Elegy for the Departure

Zbigniew Herbert, Author, John Carpenter, Translator, Bogdana Carpenter, Translator Ecco $24 (144p) ISBN 978-0-88001-619-3
Many consider Herbert's work the equal of his fellow Polish poets Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz, nobel laureates both; his death this past summer sadly precludes his joining them. Although his more familiar poems couch their approach to the public and political in the terms of the personal, this luminously translated collection expressly represents Herbert at his most lyrical. A beautiful prose poem, ""The Button"" (below in full) captures a dilemma of the lyric mode--the need to balance the particularity of subjective experience with a meaning accessible to others: ""The best fairy tales of all are about us, how once we were small. I like the one about how I swallowed an ivory button. My mother was crying."" This volume brings together work uncollected in English from throughout his career, culling from his early works of 1956-1969 and from a 1990 volume. The poems quickly move from obscure, self-consciously modernist fragmentary meditations marked by flashes of brilliance to assured, confident wholes, though there are standouts among the early efforts. ""Chosen By The Stars,"" for instance, superbly reworks the Icarus myth to explore the poetic psyche, while the meditation ""What Our Dead Do"" (""out of gratitude/ we imagine immortality for them/ snug as the burrow of a mouse"") shows, with masterfully understated irony, how the dead structure the imagination of the living. His recurring alter ego ""Mr. Cogito"" (who ""always defended himself/ against the smoke of time"") returns in the later poems, ""so when the hour comes/ he can consent without a murmur// to the trial of truth and falsehood/ to the trial of fire and water."" In sum, this collection will only serve to broaden and deepen our appreciation of this remarkable late-century poet. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/30/1990
Release date: 02/01/1990
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