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Zbigniew Herbert

For those unfamiliar with Zbiginew Herbert, his collected poems have just come out in masterful translation by Alissa Valles. Herbert (1924-1998) was one of those battered sons of Poland who saw his country and people repeatedly swapped as the spoils of Hitler and Stalin. Unlike his most obvious analogue, Czeslaw Milosz, whose favorite lyric plaything was irony ("Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision / Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction"), Herbert took refuge in the safety of objects. Philosophically, classicially minded, he cultivated his own modernist metaphysics in a world of flowers, diamonds, forests, even stools. Cities took on human characteristics, ancient wise men like Marcus Aurelius were apostrophized for their radiant humanity just as Europe, outside Herbert's window, ticked-away its most inhumane hour. He also created a funny, peremptory alter ego, Mr. Cogito, who had opinions and thoughts on everything. Cogito was Herbert's Zelig through the ages of philosophy, art and history.

Well, now I'm rather mad at myself. I came across this poem of Herbert's late last night just as I was publishing the final installment of my exchange with Rebecca Goldstein. I wish I'd seen it before then.

"Mr Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza"

Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam was seized by a desire to reach God

in his attic while polishing lenses he suddenly pierced a veil and stood face to face

he spoke at length (and when he spoke his mind expanded and his soul also) he put questions on human nature

–God stroked his beard absently

he inquired into the first cause

–God looked off into infinity

he asked after the final cause

–God cracked his knuckles cleared his throat

when Spinoza fell silent God spake

–you're a good talker Baruch I like your geometrical Latin and the clarity of your syntax the symmetry of your proofs

but let us speak of Things Truly Great

–look at your hands scarred and shaking

–you ruin your eyes by sitting in the dark

–you eat poorly you dress badly

–buy a new house forgive Venetian mirrors for relfecing surfaces

–forgive flowers in the hiar the song sun by drunkards

–manage your income well like your friend Descartes

–be cunning like Erasmus

–dedicate a treatise to Louis Quatorze he won't read it anyway

–temper the rational fury it will topple thrones and blacken the stars

–think of a woman who will give you a child

–you see Baruch we speak of Great Things

–I want to be loved by the unlearned and fierce for they are the only ones who truly hunger after me

now the veil falls Spinoza is alone

he sees no golden cloud nor a light in the heights

he sees darkness

he hears a stair creak footsteps going down

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