zbigniew herbert | a ballad that we do not perish

30 12 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 306 | December 31, 2009


I close this Poetry Dispatch year of 2009 with a poem, most memorable words from the winged pen of that great old, European poet, Zbignew Herbert.

What does “a room grown cold a few books / an empty inkwell white paper—“ have to do with a writer’s words ? a reader’s interests? loss of time? hope in the coming year?


A Happy 2010 to you all. Thank you for your interest and support of this site. Stick around: I have more promises to keep… And merci, merci, Monsieur K. —norbert blei


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


[ From The New Yorker, August 10, 1998 / Translated, from the Polish, by John and Bogdana Carpenter]

norbert blei | the poetry of persona and the divided self

6 02 2009


Poetry Dispatch No. 269 | February 6, 2009

The Poetry of Persona and the Divided Self
Norbert Blei

Not every poet finds a reason or need to develop a voice within a voice, another ‘persona’ if you will, but for sometime a number of poets (Americans in particular) have been getting outside/inside themselves in a way writers of fiction create `characters’ or characters to voice other levels of meaning.

CAUTION: It may seem an easy thing to do. But it’s not something you can play around with like: “I think today I’ll write a sonnet” ten consider yourself Shakespeare. Rather…it’s a voice that may (or may not) call you when you are ready to listen—and record. One way or another, life itself propels you in this direction. Which is always the way of authentic writing. When it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit. When it’s true, it’s true.

The late John Berryman, author of an American classic, THE DREAM SONGS, is one of these poets who introduces the character of Henry in his work. A likeable guy. So much so that the reader begins to feel comfortable in the possibility that Berryman and Henry are one or share the same sensibility which the recorded moment requires—sad, sensitive, self-indulgent, self-disparaging, confessional roustabouts with something unsettling to say about life, art, the American dream:

Books drugs razor whisky shirts
Henry lies ready for his Eastern tour,
swollen ankles, one hand,
air reservations. Friends at the end of the hurts,
a winter mind resigned: literature
must spread, you understand,

–from “Dream Song 169” of THE DREAM SONGS, Farra, Strauss, Giroux

berrymanHenry = Berryman? Some resemblance, perhaps. Though Berryman himself states: “The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white-American in early middle age sometimes in black face, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. Requiescat in pace.”

Paul Zimmer, (FAMILY REUNION: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, THE ZIMMER POEMS, etc. University of Pittsburg Press) is an immensely entertaining yet serious poet with his own special take on an alter ego who looks at the real world through the small-town eyes of a character named Zimmer. The titles alone pull you immediately into his world: “Zimmer and the Ghost”, “Zimmer Remembering Wanda”, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven”, “Zimmer’s Last Gig”, “Zimmer Is Icumen In”…


At the blackboard I had missed
Five number problems in a row,
And was about to foul a sixth,
When the old, exasperated nun
Began to pound my head against
My six mistakes. When I cried,
She threw me back into my seat,
Where I hid my head and swore
That very day I’d be a poet,
And curse her yellow teeth with this.

My friend, Illinois poet of the people and the prairie, Dave Etter, has to date never developed a whole book of poems to a character of his named Doreen (shades of an old high school sweetheart, word has it) but she pops up occasionally in his work, especially in a book of prose poems, HOME STATE (Spoon River Poetry Press).


Doreen always sleeps in a pajama top—that’s all. Winter or summer, just a pajama top. Who wears the bottoms? How would I know? Nobody, I guess. She probably uses them for dust rags, or maybe she gives them away to some girl who sleeps only in pajama bottoms. The way Doreen squirms and kicks her legs in bed, I can understand very well why she opts for tops over bottoms. What do I wear between the sheets? Well, it’s none of your business, but if you must know, I wear neither pajama tops or pajama bottoms. You wouldn’t either if you slept with Doreen.

On the international scene, one poet in particular of the post-modernist school, Zbigniew Herbert of Poland, brings a thoughtful character to light, Mr. Cogito, who seems to carry the whole sad history of Eastern Europe on his shoulders as he ponders the state of our times.


If I went back there
probably I wouldn’t find
even shadow from my house
nor the trees of childhood
nor the cross with n iron plate
the bench where I whispered incantations
chestnuts and blood
not a single thing that is ours…
…while all around
piles of ash are growing
up to my shoulders
up to my mouth

from MR. COGITO, The Ecco Press

Back in the rural Midwest, over in Minnesota, the poet Leo Dangel sometimes sees the world through Old Man Brunner’s magnificent, munificent eyes:


Old Man Brunner never cuts his weeds.
Right up to the house,
sunflowers and fire weeds
grow tough and hard as small trees.
In the summer evening, Old Man Brunner
sits and surveys his jungle,
his sleeves rolled up,
his cracked shoes beside him.
Old man Brunner’s feet are white,
white as angel feet.
He hold one white foot in his brown hand
and cuts his toenails
with a tin shears.

-from OLD MAN BRUNNER COUNTRY, Spoon River Poetry Press

It is almost impossible to read any of the many collections of the late Bukowski’s (Charles) poems, stories and novels and not come up with a street-wise character, part buffoon, part philosopher, part loser, part poet…semi-serious slant on himself, Bukowski likes to call Chinaski:


I met the movie star, he’s playing Chinaski
in my new movie, I pout my hand on his shoulder: “you’re
all right, Ben,” I tell him.
then the famous Italian director puts his leg up on
the table: “now I’ll drink with you Chinaski,” he says.
(that’s the way he always drinks, I’m told.)
“o.k.,” I say and I put my leg up on the table.
I drain my glass, he fills it again, I drain it
Again, he fills it again.

they know I’m a real guy then.

-from, OPEN ALL NIGHT, Black Sparrow Press

Tom Montag, one of our best Wisconsin poets did a book, Ben Zen THE OX OF PARADOX with my press, (Cross+Roads Press) in l999 which is a wonder to read, behold. I won’t say It’s all Zen; I won’t say it isn’t Zen. I will say that for any reader with the slightest interest in the subject, not to mention a love of poetry—Tom Montag speaks to you in this book—through the simple presence of a wise old farmer, who sounds a lot like a Zen monk, speaking in koans:


Engineers are like poets,
Ben says, only backwards.


If you don’t have
Truth in your heart

You won’t know
What you have.

Anything will fit, Ben says.
You just have to learn to wear it.

Oh to a be the junkman, Ben says.
To have everything no one wants.


Much as I’ve been,
Ben says,
I’ve never been enough.


There do not seem to be as many women writing the poetry of persona as men, though one in particular, Lyn Lifshin, whom I have read for more than twenty years in hundreds of little magazines, has written “more than a thousand” (she tells me) “Madonna” poem (in addition to her regular poetry) and is still writing them. Her “Madonna” is—ribald, rambunctious, erotic, excessive, demanding, demeaning, ironic, iconic, horny, heady, outspoken, outrageous…born to deliver the double whammy. Her latest books are: COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT’S LIGHT (Black Sparrow Press). Collections of her Madonna poems, are hard to find. Check out: www.lynlifshin.com I leave you in her (“Madonna’s”), warm, anxious hands:


around her bed:
spoons like lovers
licked and left


makes you feel
good twice


gets you going
fast, leaves
you in your
own juices


unexpectedly hot
but she doesn’t stay


is into feminism
likes to tower over men
thinks of them all as dopey


takes what she
can’t use
and uses it
so it won’t
use her

from Wormwood Reviews, #’s 82, 87, 92, 117


For a number of years now a local character by the name of Olaf has been knocking on my door, pulling up a chair here in the coop, drinking all my brandy, telling me some of the damnedest stories. But I’ll save him for another time.

herbert zbigniew | destined for women’s magazines

13 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 193 | October 2, 2007

Destined for Women’s Magazines by Herbert Zbigniew

The time of apples falling leaves still put up a defence
in the morning heavier and heavier fog the air grows bald
last grains of honey first reds of the maples
a fox killed on a field space reverberating with shots

apples will go underground trunks come up to the eyes
leaves will be stored in chests and the wood speak
now we can distinctly hear the planets as they move
a high moon rises accept the glaze over your eyes

from MR COGITO, The Ecco Press, $12

herbert zbigniew | a life

11 10 2007


Herbert Zbigniew 1924 – 1998

Poerty Dispatch No. 197 | October 17, 2007

The Eastern European Condition

I don’t know what it is about the work of Eastern European writers that has such a hold on me.. Partly, no doubt, because I grew up in that culture (Slavic), tucked away in a Chicago neighborhood where the language of the home, streets, alleys, shops, taverns, backyards, birth/wedding/burial celebrations was a foreign tongue that crackled in anger and joy, not to mention despair, an unspoken Slavic dialect all of its own. Everything was a secret (including the language if you were taught to speak English) and everything had a compelling darkness to it, even love. The slightest thought of my own past, and all this comes pouring forth again. It’s a rich heritage. An empty cathedral in candlelight. I would not be the writer I am without it, nor continue to explore all the conditions of daily life, human existence, without writers like Zbigniew Herbert who keep turning over the deep dark earth, looking for life. Norbert Blei


A LIFE by Zbigniew Herbert

I was a quiet boy a little sleepy and—amazingly— unlike my peers—who were fond of adventures— I didn’t expect much—didn’t look out the window At school more diligent than able—docile stable

Then a normal life at the level of a regular clerk

up early street tram office again tram home sleep

I truly don’t know why I’m tired uneasy in torment perpetually even now—when I have a right to rest

I know I never rose high—I have no achievements I collected stamps medicinal herbs was O.K. at chess

I went abroad once—on a holiday to the Black Sea in the photo a straw hat tanned face—almost happy

I read what came to hand: about scientific socialism about flights into space and machines that can think and the thing I liked most: books on the life of bees

Like others I wanted to know what I’d be after death whether I’d get a new apartment if life had meaning

And above all how to tell the good from what’s evil to know for sure what is white and what’s all black

Someone recommended a classic work—as he said it changed his life and the lives of millions of others I read it—I didn’t change—and I’m ashamed to admit for the life of me I don’t remember the classic’s name

Maybe I didn’t live but endured—cast against my will

into something hard to govern and impossible to grasp a shadow on a wall

so it was not a life

a life up to the hilt

How could I explain to my wife or to anyone else that I summoned all my strength so as not to commit stupidities cede to insinuation not to fraternize with the strongest

It’s true—I was always pale. Average. At school in the Army in the office at home and at parties

Now I’m in the hospital dying of old age. Here is the same uneasiness and torment. Born a second time perhaps I’d be better.

I wake at night in a sweat. Stare at the ceiling. Silence. And again—one more time—with a bone-weary arm I chase off the bad spirits and summon the good ones.

(Translated, from the Polish, by Alissa Valles.)



Dear Norb,

just a quick response since I knew Zbigniew Herbert personally. Often we would visit him at his house in Warszawa during the dark period of Marshall Law after 1981. He was one of the few persons who had not been arrested. His previous training as lawyer predestined him for two important things: he did not play with politics as he did not play politics and his impartiality made him become the imaginary witness that Adorno spoke about. He was asked to attend trials of other Solidarnosc intellectuals who had been arrested. He was a sort of guarantee for a minimum of a fair trail. His humor was amazing as was his habit of retreating to a monastery for the blind where he loved to write his poetry. His linkage to Greece is expressed in the booklet ‘A Barbarian comes into the Garden’. Two essays in that booklet stand out: his archaeological description of who took what from the Acropolis as souvenir and not only the British; and how different cultures become visible when tourists climb into a boat when the water is still calm and how they are transformed again in a most characteristic way when the waters turn rough. For your information I attach what I had published first on our heritageradio.net

I have followed your debate about the Academics. It reminds me what Rosa Luxembourg shouted at Lenin for changing the concept of the party by inviting in Academics to keep out the opportunists, for Rosa foresaw academics as being, generally speaking, the most opportunistic lot there is. When they need to talk politically, they withdraw to disputes of knowledge and when they should be reasonable in terms of substantial knowledge, they become power politicians. But such generalizations do not help and the relationship to academics will not improve as long as we have no way of keeping alive our poems without them being dissected like frogs on the table of the biologists. ciao Hatto

*Editor’s Note: Hatto’s poetry appears in the recent Cross+Roads Press book, OTHER VOICES ($17, plus $3 postage and handling…PO Box 33, Ellison Bay, WI 54210 USA). A good man, a good poet, a generous heart, an active, world member of a dying breed we once called humanist.