Dangerous naïveté in one realm is sensitive openness and sense of wonder in another.
Back when you first introduced me to Zbigniew Herbert, I immediately ordered the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation of “Mr. Cogito” and I also have Alissa Valles’ translation of Herbert’s Collected Poems, 1956 - 1998. I noticed too the differences in translation of “The envoy of Mr. Cogito.” The translation in the video is more sparse. For instance, “golden fleece of nothingness” at the beginning is pared down, “golden fleece" eliminated, and so is “sister Scorn” midway through the poem. In the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation it’s “let your sister Scorn not leave you/ for the informers executioners cowards - they will win”. I like the paring down in the video. I think it’s effective and doesn't do any grave injustice to Herbert’s spirit as a poet. Herbert himself was given less to excess and exploring all variations than to cutting back and sticking to the elemental, being more understated and plain. (You more than he follow William Blake’s maxim: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”.)
As Herbert wrote in an earlier collection of poems, Hermes, Dog, and Star (1957), in a poem entitled, “A Knocker”:
"There are those who grow
gardens in their heads. . .
it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down. . .
my imagination is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick
I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem."
One thing a little off, not totally satisfactory to me in the video, is the line: 'Look at the clown in the mirror, repeat: “I had to go, why not better than me?"' That’s a little too thinly phrased. In the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation it’s: “beware however of unnecessary pride/ keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror/ repeat: I was called - weren’t there better ones than I” - That’s much better. However, I see the challenge the filmmaker had in synching up the imagery and recorded reading by Herbert, the english subtitle translation, and the music, all into one poignant and moving whole.
I absolutely love the video and have watched it many times now. It moves me on more than one level. It moves me because of the importance of you and your work to me, and you introduced Herbert to me and shared his remarkably powerful poem with me, but hearing Herbert’s voice and him speaking in that native tongue, it also stirs my Polish and Lithuanian roots. It stirs the ancestors in me. When I was a boy and my family visited my maternal Grandparents in Chicago, my great Grandma Mary (mother of my maternal Grandpa John) could only speak in very broken English, with a thick accent. She was full of character, seemingly larger than her 4’ 8” size. I include three photos of her here. In her facial features, she looks like some descendent of Pan to me, or some character out of a fairytale. In the photo on the right, that's my great Grandma Mary dancing with my dear Grandma Lillian. Looking at the center photo of her dancing, both of my parents agreed: “That captures her spirit alright.” My Mom told me with a laugh that she doctored all her papers, and had written there that she’s 5’ 6”, when so obviously she was not, and she changed her birthday to that of Abraham Lincoln’s, February 12th. I asked, “Why Lincoln? Was it random? What’s the logic?” My Mom replied, laughing again, that’s just how she was. It was just out of the blue. My Mom added that she never knew how old my great Grandma Mary really was. My Dad told me she was robust and tough for her little size, and could be quite a handful. He laughed that she’d come up to him with a mischievous sparkle in her eye, and ask in the morning of all times, when you’d least expect it, "Hey Al, you vant some viskey?” As a boy I was incredibly shy around her, even fearful and hiding, because she was mysterious to me in her foreignness. She mainly spoke Lithuanian, but learned Polish, and often had conversations in Polish with my Grandma Lillian when they were alive. In her teens my great Grandma Mary left Lithuania all by herself to come to America, and met her future husband on the boat over to Ellis Island; and from there, along with many other Lithuanians, they made their way to the south side of Chicago, to live near the old stockyards which are featured in Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel The Jungle. I recall as a boy conversations in Polish and Lithuanian going on during family visits to my grandparents in Chicago, not understanding a word of it. Hearing Herbert’s voice speaking in native tongue brings me back in touch with that old world.
The voice in Herbert's poem nourishes, even consoles, because of its composure in the face of the hardest truths of all - the irrationality and cruelty in the universe, and the oblivion in store for each of us, no guarantee of reward for good conduct, in fact the opposite likely happening. He doesn't preach idealism or utopianism or Progress of Man in some hyped mystic sense, or Afterlife, or escape into dreams; he hasn’t been infected by ideology. “Be courageous when the mind deceives you/ in the end, only this will count”. It seems in the last lines of the poem is concentrated all the suffering and fight of his life to remain sober and clear-headed. "your ancestors: Gilgamesh, Hector, Roland/ guards of the kingdom without limits/ and the city of ashes”. How Herbert says those last lines, with a roar out of a voice growing hoarse, are as if his wounds have been salted, or a knife has pierced his side, and he winces but doesn't buckle, maintaining his composure, denying the pain from becoming corrosive to human dignity.
It’s notable with the sense of resilience generated out of catastrophe, a beauty appearing even in the midst of horror, that Herbert's poem nears its end with “and the city of ashes”, and your Autumnal Fallout piece ends: "It was the 14th of October, 1962, and the Doomsday Clock was reading at 12 minutes before 12:00. As we made our way to school, with our book bags on our shoulders, we could hear the newly fallen leaves crunch underfoot, like the bones of ancient warriors, like the husks of derelict gods, and we were struck dumb by the wonderful stillness of the moment. The beauty of the flame-like foliage was a harbinger of the descent of actual flame; the gentle falling of the leaves was perhaps a prelude to the imminent vaporization of our bodies, and to the gentle descent of our ashes through the air."