polish poetry

2 posts

“Apollo and Marsyas”: Zbigniew Herbert Redux

herbert book

After reading Zbigniew Herbert’s small book Mr. Cogito, I was hungry for more. On the web, I found this disturbingly beautiful (and beautifully disturbing) Herbert poem about a Greek myth and wanted to share it. This translation comes from Alissa Valles in 2007. The good news? It led me to The Collected Poems? Riches lead to riches.

Apollo and Marsyas< The real duel of Apollo with Marsyas (absolute ear versus immense range) takes place in the evening when as we already know the judges have awarded victory to the god bound tight to a tree meticulously stripped of his skin Marsyas howls before the howl reaches his tall ears he reposes in the shadow of that howl shaken by a shudder of disgust Apollo is cleaning his instrument only seemingly is the voice of Marsyas monotonous and composed of a single vowel A in reality Marsyas relates the inexhaustible wealth of his body bald mountains of liver white ravines of aliment rustling forests of lung sweet hillocks of muscle joints bile blood and shudders the wintry wind of bone over the salt of memory shaken by a shudder of disgust Apollo is cleaning his instrument now to the chorus is joined the backbone of Marsyas in principle the same A only deeper with the addition of rust this is already beyond the endurance of the god with nerves of artificial fibre along a gravel path hedged with box the victor departs wondering whether out of Marsyas' howling there will not some day arise a new kind of art—let us say—concrete suddenly at his feet falls a petrified nightingale

he looks back
and sees
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
is white


Dignity for the Aging, the Sick, the Dead


My wife and I are of such an age where we are rapidly losing friends and family members who grew up in the generation before us. Likewise, we spend much time visiting members of this generation in declining health, some in assisted living, some in nursing homes, some in hospitals.

It is a sad truth of life that proud and private people have no choice but to surrender their pride and their privacy once they are in some way debilitated and in need of full-time medical attention. Sometimes the professional help is just that–professional, caring, wonderful. And other times, sadly, it’s just a job.

As my last send-off post to Zbigniew Herbert, whose Collected Poems 1956-1998 (translator Alissa Valles) I finished today, I’ll share a tender poem he wrote on just that subject. It is called “Shame,” and in it, Herbert links his love for the ancient Greeks (Antigone) with the basic humanity and respect for the body she symbolizes:



When I was very ill shame abandoned me
willingly I bared for alien hands surrendered to alien eyes
the poor mystery of my body

They invaded me brutally increasing the humiliation

My professor of forensic medicine the old Mancewicz
fishing a suicide’s remains from a pool of formaldehyde
bent over him as if he wished to ask him for his pardon
then with a deft movement he opened the proud thorax
the basilica of the breath fell silent

delicately almost tenderly

So–faithful to the dead respectful of ash–I understand
the wrath of the Greek princess her stubborn resistance
she was right–a brother deserved a dignified burial

a shroud of earth carefully drawn
over the eyes