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From Barnes & NobleZbigniew 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
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
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
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.