Zbigniew Herbert: “Preliminary Investigation of an Angel” (1969)

Preliminary Investigation of an Angel
When he stands before them in the shadow of a suspicion he is still all composed of light the aeons of his hair are pinned up in a bun of innocence the blood is helped on with instruments and interrogations with an iron ferrule a slow fire the limits of his body are defined a blow on his back fixes his spine between cloud and mudpuddle after a few nights the job is finished the leather throat of the angel is full of gluey agreement how beautiful is the moment when he falls on his knees incarnate into guilt saturated with contents his tongue hesitates between knocked-out teeth and confusion they hang him head downwards from the hair of the angel drops of wax run down and shape on the floor a simple prophecy [trans. Alissa Valles]
This seems to me to be the way to write a political poem. Tangential, even cagey. Drawing on cultural symbols with deep emotional roots. A quiet voice speaking matter-of-factly about horrifying realities. In this poem, Herbert performs poetic jujitsu from stanza to stanza, keeping the reader off balance even as the lines themselves are phrase-based and do not disrupt the syntax of the poem. Later: There is an optical phenomenon, or quality of the human eye, so that when you look just beside a faint object, you see it more clearly. I think poetry often operates like that. Herbert was writing during the Soviet domination of Poland, of course, so he had life/death reasons for being cagey; still, looking beside the thing, giving it an old, deep name instead of a modern one -- especially when combined with a kind of deadpan voice -- you get a poem that insinuates itself into the reader's mind.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Zbigniew Herbert: “Preliminary Investigation of an Angel” (1969)”

  1. Joseph… thanks for linking to LiteralMayhem!… (and always happy to return the favor)

    I love the Dewey quote. The fruits of communication can indeed be luscious or poisonous depending on what soil we grow it in.

    I like the poem too. To me the best descriptor would be resonant. The more you read it the more you can visualize the real-life echoes. And like the proverbial pea under a pile of mattresses, it just keeps digging into you….

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