His Face in the Mirror: The Collected Poems 1956–1998
Zbigniew Herbert, edited and translated by Alissa Valles, with additional translations by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott
Ecco Press, $13.95 (cloth)

Like his compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wislawa Szymborska, both recent recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Zbigniew Herbert is no stranger to English-speaking readers of poetry. Since the appearance in 1968 of a first Selected Poems, translated by Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, Herbert’s books in English have included four individual volumes of verse, another Selected Poems, and three books of essays, all but one translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter. Herbert’s work has likewise appeared alongside that of other postwar modernists in landmark anthologies, such as Charles Simic and Mark Strand’s 1976 Another Republic and Daniel Weissbort’s 1991 The Poetry of Survival, and it has been published widely in magazines like Poetry and the New Yorker. Herbert has been celebrated as “a conscience and spokesman for the Polish nation” (Robert Hass), “a moral authority” (A. Alvarez), and “a complete poet” (Marius Kociejowski). By and large, his ironic, erudite, parabolic verse, with its allegorical insistence on historical recurrence and its self-conscious sublimation of private experience to public idea, continues to define our imagination of Polish poetry.

This was already the case well over twenty years ago, when readers in the United States and Britain could still believe that only governments on the other side of the Iron Curtain would eavesdrop on telephone calls, censor the media, flout international law, or torture political prisoners. Back then, the consensus also seemed to be that capitalist democracy, despite its attendant freedoms, leached the relevance from intellectual and artistic work. Consequently, many writers in the West came to look with curiosity, if not envy, toward their counterparts, who were presumed to have it better spiritually and morally. True, the Eastern European poets demonstrated clarity of voice and vision in the face of calamity and decrepitude. And in the ’60s, when their work first started to appear in English, readers here were justifiably excited, not only because they now had access to otherwise barricaded realities, but because this newly translated work—with its lucid perspectives and political relevance—marked a welcome reinvigoration of the lyric.

Nevertheless, interest in Eastern European poetry was increasingly subordinated to myths about its makers’ lives and characters. Their work came to be romanticized as the product of spiritual, moral, or intellectual nobility in the face of a unique and unimaginable horror that Western readers could only wonder at. The English critic Al Alvarez, who had been an early champion of these poets, expressed this tendency especially glibly in a 1988 review of Miłosz’s Collected Poems. There he related how, on the first day of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Miłosz had had to dodge gunfire on the way to a friend’s house, the Faber & Faber edition of T. S. Eliot’s Collected Poems (“What else?”) in his hand. Alvarez described the experience as both “a typical day in the life of Central European man” and “a very Polish situation: bullets and modernism, the polyglot in the potato field, ashes and diamonds.” In an acerbic response, Miłosz took Alvarez to task for pigeonholing him: “You may guess my uneasiness when I saw the long evolution of my poetic craft encapsuled by Mr. Alvarez in the word ‘witness,’ which for him is perhaps a praise, but for me is not.”

Even now, a generation after the imposition of martial law and almost four years after Poland’s accession to the European Union, readers, critics, and editors here remain riveted by a Romantic illusion reluctant to engage Polish poetry as art rather than as something to be venerated, and content to keep hooting the same praises sung during the Cold War at the same three or four poets, and for the same reasons. This helps explain the declaration by English translator and poet Michael Hofmann, in the May issue of Poetry, that Zbigniew Herbert is “as near to sacred to [him] as anything in or out of poetry is.” What’s troubling here is not that Hofmann voices what so many admirers of Herbert think anyway—that the poet’s works are like scripture and therefore untouchable—but that the consequences of his faith-based criticism are so damaging. As with scripture, there are those for whom any new translation, and certainly one that modifies or challenges critical orthodoxy, must be regarded as blasphemy. It does not matter for Hofmann that he cannot read Herbert’s poems in Polish and therefore must transpose the sacrality of the original onto an already existing translation. In his view, Alissa Valles, the primary translator and editor of The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, should, like a 21st-century William Tyndale, be burned at the stake.

Along with many readers of Herbert, I was surprised to learn that The Collected Poems had been translated by Valles, and not by John and Bogdana Carpenter, who have been his primary stewards in English since the ’70s. The one good thing about Hofmann’s review is that they have at last been appreciated after years of being criticized for failing to capture Herbert’s stylized language. But Hofmann’s view that great foreign poets ought to have only one translator is befuddling; Valles’s contribution does nothing to diminish the Carpenters’ admirable achievement. One need only look to the concurrently excellent translations of HÖlderlin provided by Michael Hamburger, Christopher Middleton, and Richard Sieburth, not to mention the nearly contemporary versions of Petrarch we’ve inherited from Spenser, Wyatt, and Shakespeare, or even the variants of Kafka furnished by the Muirs and Hofmann himself. Surely Herbert’s greatness is not so unique as to exempt him from multiple interpretations.

That said, it is a shame that The Collected Poems does not include the Carpenters’ translations of Mr. Cogito (1974) and Report from the Besieged City (1985). Those two books have certainly earned their place in the subcanon of Polish literature in English, and it may be difficult to imagine them differently. In the Carpenters’ translations, the meaning of Herbert’s language is privileged over its music. Their Herbert tends to be modest, austere, consistent in tone and quality, and occasionally turgid or wordy. But turning from the Carpenters’ versions to Herbert’s originals, I am almost always surprised by how lyrical, variable, and rhythmically and linguistically playful his poems can be, especially his early work. Valles is consistently responsive to this phonic dimension of his poetry. In capturing the suppleness and wit of Herbert’s language, her approach is to condense information into smoother, tauter lines and interpret more freely. Occasionally her diction is too graceful for Herbert, whose voice is tougher and rather sinewy. But if the Carpenters’ translations responded to that quality by emphasizing a plain-spoken, philosophical Herbert, Valles’s attention to the phonic texture of his work allows us to glimpse a Herbert who is first and foremost a poet, something she does extremely well throughout the entire collection.

The difference between these sensibilities might best be described with reference to the first poem in Herbert’s best-known single collection, Mr. Cogito. The Carpenters’ translation, “Mr. Cogito Looks at His Face in the Mirror,” is frugal in a way that the original is not. In Polish, the poem’s first two stanzas play with the syllabics and caesura of the traditional Polish hexameter line, and most native readers would immediately recognize, or at least sense, echoes of canonical poems like Jan Kochanowski’s Laments and Adam Mickiewicz’s Romantic epic Pan Tadeusz. For readers of English, it may not be necessary to preserve such prosodic elements, although it can be done to great effect, as Seamus Heaney and Stanislaw Baranczak demonstrated with their 1996 version of Kochanowski’s work. The Carpenters, having recognized the problem, dispense with it pragmatically here in plain free verse:

Who wrote our faces certainly chicken
marking its ‘o’ with a calligraphic pen
but who gave me the double chin
which glutton when all my soul
yearned for asceticism why are the eyes
set so close after all it was he not me
who strained his eyes in the underbrush
for the invasion of the Venedas
ears protruding too far two shells of skin
probably a legacy from an ancestor who
caught the echo
of a rumbling procession of mammoths
over the steppe

the forehead not too high very few
—women gold earth don’t let yourself
be knocked from the horse
the prince thought for them and wind
carried them on the roads
they tore at walls with their fingers
and suddenly with a great cry
fell into emptiness in order to return in

Valles’s version of the same poem, which she titles “Mr. Cogito Studies His Face in the Mirror,” is elegant by comparison, alluding in its loose pentameter to the prosody of the original. Here are the same two stanzas:

Who wrote our faces chicken pox for
marking its o’s with a calligraphic pen
but who bestowed on me my double chin
what glutton was it when my whole soul
yearned for austerity why are my eyes
set so closely together it was him not me
waiting in the scrub for the Vened
the ears that protrude two fleshy
no doubt left me by an ancestor who
strained for an echo
of the thunderous march of mammoths
across the steppes

the forehead not too high it doesn’t
think very much
—women gold land don’t get knocked
off your horse
a prince did their thinking for them and
a wind bore them along
they tore at walls with their bare fingers
and with a sudden cry
fell into the void only to return in me

In Herbert’s poem, the “o” plays on the first letter in ospa, the Polish word for pox, while suggesting the image of pockmarks; the Polish original is ambiguously singular and plural. The Carpenters may have chosen the singular, preserving the original word order, to allude to the wordplay (the English “o” then being the “o” in pox), but it is an allusion that an unprepared reader would likely miss, and the line ends up being obscure. Valles opts for a more fluid couplet closer to the original’s formal rhythm, and the image of the “o’s,” as multiple pockmarks, is more accessible. But she slackens the torque of the syntax, and to this ear at least her “for sure,” while indeed catching the informal tone of the original, carries unfortunate echoes of a mid-’80s Californian slang.

Here as elsewhere, Valles’s opening lines may sound too stylized for those accustomed to the Carpenters’ version, but a glance at Herbert’s spirited original, with its alliterative stammering and internal rhymes, shows that the Carpenters’ rendering is emphatically plain. Here, too, Valles can be read as recuperating Herbert’s delight in melos, fashioning, for instance, a billowy, expressive “my whole soul / yearned” or choosing the imprecise anapest “austerity” over the Carpenters’ correct but rhythmically unwieldy “asceticism.” Still, Valles’s acoustic interest does sometimes lead to a loss of semantic precision. Her “waiting in the scrub for the Vened invasion,” while tauter and mellifluous, dilutes the reader’s access to the image. On the other hand, the Carpenters’ literal rendering “who strained his eyes in the underbrush for the invasion of the Venedas” clarifies the genetic relationship between the speaker and his distant ancestor on the lookout for invading Slavs (the Venedai, in Ptolemy’s nomenclature), but it awkwardly repeats the word “eyes” and distends the line and the stanza.

The “stony speech” and “hoarse syllables” associated with the Herbert we’ve had, have largely been an effect of the Carpenters’ translations. Valles’s flexibility and imagination allow her to bring to light Herbert’s own versatility. The value of this Collected Poems is that English-language readers now have access to a far more complex Zbigniew Herbert, one who is as much a maker of art as a speaker of truths or a witness to tragedy. This is due not only to Valles’s highly welcome acoustic sensitivity, but obviously to the compilation itself, which allows us for the first time to reconstruct the evolution of Herbert’s own poetic craft, from his début in 1956 to his death in 1998. One book that compelled me to revise my understanding of Herbert is Inscription (1969). It is his riskiest, fluctuating in poetic idiom from the richly descriptive to the parabolic to the purely lyrical across a range of forms, and seems to mark a period of retreat and questioning, a shift in Herbert’s “inner axis.” Here, for instance, is the first stanza of the dramatic poem “Prologue,” translated beautifully by Valles:

To whom do I play? Closed shutters
and doorknobs gleaming haughtily
Bassoons of rain—mournful gutters
and the rats that dance amid debris

The poem recalls Miłosz’s 1936 poem “The Song,” but there are echoes throughout the book of dialogue, and possibly altercation, with other poets—Tadeusz RÚewicz, Jerzy Ficowski—who have had different takes on the structures and voices in Polish language and society. Also to be understood as part of Herbert’s development as a poet, unfortunately, are his last two books Rovigo (1992) and Epilogue to a Storm (1998), which demonstrate a free fall in substance at the end of his career. Readers who insist on Herbert’s “nobility,” “dignity,” and “near-sacredness” will no doubt want to ignore these later poems, which are generally mediocre and solipsistic, and often trite, such as his meditation on Princess Diana’s legs (“Diana”), or mean-spirited, like the poem “Khodasevich,” an oblique attack on Miłosz. There, in an astonishingly grotesque Polish rendered too generously by Valles, Herbert writes:

Khodasevich wrote poems some
some bad the latter may find favor as
they have everything you want—
pathos a lyrical turn the experience of
sometimes a great flame rises from one
of them
but over many hangs the spirit of the

Readers of The Collected Poems will no doubt be dismayed to find that this assessment holds for Herbert’s own work. Thinking readers, however, will appreciate this opportunity to discover Herbert anew, calling into question the shibboleths that have too long defined our understanding of poetry from the so-called Other Europe.