Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More Herbert

Among the poems of Herbert I want to include here is this one, “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp” which has at least the minor virtue of irony, given the fact that I am “blogging” it; on the other hand, maybe that fact belies the “dark” of Herbert’s ending. Here’s the poem:


Truly my infidelity is great and hard to forgive
for I do not even remember the day or the hour
at which I abandoned you my childhood friends

first I address you humbly
pen with a wooden holder
painted or finely laquered

in a Jewish shop
— creaking steps a bell over the glass door —
I picked you out
in the shade of indolence
and before long you bore
on your body
my pensive toothmarks
traces of school’s angst

O silver nib
outlet of the critical mind
courier of consoling knowledge
— of the fact the earth is round
— of straight and parallel lines
in the shopkeeper’s box
you were a fish waiting forr me
amid a school of other fish
— I was amazed there were so many
objects ownerless and completely
mute —
forever mine
I put you piously in my mouth
and felt on my tongue
the long taste
of sorrel
and the moon

O ink
honorable Sir Encaustum
of a distinguished lineage
as the evening sky
slow to dry
and very patient
we turned you
into a Sargasso Sea
drowning blotting paper
hair flies and curses
in your wise depths
to mask the odor
of a gentle volcano
the call of the abyss

who remembers you now
my fond fellows
you disappeared quietly
behind time’s last cataract
who remembersyou gratefully
in an era of harebrain ballpoints
of arrogant objects
without grace
or past

if I speak of you
I’d like to speak
as if I were hanging an ex voto
on a shattered altar

Light of my childhood
blessed lamp

sometimes I come upon
your dishonored body
in a secondhand store

yet once you were
a shining allegory

spirit stubbornly battling
aganst gnostic demons
given over to the eye
transparently plain

at the bottom of your reservoir
kerosene — elixir of primeval forests
a wick’s slippery snake
with a head of flames
slim maidenlike glass
and a silvery tin shield
like Selene at full moon

your princesssy moods
O beautiful and cruel
hysterics of a prima donna
not sufficiently applauded

a cheerful aria
summer’s honey glow
above the glasss mouth
a fair braid of sunlight
and suddenly
dark basses
ravens and crows alight
invective and swearing
prophecies of destruction
a fury of smoke bombs

like a great playwright you knew the tides of passion
and the swamps of melancholy black towers of pride
blazing glow of fires rainbows the unleashed oceans

effortlessly you summoned out of nothingness
landscapes cities gone wild mirrored in water
at a sign from you the crazy prince of the island
and the balcony in Verona appeared obediently

I was devoted to you
O luminous initiation
lever of knowledge
under night’s hammers

and my other
flat head cast on the ceiling
looked down menacingly
as if from a box of angels
at the theater of the world

I thought then
I should save
from the flood

yes so it might go on living
and we inside it as in a shell

I have never believed in the spirit of history
a puffed-up monster with a murderous eye
a dialectical beast kept on a torturer’s leash

or in you — four horsemen of the Apocalypse
Huns of progress galloping across the steppes of heaven and earth
destroying on your own way everything honorable old and defenseless

I wasted years learning history’s simplistic workings
the monotonous procession and the unequal struggle
between the thugs at the head of addled crowds
and a handful of the righteous and reasonable

not much is left
not much at all

and compassion

lightly we leave the gardens of childhood the gardens of things
scattering manuscripts oil lamps dignity and pens on our flight
such is our deluded journey along the cliff side of nothingness

forgive me for my ingratitude O pen with your archaic nib
and you inkwell — you still contained so many good ideas
forgive me oil lamp — you die out like a deserted campsite

I paid for my betrayal
but then I didn’t know
you were gone forever

and that it would be

Sunday, May 20, 2007


by Zbigniew Herbert

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz

I have been reading The Collected Poems, 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert. Ed. and tr. by Alissa Valles, from Ecco Press. I have been reading Herbert for several years now, and this is a beautiful volume. Recently the review article below appeared in Poetry: it suggests that the translator and publisher ran an end-run around the poets who have been translating Herbert for the past several decades, and that in some respects Valles was not well-suited to the task of a collected poems. I am no scholar of Polish literature, but I will say that the great majority of these poems have been brought over into a simple and colloquial English that leaves me appreciative of Herbert's genius, his ferocious insistence on a stoical moral stance toward the world, his sardonic wit, his ability to see clear through to the essence of a human situation.

Here is the link to Michael Hofmann's review essay:


And here is an essay by Charles Simic on Herbert from the New York Review of Books that includes a number of Herbert poems:


And here are two sites with poems, information, interviews and commentaries on this remarkable poet. In the coming days I may type a couple of my favorites from the Collected Poems here as well.



Thursday, May 03, 2007

Some time ago I wrote this short essay explicating what must be one of the most incisive critiques of patriarchal power ever offered in a single poem, Linda McCarriston's "Le Coursier de Jeanne D’Arc," from her second book, EVA-MARY, nominated for the National Book Award in 1993. I reprint the poem here, followed by my commentary.

La Coursier De Jeanne d'Arc

You know that they burned her horse
before her. Though it is not recorded,
you know that they burned her Percheron
first, before her eyes, because you

know that story, so old that story,
the routine story, carried to its
extreme, of the cruelty that can make
of what a woman hears a silence,

that can make of what a woman sees
a lie. She had no son for them to burn,
for them to take from her in the world
not of her making and put to its pyre,

so they layered a greater one in front of
where she was staked to her own--
as you have seen her pictured sometimes,
her eyes raised to the sky. But they were

not raised. This is yet one of their lies.
They were not closed. Though her hands
were bound behind her, and her feet were
bound deep in what would become fire,

she watched. Of greenwood stakes
head-high and thicker than a man's waist
they laced the narrow corral that would not
burn until flesh had burned, until

bone was burning, and laid it thick
with tinder--fatted wicks and sulphur,
kindling and logs--and ran a ramp
up to its height from where the gray horse

waited, his dapples making of his flesh
a living metal, layers of life
through which the light shone out
in places as it seems to through the flesh

of certain fish, a light she knew
as purest, coming, like that, from within.
Not flinching, not praying, she looked
the last time on the body she knew

better than the flesh of any man, or child,
or woman, having long since left the lap
of her mother--the chest with its
perfect plates of muscle, the neck

with its perfect, prow-like curve,
the hindquarters'--pistons--powerful cleft
pennoned with the silk of his tail.
Having ridden as they did together

--those places, that hard, that long--
their eyes found easiest that day
the way to each other, their bodies
wedded in a sacrament unmediated

by man. With fire they drove him
up the ramp and off into the pyre
and tossed the flame in with him.
This was the last chance they gave her

to recant her world, in which their power
came not from God. Unmoved, the Men
of God began watching him burn, and better,
watching her watch him burn, hearing

the long mad godlike trumpet of his terror,
his crashing in the wood, the groan
of stakes that held, the silverblack hide,
the pricked ears catching first

like driest bark, and the eyes.
and she knew, by this agony, that she
might choose to live still, if she would
but make her sign on the parchment

they would lay before her, which now
would include this new truth: that it
did not happen, this death in the circle,
the rearing, plunging, raging, the splendid

armour-colored head raised one last time
above the flames before they took him
--like any game untended on the spit--into
their yellow-green, their blackening red.

Richard Hoffman

"Le Coursier de Jeanne D’Arc" by Linda McCarriston is a poem that asks where the truth lies, whether it lies in what we can trust ourselves to know or in the lies that abusive power foists on us to obfuscate, distract and reassure.

It is a poem of direct address. It implicitly asks the reader to recall what he or she knows of cruelty and tyranny, of the behavior of what Carol Bly has called “The Bully Who Rules the World,” thus it begins,

You know that they burned her horse
before her. Though it is not recorded,
you know

already opposing real knowledge, shared between speaker and reader and based on experience, with the official record. As the poem proceeds, McCarriston continues to assay the story, biting down on the shiny hard coin of the historical record and finding a suspicious absence of teethmarks:

But they were

not raised. This is yet one of their lies.

To picture her lifting her eyes to heaven is to, after the fact, conscript her into an allegiance with the god these tyrants call their own. Jeanne D’Arc watches instead, meeting the eyes of her horse, creature to creature, suffused with the earthly glory of strength and beauty:

the gray horse

waited, his dapples making of his flesh
a living metal, layers of life
through which the light shone out
in places as it seems to through the flesh

of certain fish, a light she knew
as purest, coming, like that, from within.

The cruelty in this poem does not take place off-stage. It is meant to awaken outrage. We are meant to see this event, to “picture” it in all its horror. While the poem is a poem of ideas, asking us to question a history written by torturers, that history must be truly grasped first before its significance can be understood.

To the men who have built such an ingenious and literally infernal machine of greenwood and ramps and brands, the horse is not a creature at all merely a kind of leverage they have, or hope they have, over Jeanne D’Arc. We know, again because we are experienced in a world in which religion is sanction for cruel tyranny, that had she had a son,

She had no son for them to burn,
for them to take from her in the world
not of her making and put to its pyre

he would not be seen as human either, merely as similar leverage. Think of Abraham and Isaac, Agamemnon and Iphigenia.

Where does such sadistic power come from? How does it legitimize itself? How does it provide for its own continuance? These are questions the poem takes up and asks us to answer as it describes

the routine story, carried to its
extreme, of the cruelty that can make
of what a woman hears a silence,

that can make of what a woman sees
a lie.

The ultimate legitimacy, the sanction of the Almighty, is claimed (as always) by sadists called “Men/ of God”, but refused to them by Jeanne D’Arc. This is ultimately, her crime — that she does not acknowledge their ideology as sacred. She knows power, real power, and its beauty and integrity, in the person of her beloved Percheron, sounding in the flames “the long mad godlike trumpet of his terror,” and she can never consent to define power as merely the power to coerce. Nor can she assent to a demeaned definition of goodness that is mere obedience.

Finally, we see (though once again if we stop and consider we already know) that any recantation now must deny the heinous and barbaric act we are witnessing in the poem, because truly understanding it — “state sponsored terrorism” if you will — undermines their false claim of legitimacy. Jeanne D’Arc’s recanting would gainsay what the poem depicts so clearly: that this power derives from neither nature nor justice nor deity but from cowardice, sadism and evil.

So this is a poem about Jeanne D’Arc. Or about Antigone before Creon. Or perhaps about a Chinese student standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square. Or about Nelson Mandela choosing to remain in prison rather than cave in. Or about Nathan Hale, or Martin Luther King, or Muhammad Ali, or Mahatma Gandhi refusing to obey despotic power.

But it is not only about standing fast. It is about seeing clearly and knowing fully “the routine story” of repression, of tyranny and the cowardly manner with which it wields power. It involves us, our individual experiences of cruelty and injustice, in that seeing and knowing. It asks us to refuse the lies that tyrants everywhere set down and call history.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Reprinted from an essay by Neal Towart, found at


May Day Connections

May Day as a modern working class celebration and commemoration began from the 1886 events in Chicago where workers were demonstrating for an eight hour day. But the day already had special significance for working people before then.

PreIndustrial May Day and Working People

As a working peoples celebration its origins go back much further, with connections to Ancient Roman rituals. In pagan Europe it was a festive holy day celebrating the first spring planting. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane or the day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun.

In the 1700s the Churches banned the pagan rituals, just as bosses today want workers to forget any traditions of solidarity and celebration of workers rights, but many peasants continued the tradition. Church and state were the butt of many jokes at May Day celebrations, and this certainly did not endear the craft guilds and others, who organised celebrations, to the authorities.

The Goddess of the Hunt, Diana, and the God Herne led parades. Later, with a move to a more agrarian society, Diana became a fertility goddess, and Herne became Robin Goodfellow, a predecessor to Robin Hood. This also indicated a shift in the division of labour and perhaps to a shift in power relations, with Robin remaining a symbol of the hunter from the woods, while Diana changed from being a hunter to a symbol of the fertility of the fields.

May Day was popular through to the nineteenth century, with the form of the celebration changing. The two most popular feast days for Medieval craft guilds were the Feast of St. John, or the Summer Solstice and Mayday.

The Diana myth was transformed into the Queen of May, who was elected from the eligible young women of the village to rule the crops until harvest. Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising of the phallic Maypole, around which the young single men and women of the village would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their ( hoped for) new love.

Robin Goodfellow, or the Green Man who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday was a celebration of the common people, and Robin would be the King/Priest/Fool for a day. Priests and Lords were the butt of many jokes, and the Green Man and his supporters; mummers would make jokes and poke fun of the local authorities.

Industrial era May Day

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday developed from the US workers struggle for the eight hour day in 1886. The working class movement in the USA began campaigning for an eight hour day in the 1860s, following the Civil War. The historic strike of May 1st, 1886 was a culmination of a concerted struggle. Chicago was the major industrial centre of the USA. Police attacked striking workers from the McCormack Harvester Co., killing six.

On May 4th at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police's own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in the 19th century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of Illinois.

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's Association (the First International) declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag became the symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers rights.