polish poetry

3 posts

“Apollo and Marsyas” by Zbigniew Herbert

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
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
and composed of a single vowel

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
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete

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


Slaying the “Muse of Sluggishness”

The early risers. It’s a club that just as soon not meet, because what’s best about each morning is solitude—when a writer sends his convocation to the Muses. While the house still sleeps, I mean. And only the clock’s ticks can be heard. Or the dog’s breathing. Or the heat radiator’s pings.

Fitting music for writing, the early hours. One can’t help but believe that not only the household sleeps, but the world, for part of the magic of writing in the dark before dawn is the deliberate deception that you are the only one awake in the world. A childish delusion, then. Indoor light reflects your face in the dark window pane, and taking the dog outside reveals only a world with birds on the verge, raccoons on the move, and, weather depending, peepers singing (warm world) and owls whooing (cold, mysterious world). 

We are the perfect audience for Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s “The Early Hours,” a poem as much about writing as not writing (or, how writing is often hidden in the act of not yet writing). Paradoxical? Here’s the poem:


“The Early Hours”

Adam Zagajewski


The early hours of morning: you still aren’t writing

(rather, you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.

Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if

it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,


just as earlier, in childhood, on vacation, when a colored

map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map

promising so much, deep ponds in the forest

like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning in

           sharp grass;


or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,

but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,

their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed

(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval



compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;

the early hours of morning, silence

                                                               —you still aren’t writing,

you still understand so much.

                                                 Joy is close.

A muse of sluggishness? I missed him (and am convinced it’s a “him”) in Greek mythology studies but understand his presence, once announced. Then, the two metaphors, one about a love of maps formed in childhood, the other about that odd moment before sleep, the one where “no dreams have appeared,/but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world.”

Perhaps the biggest pay-off to the poem is how it refuses to acknowledge so-called “writer’s block.” Pre-writing, after all, requires NOT writing. Thinking. Dreaming. Creating and recreating the groundwork for poetry. Until, you can’t help but admit, “Joy is close.”

And that, for this poem’s particular trajectory, is the perfect closing.

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