4.01.2009

The Halt

In honour of National Poetry Month I propose, at the risk of exposing the abysmal gaps in my education and hogging the blog, to discover some new poets. New to me, I mean, not new to the rest of the world. The first problem is, how exactly does one go about constructively broadening one’s horizons. I could find a thousand unknown versifiers on the internet if I had worlds enough and time but I haven’t. I’m looking for poets who fill the gaps not just pleasant dalliances. I could just open the updated and expanded version of The Voice That is Great Within Us that’s being bandied about by the erudite guys who run this operation but they’re still debating the table of contents so I’m on my own.
A happy accident led me, this morning, to the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert. That he’s an honorary Plumbline poet is indisputable. In a talk given at a conference organized by the journal Odra he said: "So not having pretensions to infallibility, but stating only my predilections, I would like to say that in contemporary poetry the poems that appeal to me the most are those in which I discern something I would call a quality of semantic transparency (a term borrowed from Husserl's logic). This semantic transparency is the characteristic of a sign consisting in this: that during the time when the sign is used, attention is directed towards the object denoted, and the sign itself does not hold the attention. The word is a window onto reality."For Herbert “a bird is a bird/slavery slavery/a knife a knife/death is death.”
“Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is no wizardry of words.”

The first poem I came across was ‘The Halt.’

“We halted in a town the host
ordered the table to be moved to the garden the first star
shone out and faded we were breaking bread
crickets were heard in the twilight loosestrife
a cry but a cry of a child otherwise the bustle
of insects of men a thick scent of earth
those who were sitting with their backs to the wall
saw violet now - the gallows hill
on the wall the dense ivy of executions

we were eating much
as is usual when nobody pays”

Given Herbert’s involvement in the Polish resistance during World War II and in the political situation in Poland as it developed over his lifetime it’s fairly easy to read The Halt as a poem about men in a desperate struggle pausing for awhile in a garden. To begin with there is the word ‘halt’. Not stop, or pause, or rest, but halt, with its harsh middle English/ Germanic sound, its military associations and its sense of a temporary suspension of something ongoing. The piece is full of Christian symbolism - the hortus conclusus, the evening star that calls to Vespers, the breaking of the bread, the echoes of the supper at Emmaus and the gallows hill – that seems to function as a device for gaining or maintaining a broader perspective on the situation at hand. That such overt religious gestures manage to pass almost unnoticed at least in a first reading is probably due to the slightly disorienting effect of no punctuation and the tension immediately induced in the reader by the uneasy combination of peace and menace in the imagery. Garden, star, cricket, loosestrife, the bustle of insects, the smell of earth all suggest an almost pastoral repose disturbed by the host ordering the table moved instead of requesting it, by the cry, which is quickly accounted for by the phrase ‘but a cry of a child’ as if it might be interpreted as something altogether less benign, by the men with their backs to a wall and by the gallows hill and the dense ivy of executions immediately following. It was the phrase ‘ivy of executions’ that first caught my attention and having read the poem several times I’m still not sure what it means but it’s certainly one of those things that communicates before it’s understood. Ivy has long been emblematic of death and resurrection, but is also associated with fidelity and memory. A plaque in the Mehrinplatz, in Berlin, quotes Herbert as saying “The loss of memory by a nation is also its loss of conscience,” and it’s not much of a jump to see how ivy, in that context, might come to be associated with executions, especially by someone involved in political struggle. The last two lines seem to me likely to refer to the necessity of taking of responsibility for one’s actions, on a personal and/or political level. Bogdana and John Carpenter noted that the poems of Pan Cogito “consistently apply ethics not only to action but to the possible, viable action of everyday life, taking human failings into account,” and that observation seems relevant here.
In Herbert’s ‘Still Life with Bridle’ the coming of twilight and the shifting of the ambient light to violet featured in A Halt is paralleled in a paragraph that could stand as its prose prelude - "Dusk is falling, the last acrid, Egyptian yellows go out, cinnabar becomes gray and fragile, the last fireworks of the day grow dark. All of a sudden there is an unexpected pause, a short-lasting interval in the darkness as if somebody in a hurry opened the door from a light room into a dark room." The Halt is that pause or interval in the darkness but the men around the table plainly see that it will descend around them again. The space may temporarily be transformed into a hortus deliciarum, oriented to the pleasures of its owner, the bossy host, and his guests but the Christian symbolism underlying the imagery suggests that Herbert believes the door will open again onto the light.
One little poem is hardly an education in a man’s life work but it’s one poem more than I knew this morning and one poet more that I have at least a nod in the street acquaintance with. If you mention his name over dinner I’ll at least be able to pretend I know who you’re talking about.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I stopped short at the reference to "transparency": I got mauled a little while back on my blog by Silliman and my friend Don Brown for using the word in roughly the way Herbert uses it here. I wish I'd had Herbert and Husserl handy to establish the credibility of how I was using the term!