Friday, November 27, 2009

Description Hall of Fame

The Description Hall of Fame welcomes Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. He joins Willa Cather, Colette, M.F.K Fisher and other masters of the art of description.

Our readers group will be talking about Herbert's collection of essays, "Still Life with a Bridle," in which he describes paintings that have moved and astonished him, among them, Torrentius's "Still Life with a Bridle." Herbert describes his first glimpse of the work: "How to describe this inner state? A suddenly awakened intense curiosity, sharp concentration with the senses alarmed, hope for an adventure and consent to be dazzled."

For the experience of surrendering to art, I like "consent to be dazzled" better than Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief."

Herbert is best on the background: "black, deep as a precipice and at the same time flat as a mirror, palpable and disappearing in perspectives of infinity. A transparent cover over an abyss."

Herbert is also very good on weather: "The sky was clear. The wind stopped. Faraway lights went on and off, and all of a sudden without warning, without a breeze or anticipation, a huge cloud the color of ash appeared, a cloud in the shape of a god torn apart.

Yet for all his descriptive power, Herbert in his poem, "I Would Like to Describe," wishes he could write without dramatic effects. (Comparing a cloud to a god torn apart is certainly a dramatic metaphor.)

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say—I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face

and anger
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
and this is the object

we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets

our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully


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