Elegy for the Departure

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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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780880016193
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/1999
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

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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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
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Table of Contents

Three Poems by Heart 3
A Ballad That We Do Not Perish 6
The Ardennes Forest 7
About Troy 9
Home 11
Architecture 12
Chord 14
Verses of a Pantheist 16
The Troubles of a Little Creator 17
Fragment of a Greek Vase 20
Altar 22
Furnished Room 27
What Our Dead Do 29
My City 32
Balconies 34
Song of the Drum 36
A Small Bird 38
Thorns and Roses 41
Chosen by the Stars 42
An Answer 44
How We Were Introduced 46
In a Studio 48
A Box Called the Imagination 50
We fall asleep on words ... 52
Farewell to the City 54
On the Margin of the Trial 55
Bears 59
A Button 60
Cat 61
Country 62
Drunkards 63
From the End 64
The Wolf and the Sheep 65
War 66
The Dead 67
Forest 68
Crossing Guard 69
Still Life 70
Wasp 71
A Suicide 72
Life of a Warrior 73
Hotel 74
Clock 75
Impartial Autumn 76
The Poet's House 77
Principality 78
Chinese Wallpaper 79
Cernunnos 80
A Native Devil 81
Oaks 85
Transformations of Livy 87
The Nepenthe Family 90
Blackthorn 92
Mass for the Imprisoned 94
Small Heart 96
Request 98
Mr. Cogito's Heraldic Meditations 100
Farewell 102
Landscape 103
A Journey 104
Wit Stwosz: Madonna Falling Asleep 107
Prayer of the Old Men 108
The Adventures of Mr. Cogito with Music 110
Speculations on the Subject of Barabbas 116
Wagon 118
The Death of Lev 121
The Fable about a Nail 125
Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp 127
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First Chapter

Chapter One
THREE POEMS BY HEART


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


II
living--despite
living--against
I reproach myself for the sin of forgetfulness
you left an embrace like a superfluous sweater
a look like a question
our hands won't transmit the shape of your hands
we squander them touching ordinary things
calm as a mirror
not mildewed with breath
the eyes will send back the question
every day I renew my sight
every day my touch grows
tickled by the proximity of so many things
life bubbles over like blood
Shadows gently melt
let us not allow the dead to be killed--
perhaps a cloud will transmit remembrance--
a worn profile of Roman coins


III
the women on our street
were plain and good
they patiently carried from the markets
bouquets of nourishing vegetables
the children on our street
scourge of cats
the pigeons--
softly gray
a Poet's statue was in the park
children would roll their hoops
and colorful shouts
birds sat on the Poet's hand
read his silence
on summer evenings wives
waited patiently for lips
smelling of familiar tobacco
women could not answer
their children: will he return
when the city was setting
they put the fire out with hands
pressing their eyes
the children on our street
had a difficult death

pigeons fell lightly
like shot down air

now the lips of the Poet
form an empty horizon
birds children and wives cannot live
in the city's funereal shells
in cold eiderdowns of ashes
the city stands over water
smooth as the memory of a mirror
it reflects in the water from the bottom
and flies to a high star
where a distant fire is burning
like a page of the Iliad


A BALLAD THAT WE
DO NOT PERISH
Those who sailed at dawn
but will never return
left their trace on a wave--
a shell fell to the bottom of the sea
beautiful as lips turned to stone
those who walked on a sandy road
but could not reach the shuttered windows
though they already saw the roofs--
they have found shelter in a bell of air
but those who leave behind only
a room grown cold a few books
an empty inkwell white paper--
in truth they have not completely died
their whisper travels through thickets of wallpaper
their level head still lives in the ceiling
their paradise was made of air
of water lime and earth an angel of wind
will pulverize the body in its hand
they will be
carried over the meadows of this world


THE ARDENNES FOREST
Cup your hands to scoop up sleep
as you would draw a grain of water
and the forest will come: a green cloud
a birch trunk like a chord of light
and a thousand eyelids fluttering
with forgotten leafy speech
then you will recall the white morning
when you waited for the opening of the gates
you know this land is opened by a bird
that sleeps in a tree and the tree in the earth
but here is a spring of new questions
underfoot the currents of bad roots
look at the pattern on the bark where
a chord of music tightens
the lute player who presses the frets
so the silent resounds
push away leaves: a wild strawberry
dew on a leaf the comb of grass
further a wing of a yellow damselfly
and an ant burying its sister
a wild pear sweetly ripens
above the treacheries of belladonnas
without waiting for greater rewards
sit under the tree
cup your hands to draw up memory
of the dead names dried grain
again the forest: a charred cloud
forehead branded by black light
and a thousand lids pressed
tightly on motionless eyeballs
a tree and the air broken
betrayed faith of empty shelters
that other forest is for us is for you
the dead also ask for fairy tales
for a handful of herbs water of memories
therefore by needles by rustling
and faint threads of fragrances--
no matter that a branch stops you
a shadow leads you through winding passages--
you will find and open
our Ardennes Forest


ABOUT TROY


1
Troy O Troy
an archeologist
will sift your ashes through his fingers
yet a fire occurred greater than that of the Iliad
for seven strings--
too few strings
one needs a chorus
a sea of laments
and thunder of mountains
rain of stone
--how to lead
people away from the ruins
how to lead
the chorus from poems--
thinks the faultless poet
respectably mute
as a pillar of salt
--The song will escape unharmed
It escaped
with flaming wing
into a pure sky
The moon rises over the ruins
Troy O Troy
The city is silent

The poet struggles with his own shadow
The poet cries like a bird in the void

The moon repeats its landscape
gentle metal in smoldering ash


2
They walked along ravines of former streets
as if on a red sea of cinders
and wind lifted the red dust
faithfully painted the sunset of the city
They walked along ravines of former streets
they breathed on the frozen dawn in vain
they said: long years will pass
before the first house stands here
they walked along ravines of former streets
they thought they would find some traces
a cripple plays
on a harmonica
about the braids of a willow
about a girl
the poet is silent
rain falls


HOME
A home above the year's seasons
home of children animals and apples
a square of empty space
under an absent star
home was the telescope of childhood
the skin of emotion
a sister's cheek
branch of a tree
the cheek was extinguished by flame
the branch crossed out by a shell
over the powdery ash of the nest
a song of homeless infantry
home is the die of emotion
home is the cube of childhood
the wing of a burned sister
leaf of a dead tree


ARCHITECTURE
Over a delicate arch--
an eyebrow of stone--
on the unruffled forehead
of a wall
in joyful and open windows
where there are faces instead of geraniums
where rigorous rectangles
border a dreaming perspective
where a stream awakened by an ornament
flows on a quiet field of surfaces
movement meets stillness a line meets a shout
trembling uncertainty simple clarity
you are there
architecture
art of fantasy and stone
there you reside beauty
over an arch
light as a sigh
on a wall
pale from altitude
and a window
tearful with a pane of glass
a fugitive from apparent forms
I proclaim your motionless dance
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