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Sunday, 13 September 2009 02:00

A memory triggered by Zbigniew Herberts The Collected Poems, translated and edited by Alissa Valles

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
Many lovers of world poetry will be familiar with the work of one of Poland's greatest poets, Zbigniew Herbert. His name will be mentioned in one breath with other Polish greats of the twentieth century, such as the Nobel Prize recipients, Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. I first encountered Herbert's poetry at university and immediately became one of his fans. As I share a mother tongue with the poet, I had the privilege of meeting him on his own turf, not in translation (even though I was studying in Austria at the time). That day, about twelve years ago, I went back home to share the discovery of his work with my mother, an avid reader with a sound education not only in Polish but also world literature. I was ten when my family left our homeland for greener pastures and I only became aware of the richness of Polish literature as an adult. It was an exciting process and I loved discussing my newly acquired passion with my mother who was very knowledgable on the topic. But on that particular day, when I began speaking about my latest discovery, she casually glanced over her shoulder and asked, "Who?"

"Zbigniew Herbert. You know, the one who wrote about Mr Cogito…" I threw in a few titles for clarification, added a date or two, but her face remained blank. I was shocked. This had never happened before. Until then, my mother usually knew which Polish author or title I spoke about and could enrich my budding knowledge with her insight into their work.

I asked my father. A decade younger than my mom, he knew who Zbigniew Herbert was. For once that decade seemed decisive. It transpired that Polish authorities had done a good job at keeping Herbert and his politically undesirable work out of my mother's consciousness when she was taught Polish literature at school. Ten years later when the political pressure was slightly lessened and Herbert's international fame couldn't be kept from Polish Everymen, my father's generation had the chance of hearing about him. And because my parents were already living outside of Poland when the political changeover happened, my mother did not have the same opportunity as her peers in the country to catch up with the revised version of Polish literary history, which was also being taught to me in the late 90s at university.

I was reminded of this incident a few months ago when the latest edition of Herbert's poetry in English translation (Atlantic Books, 2008) was sent to me for reviewing. The book is a rare beauty: hard-bound with a simple, glossy black jacket with only the author's name and the title on the spine of the substantial tome and a striking image of Herbert lighting a cigarette on the cover, it is irresistible to a book lover. Since I have only ever read Herbert in the original, I knew from the beginning that it would be beyond my scope to actually do justice to the book by attempting a review of the translator's work. But I thought that my, and even more so my mother's, discovery of Herbert's work was worth telling, hence the above.

What I can also repeat here is one of the comments by the translator Alissa Valles about this particular edition of Herbert's poetry. It is the first attempt to include his entire published oeuvre (unpublished and uncollected poems excluded) in English translation in one volume and thus it is an important addition to the never-ending process of rendering an author's work in different languages and making it available to world audiences. This particular edition is not only magnificently produced, it also includes a to-the-point introduction by Adam Zagajewski, another internationally acclaimed Polish poet worth knowing, useful notes, a good chronology of Herbert's life, and a practical index. The only thing I was baffled by was that, while every attempt has been made to spell Polish names correctly, including all Polish letters, Czesław Miłosz's name was left in its stripped international version. Luckily, Herbert's own name does not include any of our funny letters, and is so much more easily pronounceable. No matter how their names are spelled, both poets' work speaks to people across continents and we owe it to such dedicated translators as Alissa Valles that their voices are heard.
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1 comment

  • Comment Link Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon Saturday, 13 February 2010 02:00 posted by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

    The collection is wonderful. I bought it at a very bad time, and it helped me through
    along with tea and cigarettes in the winter garden. What is so great about it, aside
    from the poetry, is that it is so heavy, that one can hold onto for balance. Thanks for this.

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