"Zbigniew Herbert" by Tony Calendrillo


Phil Boiarski on Zbigniew Herbert

I came across the work of Zbigniew Herbert when I was in my 30's and was stunned by how concrete he could make abstract ideas. His work struck me as both brainy and philosophical and at the same time, earthy and real. I immediately read every book I could find and took comfort in his strength. He managed to embody something indomitable in the face of overwhelming pettiness and under a storm of banal evil. Whenever I find myself disheartened by war, by the triumphs of the Mammon worshippers and the corpses in suits that run the world, I find solace in the works of Zbigniew Herbert, a poet who, at least for me, transcends the Polish culture and even European intellectualism and speaks to all of humanity.

Linda Nemec Foster: Zbigniew Herbert in My Life

I first read the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert in the late 1970's when I was in graduate school studying for my MFA in creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont. As part of the degree requirement, students had to teach a graduate level course to their fellow students and faculty members. My master's thesis was on the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and my first thought was to teach a class on a subject I really knew well--Rilke. But my faculty adviser, Stephen Dobyns, told me that was "the easy way out." When Dobyns discovered that I was of Polish heritage, he told me to teach a class on what he considered to be the best poetry being written on the planet: contemporary Polish poetry. So I immersed myself in reading all the Polish poetry in translation I could get my hands on and decided to concentrate on teaching Milosz, Rozewicz, and Herbert for my class. The experience was a touchstone for my graduate work and my poetry. Although Milosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year (1980), my favorite was always Herbert. Herbert--with his historical irony and precarious equilibrium that (as Milosz has stated) "endows the patterns of civilization with meanings, in spite of all its horrors." Herbert's poem, "Apollo and Marsyas," is the perfect example of this precarious balance. In 2000 I visited Warsaw for the first time. There, at the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, I saw a remarkable exhibition devoted to Zbigniew Herbert's life and work, his poems and critical writings. In a glass case--inches from my hands--I saw first drafts of some of Herbert's more famous poems. In his own handwriting, there was "Apollo and Marsyas." Right before my eyes. I was so overwhelmed, it literally took my breath away.

 

 

Phil Boiarski
Homage to Mr. Cogito

He has drunk the driest water.
This should not matter but it does.
A raven’s voice mocks our sorrow.

Words flow as if from a crow quill
writing on flesh, the spell
sinking deep beneath the surface.

Nothing is of consequence.
Every single word is freighted,
like a white sail on a black ocean.

Each breath descends inside a sigh.
Touchstones in a line — thoughts
in a long list of the unknowable.

Survival, the cynic’s comfort,
like the dark heart of the root wood,
suspends trunk, limb, branch, leaves, sky.

 

 

Ed Budzilowicz

The Heretic

They put him into the room to die.
Before they closed the door,
he memorized the map
of water damage,
the fissures in the wall,
and the buckling floor.
Then, only darkness -- not yet
"the sound his own breathing,"
not yet silence.

He could cry out,
summoning the dogs of hell
to lovingly divide
him, flesh from bone.
No-- he would remain whole,
the agony imploding within,
becoming heavier than darkness
like a stone dropped in a well.

All night he stood there,
slowly turning in the dark.
Then came a crack of light,
like a slender wand
waiting to be plucked.
He would refuse it,
as he had their bread.

And when it dimmed
and disappeared,
he knew: Out there
is only starlight,
all lit up by a star.


Today’s Sermon is on the Science of Behaviorism

They who sip ether
are tired, while we
are free to curse gray skies

We ought to be more patient
with the rain
that taps our shoulder

we never dissolve
like old newspaper in the street
there's a clue

Relax is the message
innuendo of blue sky, fragrance
passed thru the body in sleep

Under these summer trees
pulsing with neon
I lay down the law
in one puff of a Pall Mall

The new order of things?
Relax, eternity can wait
let it begin in snow
before warm fires.

 

 

Victor Contoski

OUT ESCALATOR
— for Zbigniew Herbert

The escalator takes you
neither down nor up
but out
right through the wall
and out of the building
suspending you in your nap
between the April grass
and the blue blue sky.

You take deep breaths
breathing the grass and the sky
into your bones
into your molecules.

Someone who could be yourself
sings softly I can’t help it
if I’m still in love with you.

 

 

Linda Nemec Foster
A Man Praying in a Field

He could be dead, this man praying in the open
field between Warsaw and Poznan. He doesn't
merely kneel, but lies down and places his
whole body against the body of the earth: as if
he's listening for some small breath to match his
own. This is how people must have prayed
to their gods before the idea of God forced them
into small country churches and ornate urban
cathedrals. Before the invention of pulpit and
incense and the creation of man on a ceiling
in Rome. Here there is only the hard earth and
a man lying down to pray to it. He wears a dark
suit, black shoes, his hands open in supplication.
You cannot see his face, hidden as it is by
the coarse wild grass he worships. Soon dusk
will approach the man and call his name. Only then
will he rise from his prayer as if startled from sleep.
Barely remembering who he is, he walks away--
each foot lightly touching the ground.

(This piece was first published in Witness, vol. XXI, 2007)


After the Thunderstorm: For Zbigniew Herbert

After the thunderstorm, your city is filled with a glaring sun
and devastating blue sky. After the thunderstorm, no more gray
clouds: only old men with talking parrots entertaining
the tourists. After the thunderstorm, Polish percussion groups
play American music: vibes, drums, and xylophones
from Lublin perform West Side Story. After the thunderstorm,
buildings are rebuilt according to the original medieval plan
and people return to the city to inhabit them again: to live,
breathe, love, hate, die. After the thunderstorm, we eat special
noodles cooked with chipped beef and fresh vegetables.
We drink iced water and strong beer. We're given an exorbitant
tab for the meal, but pay without complaint. After the thunderstorm,
we don't mind. After the thunderstorm, we don't care about history
or consequence. Only about love: who has it and who doesn't.
After the thunderstorm, we marvel every day at the rising of the sun,
the clarity of the moon, the distant brilliance of the stars.
After the thunderstorm, we keep looking at our hands to see
if we're still alive. And, yes, by the most smallest of miracles,
we are. We are.

 

 

John Guzlowski
Polish Poets

They have stood
At the end of time

And heard the wind
Move the snow

Hard and soft
Soft and hard

And they all know
The true thing

There are voices
In the wind

There are voices
In the snow

These poets know
Poetry’s only a bit of wood

But the shore
Is a long way off

 

 

Leonard Kress
Beginning With Lines From Zbigniew Herbert

(Anonymous Church Mural, Fishtown, Raising the Cross)

The painting shows the artisans
Doing what they do best.
Their medieval tools
Laid out neatly on the sand:
Ropes, nails, a stone for sharpening.
Craftsmen proud of their guild
Emblems and halls, faces
Keen with feast day pageantry.

Not hirelings or day laborers
Or shirtless renegade roofers,
Bears and long hair annealing
In the foul pitch of their trade.
Not wall-scrapers or helpers harrowing
The sewer line. And not
The day-dead sitters in battered vans
With six-packs and rattly speakers.

But Masters, licensed and certified,
Contractors, Union men
With several kids and a wife
Who keeps the books. Their work
Is guaranteed. Slow, methodical
After early heart attacks,
They leave the demolition
And the hauling to sons
And splash on aftershave to estimate.

They are doing what they do best,
Their tools arranged neatly
On the ground. Imagine them donning
Feathers and satin on New Years,
Or at the yard picking out
The pressure-treated four-by-fours.

They are carpenters too,
And sing on Good Friday,
Sweet the wood, Sweet the nails,
Sweet the weight it bears.

Note: I first came across these lines from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert in book by the great British poet and critic, Donald Davie, Slavic Excursions : Essays on Russian and Polish Literature. I had been to Poland many times already—most recently during the time of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and I was living in a decaying (partially gentrified since then) neighborhood of Philadelphia, and even though I was walking distance from twin-spired Gothic churches built to remind Polish immigrants of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Krakow, and even though I could engage in conversations with former members of the Armia Krajowa and as well as Partisans in Sabina’s Cafeteria, and even though I could get as weepy-eyed and sentimental as the other Poles at Donna’s Little Warsaw Tap when Bobby Vinton sang, Moja droga, jak sie kocham, or Eddy Blazonczyk’s band played the Mountaineer Polka on the jukebox, I was having trouble relating all this to the unrelenting moral and lyrical authority I encountered in the poetry of Herbert. I was being driven crazy (my own experience limited to protest against atrocities in Vietnam and living in Poland as Martial Law settled in) by the conjunction of barbarism and high art. I felt that there was simply no way of getting past the terrible fact that torturers sometimes also love Beethoven; they sometimes even perform his works as well as they perform torture. And, that out of that suffering and indifferent cruelty, as Herbert makes clear in his great poem, Apollo and Marsyas, comes much of the art of the 20th century, “a new kind / of art.” But this poem also comes out of another theme that I find particularly compelling in Herbert’s work—his powerful drive to avoid the self-congratulatory tone that inevitably accompanies writing about human suffering, and that too often seeks to allow the writer to bask in its terrible afterglow—like Apollo kicking back, cleaning his instrument, and counting the grants and awards. I don’t think that Herbert would be so banal as to ask the poet to imagine the torturer (the God Apollo) within himself, but that is part of what I was after, here.

 

Stephen Lewandowski
Chip, Block

A small fragment semi-detached
from the library waited patiently
on the sunlit portico for
the library’s massive doors
to re-open to the morning.
It slowly classified the pillars:
doric column & capital
and the steps: Onondaga limestone.
It scrutinized dressing marks
of the steam drill and hand work
with a hammer preserved
as scores and dimples.
Sunlight caused fossils to emerge
from steps, floor and lintel
as whole reefs of horn coral.
In time the librarian appeared,
unlocked one side of the door,
then motioned to wait
“one moment please,”
while she unfastened another lock, then
swung the heavy doors back into the dark.
The fragment was anxious to
re-attach electronically
with several other libraries from
around the world who had begun
writing a renga* together.


*A formal Japanese poem created
by multiple authors each writing a haiku
linked to the former and the next.

 

Joseph Lisowski
A REPLY TO HERBERT'S "HOME"

"A square of empty space"
is what I breathe.
And wait.
For nothing
to take wing.

My childhood
of Pittsburgh alleys
a raw scent
fully inhaled.
Sumac flowering,
held

as I exhale
the leaf
the branch
the dirt
beneath.

This is how I live.

How can I not
not telescope childhood,
home?


The Envoy of Mr. Cogito (is Enkidu)

worn by friendship
and good intention

exhausted he
no longer
repeats
old incantations
no longer
looks
in a mirror
finds that dark
boundary

where Gilgamesh
he knows
will only
mourn
seven days.


A ballad that we do not perish

an angel of wind
carried over sea
billows my sail

a decade
of salty dance
whispers
of a heavenly
death
dreams
that swirl
like sand.

I stipulate
this:
we do
we do not
we do not perish.

 

 

John Surowiecki
The Giant, Aegaeon

and the empire like all empires
seemed eternal
—Zbigniew Herbert

His head is the size of fifty heads,
his arms have the strength of a hundred arms.

He lives in a basement apartment and works
in the cellar of a liquor store retrieving
cold perspiring kegs and stacking cases

among cardboard women dressed as pirates
and leprechauns and Christmas elves.

At lunch, he walks to the park and sits half in
and half out of a linden’s half-shade, watching

the leaves spin. As a young man he saw horses
lowered into the Wieliczka mine and he wept
knowing they would never see the sun again.

In the cathedral dug out of salt, he was usher
and advisor: on the surface there was only catastrophe.

During the great war even sulfurous air was sweet
to an underground man like himself; even in the camps

and bombed-out cities one could see trees
with pirouetting leaves and weeds with pretty
blossoms and roots that cracked stones;

and there were birds that refused to be silent
and a line miles away that marked an end to the earth.

 

 

Gabor Zsille
Mr. Cogito’s Letter to Spinoza

To the memory of Zbigniew Herbert

(My Dear Baruc,)
Honored Mr Spinoza,
may I call You so,
revered albeit unknown Sir so far away,
would You please forgive me these lines?
It is late May outside the window now,

There’re giddy birds singing in the garden,
maybe You want to hear their melody,
birds in the garden, and I upset You,
it is not so easy for me at all,
night is just falling, I must write You,
my learned Sir known only from his works,

I’d like to tell You that it’s other,
in my country everything’s totally other,
here everything’s otherwise than there,
although I’ve never been to your country,
I suppose there’s everything’s other,
there everything’s otherwise than here,

In your country, I believe,
the surface of things is like a mirror,
the surface of things is intact, silky,
roads tend to the goal with no hesitancy,
light soaring over the cities, through the round
cut lenses one may see the pores of the facts,

Yes, with their deliberately breathing pores
facts use to unfold there, giving oneselves,
for nothing, without transcriptions, indeed,
and having order is quite a common shape,
there is order and there is law,
your fingertips are not torn by raspings of glass,

About my country just a few words,
a constant tremble of stomach, that’s all,
trustless faces, lurking thoughts,
a stifling footpath, the eye of a needle,
and certainly lots of inventions, maverick ideas,
different methods of surviving,

So that’s my country, dear and distant Sir,
I’m not sure whether You should visit it,
and if I wrote a poem on it, would You make sense of that,
and if You would, could it be the same sense,
which I make now, right here,
in my hopelessly strange language.

(Translated from Hungarian by the author)

 

 

Bona Zuske
I would only…

“What would you take with you to a desert island?”
“Do they still exist?”
“Yes, if you want them to.”
“Then I would take imagination.
I would only whistle and water would spring right to my thirst.
I would only knock at the wood and a raft would float right to my feet.
I would close my eyes and the sky would show me the way.”
“Wouldn’t you be scared?”
“No, cause you would be with me.”
“How come?”
“I would only…”


(Inspired by “A Box Called Imagination” by Zbigniew Herbert)

 

 

Krystyna Lenkowska

"...since every love, as long as it is true, should efface the previous one, overwhelm the whole lover, tyrannize and claim exclusiveness ..."
BARBARIAN IN THE GARDEN

Zbigniew Herbert’s public declaration of his love for Piero della Francesca, a Quattrocento painter, created an irresistable desire in me to see their (i.e. Piero’s and Zbigniew’s) embodiments of beauty with my own eyes.

My Italian paths!

My Italian paths were sinuous and winding (as human fate strewn with temptations, as Orpheus’ wanderings in Hades and Tracia), through the miracles of the cathedrals, the shades and lights by Signorelli and Duccio, and the extravagances of one of the popes. Four times, I turned my head to the call of "supernatural" phenomena.

Wine, Orvieto and the Last Judgement!

Neither the Il Duomo in Florence nor the one in Venice is as breathtaking as the monumental cathedral in a small town square in the old town of Orvieto. The contrast with the drab houses around, the non-expectation of any sudden architectonic monumentality or dynamics at that very place, leaves you speechless. It is just as if while roaming through a forest, you were to enter a clearing with a spiry castle as large as the Eiffel tower.

Herbert was right to say that: "...the cathedral stands still (as long as this static verb is appropriate for something which tears space apart...?) ... and the feeling of being unable to come to terms with its architecture prevails..."

Perhaps only yesterday the WTC towers in New York would have made such an impression on techno lovers. Perhaps they would. Those, who have not seen that wonder (or perhaps an oddity) of architecture, do not stand a chance any longer.

The cathedral is already closed, so a "barbarian" chronology of events comes true for us unexpectedly. First, a glass of wine, then the Last Judgement. In one of the few restaurants with names going back to the Etruscan past, we order the Orvieto and a rabbit fricassee. It may be the same place where Herbert was served this vintage by a girl smiling with her eyes, in the Etruscan way. Thus, we are reverently drinking the strong, well-chilled straw-colored liquid. Freezing our viscera and heart, we are waiting for our heads to catch fire, according to Zbigniew Herbert’s brilliantly precise instruction. On my part, I will add a description of the bouquet: the Orvieto wine – just like my traveler’s book – is redolent of the southern wind and the faded fresco paints, applied by the hands of masters, which over the last 600 years have merged into one noble fragrance of nature.

Well, Mr. Herbert, it is indeed harder to describe the wine than the cathedral...
On the following day, inside the Il Duomo, in the chapel of Madonna di San Brizio, the Last Judgement evoked in me exactly the same mood as the sense of awe suspended in midair whenever I utter the two sanctified words: LAST JUDGMENT – silently, as such words are never said aloud, unless to emphasize the pathos.

Friar Angelico did not leave much behind. He quit his work very quickly, apparently scared away by the omen he was said to be afraid of, after the death of a disciple of his, who had fallen down from the chapel vaulting and died. Perhaps he was painting Christ the Judge then? The work was taken over, only after a period of 50 years, by Lucas Signorelli, one of the disciples of Piero della Francesco. And here comes the love interest.

Signorelli’s pictorial compositions, both monumental and colorful, like the ones painted on the arches of the vaulting, as well as the small, dark-brown depictions of the Purgatory from the Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri, constitute a unique study of motion. The plot, as if on a musical filmset: intense expression, drama, the emphasis of choir scenes and the resounding airs of individual faces, bodies and souls – these are the words which gushed through my mind in a voiceless scream.

I was pondering how much was left in that artistic continuity of Herbert’s admiration for the heritage of master Francesco. Was it the inspiring vigor and the darkness rent with the light from beyond? Signorelli the disciple was still a great artist (Herbert believes that even greater than Michelangelo, who created the Sistine Chapel frescoes). Nevertheless, I somehow felt that such fascination felt by an exquisite poet would be too simple a solution, and a too obvious one. Just as the desire felt at first sight for a beautiful, long-legged, mature but still young woman wearing a fox collar and a wolf fur cape, with the inviting, weary eyes of Marlena Dietrich, who is simultaneously followed by a throng of male Berliners. It was just because almost half of the tourists from the town’s square who squeezed into the San Brizio chapel were craning their necks and staring – with irresistible admiration for that undisputed masterpiece and their own roles in that (sometimes scary) spectacle of beauty – at their own bare bodies, hearts and skeletons, as if they were posing nude.

It must be added, after Herbert, that Signorelli’s expertise in osteology (i.e. the knowledge of the skeleton) was flawed, but instead, with his smiling skeletons, he was a witty eschatologist.


Siena, Duccio, The Great Maesta and Sandals like Cockroaches!

Duccio di Buonisegna, a Duecento painter, was very lucky in certain respects. He happened to live at a time when masterpieces by great masters were held in deep veneration. His great Maesta was accompanied by processions of senior citizens, officials and townspeople on its way through the streets of Siena to the cathedral. On that day, shops were closed and prayers were said until late night. Did his contemporaries see in him what Bernhard Berenson, an American art critic, observed – perhaps too cursorily – a few centuries later, and what the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert appreciated in detail, when studying the Maesta? The great Maesta could be perceived as a refined composition, not of two-dimensional components, but of objects – each of them a perfect three-dimesional form in itself and a finite component of the whole (if only the whole were extant!). I could not help following such sensitivities, embodied in a sophisticated temptation. According to the recommendations, I decided to look at nothing else but Duccio in Siena, so that I might remain within the realm of his subtle visual expressions for a long time, which – in time – turned out to be the key to understanding Herbert’s love for Piero della Francesca. Berenson considered Duccio an epigone, especially with respect to his "Renaissance" peer Giotto, whom he referred to as a man of genius and valued for the new concept of spatiality and the force of expression.

According to Herbert, such a view will not be supported by a comparison of the two Madonnas con Bambini at the Galeria Uffizzi in Florence, where both artists, together with their teacher Cimabue, are similarly Byzantine in their climate. However, for me, Duccio’s Madonna will STILL emanate divine light, whereas the one by Giotto shines with an ALREADY more human light. This does not change the fact that Berenson may have missed Duccio’s novel syntheses, i.e. the combination of the Alexandrine, Roman and Byzantine cultures. Although Berenson’s contemporaries gave credence to his sensational theories, they did not regard Duccio favorably, as they did not consider him a genius, the name he certainly deserved. In his counter-argument, Herbert describes a few of the forty-five scenes of the lives of Christ and Mary, i.e. the Great Maesta which was Duccio’s opus magnum. Herbert marveled at it "in frenzy" at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a few dozen years before my Sienese "frenzy."

The human details painted with Duccio’s brush and Herbert’s word made the most vivid impression on me. In the scene of the Washing of the Feet, Christ and the Apostles, as if they were actors, act with their bodies, gestures, using terse means of expression, and drawing such emotions as respect, love and humility with a subtle, not overstated line. Even the "bodies" of the three black sandals have their dramatic roles to play. They are more dynamic than other objects in the picture (or "in the shot", if one thinks of them in terms of a scene in a film): "...They contrast dramatically with the pink background of the floor, and the verb ‘to lie’ does not reflect the gist of their nature. They seem to be the most lively element in the scene, whereas their diagonal positioning, with their thongs spread sideways, is expressive of a rat-like flight..." or cockroach-like cunning.

In thousands of paintings all over the world, a similar "natura morta" depicting other inanimate objects is referred to, perhaps too hastily, as still nature.

During my voyage of discovery of Herbert’s love for Piero della Francesca, Duccio was an obligatory stage in my search. The intuitive, spontaneous tastefulness of the poet was certainly molded not only by his sensitivity, but also by his erudition. As an expert on the history of art and modern painting, Herbert perceives Duccio, the last great master of antiquity, not only as a master and precursor of composition and dramatic tension but, above all, as a painter who touches you with his subtle expression. And this very subtlety of expression was my guide to understanding the passion of this sophisticated lover of art for Piero della Francesca’s art—the passion of which I was about to become convinced.


A Digression without a Moral!

I broke my word and entered the cathedral in Siena. Firstly, because it was there that Ducio’s Great Maesta used to hang, or rather shine with its own energy. Secondly, because I was lured by a cleric in red (carelessly – although traditionally – referred to as scarlet). He was Pius II, previously Eneas Silvius Piccolomini – a poet, an author of wanton comedy plays and a libertine novel, who never, even after his late conversion, ceased dreaming of eternal fame, even though virtuous then. Thirdly, Piero della Francesca, my romantic hero, already a mature painter, met Pius II, who commissioned to him to paint frescoes on the room walls in Rome. Sadly, those murals did not survive until our times.

Ironically, there are extant frescoes about the pope’s life in the Piccolimini Library, painted by Pinturicchio, which – after my feast for the spirit at Duccio’s – bring to mind the art of embellishing vaultings, not necessarily sacral ones. However, the very story of Pius II’s life compensates me for the elusive feeling of disappointment which accompanies me on leaving the cathedral.

Pienza, situated not far away from Siena, a charming little town in Italy, not as drowsy as at the time of Zbigniew Herbert, used to be called Corsignano. However, Pius II, who was born and brought up there as Eneas Piccolomini, believed that the name was too undignified to suit a pope’s biography. After he was granted the clerical honors, he had the name of the town changed into "Pienza" and the town itself expanded. Since that time, the life story of an ex-libertine pope who spectacularly influenced his biography due to self-castigation and several administrative decrees, has inspired poets, writers, connoisseurs of arts, tourists and dreamers. They arrive at Pienza to roam the streets marked by the majestic walls of the cathedral, palaces, and houses built in a very short time, by force of a papal crosier, as if at the touch of a magic wand.

To me, the life story of Eneas adds up to the logic of Italian Renaissance: stormy youth, Homer, Virgil, women, wine, one’s own experience-based studies of human ways, misanthropy, ardent advocation of the crusades, the dementi, spiritual revival and, in the end, a projection of one’s own experience onto the cathedral walls in Siena.

And now I am trying hard to hear and repeat the dignity in the chant of the word "Pienza" and the commonness (or perhaps common wantonness?) in the music of the name "Corsignano". As if it were my own master class in Italian classical music. And my master is this town’s echo, which – when called by its name – reverberates among the town’s polyphonic stones.


Arezzo, the Tree of the Cross and Francesco’s Women!

If Arezzo, Borgo, Urbino, San Sepolcro or Monterechi, where Piero della Francesca lived and painted, had not been situated off Italy’s main mercantile and artistic routes in the 17th and 18th centuries, perhaps more details from the life of that artist of genius could have survived. Sadly, they were and actually the very date of his birth is not reliable (1415/1420). By the very same token, he has become the hero of a "love story" for the first time due to this essay, although without a true anecdote about corporal love and its insanity.

It is worth adding that the "discoverers" of Francesco included, inter alia, Stendhal and Malraux, a writer and a poet. Thus, he offered inspiration not only to eminent historians of art, but also renowned epic writers and lyricists (Francesco’s paintings prove him to have been a skillful narrator himself). Nearly 500 years later, Piero della Francesca, the narrator, with his masterful form, became an object of profound passion and admiration for Zbigniew Herbert (who has definitely and repeatedly proved himself to be a painter and sculptor of feelings).

Time and economy made me set my Grande Finale of the love story between a painter and a poet in only one of the provincial places. My choice was Arezzo, a town somewhere between Perugia and Florence.

Another consideration was the fact that it was the birthplace of Petrarch, an exile, who has found his homeland in philosophy and in Arezzo.

Bearing in mind the light-flooded "glorias" of Italian cathedrals in Venice, Florence, Orvieto and Siena, as well as minor local churches, the church of St. Francis seems unusually modest and spare. Entering this stern darkness, going through the porch and under the choir gallery, it is hard to believe that it envelopes, in the chancel, "one of the greatest painting wonders of all times."

This double marvel is The Legend of the Cross itself, and its artistic embodiment in the form of a cycle of fourteen frescoes by the hand (head and heart) of Piero della Francesca.

Their subject is the story of the Cross of Christ, called the True Cross (Vera Croce), from the moment of the creation of the world until the year 615, when the previously stolen cross was reinstituted back to Jerusalem. Those stories were drawn by our master from the Apocrypha and legends, especially from Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. Frequently fictitious and anachronistic, interwoven with the truths from the Gospel, passed on by word of mouth, they served the purpose of strengthening the Christian faith for years.

What strikes the viewer as different is the seemingly impassive depiction of the characters in the fresco. These people do not look you straight in the eyes, none of them. They do not stun with their emotions, their acting is very economical with gestures and facial expressions. Eve, Mother of Mankind (Death of Adam) despairs of dying Adam "tactfully", soundlessly. The Queen of Sheba (Recognition of the Tree of the Cross), a symbol of the Church of the Orient, during her mystical revelation, falls to her knees before the Christian tree of the Cross. Invariably attentive and conscious of her dignity, she does not intensify the drama of the miracle. With subtlety, it is her retinue maids that do that in her place, opening their mouths wide in speechless astonishment. Restraint, ever present restraint, understatement and subtlety of expression. The battle scene in Constantine’s Victory, one of the greatest masterpieces by Piero della Francesca, is a tumult disciplined by a harmony of planes: men, horses, banners, armors. Even the systematic torture of Judas in The Torture of the Hebrew is controlled by the artist. One does not feel any terror on the convict’s face, nor on the faces of the torturers. However, the geometrical (prophetically cubist!) precision of the machinery of the torment introduces a sort of suspended feeling of fear. In another scene (as it would be hard to talk about a certain order, in the case of resorting to mutually juxtaposed depictions of the events in the legend) on the subject of war (Defeating Chosroes), the battle ritual seems to be performed according to a prepared plan and discipline. Even the sky favors the clarity of the picture, its geometrical harmony undisturbed with a view of the killed and the wounded. Made dynamic only through the reality of the scenes and the passion for detail, the tranquility emanating from the scene is more expressive and moving than many a shout, frenzy or outrage in other pictures I have seen so far. Piero della Francesca enables everyone to witness the legend of the Cross in his or her own way, he does not impose any psychology of the events, nor overwhelms our imagination. Leaving empty space, he simultaneously offers guidelines on how we can read his forms, solids, and the perspective of air and light.

Another fascinating subject is the women of Piero della Francesca. Basically, they are all alike, both physically and psychologically. The Queen of Sheba has got straight hair, which emphasizes the beauty of her head and long neck. Her hazel eyes are fixed on a distant point, as if cast into the future.

Mary in The Annunciation is beautiful like a sculpture, with her endearing calmness and placidity of gestures. Queen Helen, mother of emperor Constantinus, surrounded by her maids (Digging out the Cross), her haircut plain and her expectation filled with humility, shifts our attention from the woman’s beauty to the Cross and the events related to it.

Looking at Francesco’s women in St. Francis’ church in Arezzo I despair of not having a chance this time to see "one of the most provocative Madonnas any artist has ever dared to paint". I mean the Madonna in the chapel in Monterchi, a beauty – if we are to trust Herbert’s description – sensually touching her abdomen, as if she were touching the mystery of motherhood. A temptation to draw a poetic description of the Madonna in Monterchi kindled my desire to see her – however, I decide to postpone that culmination to another journey into the Italian Renaissance.

I have reached a conclusion that one of the aspects of Piero della Francesca’s genius consists in the fact that he fired both simpletons and scholars with the love for his art. The learned ones, in different epochs, include such names as Cavalcaselli, Crowe, Berenson, Longhy. It was Piero himself who harnessed his talent and mastery with knowledge of, inter alia: architecture, painting, geometry, perspective, proportions, abacus, optics, antiquity, as well as methods of imitating the laws of nature and light.

The phenomenon of his painting is based, among others, on the principles he developed for himself by himself and which govern the composition of his works. They are "the principle of a harmonized background and that of tranquility". My impression is that these are the qualities which captivated his admirer, a great Polish poet and writer, Zbigniew Herbert. The result was an example of a wonderful, uncompromising fascination with art. So many years after the death of the artist of the brush, a great artist of the pen, calling himself a barbarian from a distant European country, devoted much of his competent attention and his sophisticated feelings to paying tribute to the great master of old.

The energy of this love for the Italian Renaissance will radiate upon all who come in touch with this art and – even before that–it may offer a kind of anticipatory insight into it. It certainly was the case when I, another barbarian, went to Italy with a copy of Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden. Presumably, the poet must have done the same thing, holding the Berenson volume under his arm.

I wonder... Would Piero della Francesca reciprocate Herbert’s love if he had lived until our time? How would he evaluate the poet’s studies of objects, the human being and perspective? What would they discuss in the language of art?

To me, they are both alike, to some extent, in the way they create metaphysical emotions. That is why my memories of both of them occupy the same shelf labeled "Subtle Monumentality."

... take
out of the shadow of an object
which is not there
out of the polar vastness
out of raw dreams of the internal eye
a chair ...
let it be
quieter than angels
haughtier than kings
truer than a whale
let it have the face of the things final.

(The fragment of the Herbert’s poem translated by Piotr Cymbalista.)

 

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