slaughterers"...
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780880016193
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
02/01/1999
Pages:
144
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.64(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

I

I can't find the title
of a memory about you
with a hand torn from darkness
I step on fragments of faces

soft friendly profiles
frozen into a hard contour

circling above my head
empty as a forehead of air a
man's silhouette of black paper

Meet the Author

Zbigniew Herbert was born in Lwów, Poland, in 1924. In his late teens he fought in the under-ground resistance against the Nazis. Herbert studied law, economics, and philosophy at the universities of Krakow, Torun, and Warsaw. His books include Selected Poems, Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems, Mr Cogito, Still Life with a Bridle, The King of the Ants, Labyrinth on the Sea, and Collected Poems. He died in 1998.

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