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Spring 2009

In Zbigniew Herbert's Garden

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Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough

If you set out on a journey let it be long
wandering that seems to have no aim groping your way blindly
so you learn the roughness of the earth not only with your eyes
but by touch
so you confront the world with your whole skin

—Zbigniew Herbert, "Journey"

Barbarian in the Garden
by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by
Michael March and Jaroslaw Anders.

For many years I believed that the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert traveled by bus to the places he describes in Barbarian in the Garden. Each time I re-read Barbarian I could picture him wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, wiping sweat off his forehead, and climbing onto a dust-covered bus. Since I had no clue what an Italian bus would have looked like at the time of Herbert's journeys, it invariably resembled the dilapidated Polish bus I used to ride as a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and the background I envisioned could have come straight from a Rosellini or a De Sica movie. The problem, though, is that in the entire book he makes only a few references to his manner of travel: we know, for example, that he went to Lascaux and Chaalis by bus, and to Paestum and Orvieto by train. Most of the essays begin after he's already arrived at a given destination, allowing the reader to get the gist of things much sooner than if the author had cluttered his essays with minute details of his arrivals and departures. I'm sure that I could have settled the question once and for all if I'd had a historian's yen for research. But the lack of textual evidence that would corroborate my theory didn't bother me at all. The bus just had to be Herbert's preferred means of transportation. How else could he have gone from one little Tuscan or Umbrian town to another?

To begin with, I reasoned, buses are cheaper than trains, and it is a well-known fact that when Herbert first went abroad, he traveled on a shoestring. Back then even people who had a lot of money in Poland— and Herbert didn't—couldn't use it for travel to the West, because Polish currency was worthless outside our country's borders. None of the Eastern Bloc currencies were exchangeable into Western money. One could buy dollars on the black market, but the procedure was illegal, and taking foreign money out of the country was tantamount to smuggling. Polish citizens were allowed to carry only ten dollars with them, a measly sum that wouldn't be enough for one day in Western Europe, and they had to list the amount of money they took out and brought back into Poland on the so-called currency declaration. After one of his trips, when Herbert was interrogated by the secret police, he was asked how it was possible that he'd left Poland with five dollars, spent six months abroad, and still managed to return with three dollars. Without batting an eye he said, "I saved." The man in the dark suit knew that the poet had been relying on awards and grants from Western cultural institutions and hoped he would admit that. But such an admission would have meant opening Pandora's box. Polish Communist authorities loved to accuse people of collaborating with foreign agencies, an accusation that in its mildest form would result in the denial of a passport.

So even though those awards and grants allowed Herbert to live in the West for long periods of time, he had to budget his money carefully. In Barbarian in the Garden he often comments on his meager funds. At lunchtime in Siena he says, "I make a quick calculation and learn that I can afford only a cup of coffee and a piece of bread with ham." In Paris, wishing to see the cathedral at Chartres, he goes on Sunday to benefit from "reduced fares." Seeing Chartres makes him abandon his original plan to write a dissertation on Paul Valéry. Instead, he decides to visit all the French cathedrals, "an insane plan," as he admits. Wherever he goes, he has little money but a huge appetite. He has to stretch his franc, pound, or lira if he wants to see it all. And he wants to see it all. This kind of hunger may be incomprehensible to a person raised in the comforts of Western democracies. After all, if on one trip you miss Piero della Francesca's The Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo, it will be there next time you go. For a person from the old Eastern Bloc, however, the next time might not have been there. Before Communism's downfall, we never kept our passports shoved into the drawer between last year's tax returns and a college diploma, ready to be used whenever we contracted a traveling bug. We had to depend on the good graces of dour secret police (masquerading as passport bureau officials) to issue us the necessary travel documents, and once we got them, we could never be sure that we'd get them again. So if we were allowed to leave the best of all possible worlds where we were condemned to live, we wanted to make the most of each trip to the West.

Another argument that I had mustered in favor of buses was that they can go where trains can't or don't. Trains might do for a conventional tourist who follows the predictable itinerary suggested by his guidebook. But Herbert was anything but conventional, even in his choice of guidebooks. When he traveled in Italy and France, he carried a 1909 Guide to Europe published by the Academic Touring Club in Lvov, which had come from his father's library. For his travels in the Netherlands he used a Baedeker from 1911. He didn't care for novelty. He believed that "one should not surrender to the dictatorship of guidebooks." One shouldn't begin one's visit from three-starred places but "from a godforsaken province abandoned and orphaned by history." He had prepared meticulously for each trip and would often visit places that only the initiated would know about, like Monterchi, a village some miles away from Arezzo, whose chapel housed a fresco by Piero della Francesca. But knowing what he wanted to see never kept him from welcoming "chance and adventure."

And finally, I told myself, buses were much more democratic, no first-class coach there, no fancy restaurant cars. Herbert, "an irresistible charmer," as some friends called him, was a people person, at ease with a shepherd in Sparta or a trattoria owner in Perugia. In a letter he sent to Czeslaw Milosz in July 1969, he jokingly remarks that his love of classicism was responsible for his drinking with some sailors from Pireus in a bar in Ravenna until it closed. So Herbert just had to prefer the down-to-earth atmosphere and the congeniality of a bus.

I first read Barbarian in the Garden thirty-one years ago. I remember the year so well because I was then a second-year art history student at Wroclaw University in Poland. That spring semester I had a class in the Italian Renaissance. Dr. Wrabec, a newly-minted Ph.D., assigned us a substantial reading list for the course, most of it comprising standard textbooks and articles. I was surprised when I spotted Herbert's book on the list—I knew him as a poet but not as an essayist. Immediately after class I went to a second-hand bookstore in Wroclaw's main square and was lucky to find there a 1973 edition of Barbarian, which had first come out in Poland in 1962. I've had the same old book ever since, and I brought it with me when I came to America in 1984.

I began reading the book while riding a streetcar back home, and continued late into the night. Herbert held me spellbound. After dry academic textbooks with little passion or flair, Barbarian in the Garden was a dazzling revelation. A traveler's account, imaginative and erudite, it looked at art and life and took the reader to art's salons and kitchens. Then and there I decided I'd one day travel to all these places Herbert described and see things through his eyes. The place I most wanted to visit was Italy, but history played havoc with my plans, and it was twenty years before I ever set foot in Florence. By then I knew that my imaginary trip would never materialize and that my earlier theory on Herbert and buses was just a theory. By then, too, the political circumstances in my part of Europe were radically different from the times when he first traveled abroad.

When Herbert left Poland in the late 1950s during the post-Stalinist thaw, he left a country in the throes of totalitarian ugliness, full of the deafening din of official lies and ideology. People from the Soviet Bloc dreamed of going to the West, but that dream came true for only a few. Some of those who were fortunate enough to obtain a passport never returned, or "chose freedom," as we euphemistically and sometimes enviously used to call it. Like so many of us, they simply longed for a sense of normality and for day-to-day lives that weren't choked by politics.

Herbert could easily have stayed in the West, joining the ranks of numerous other dissident writers who defected. Each time the Communist authorities granted him a passport they must have hoped he would never come back. However, he always returned "to the stony bosom of his homeland." He wanted to escape "the places of...[his] daily torment," but his escapes, longer and shorter, were only temporary. Everyday life in Poland was unpredictable, formless, shoddy, and glum. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that his desire to escape was motivated by his yearning for beauty, harmony, permanence, and solidity, qualities sorely missing from a part of the world where everything became oddly intertwined with politics.

The Old Masters provided an escape. Yet Herbert's journeys into the world of painting and architecture were never a retreat from the quotidian world. Herbert prided himself on his no-nonsense attitude and his devotion to the concrete. Discussing the Gothic cathedrals, he promises the reader "a simple goal, an accountant's view." Arriving in Holland, he declares: "The romantic Mr. Fromentin spins out meditations about lofty things, history, beauty, fame. I, however, cling to the brick." For him art and life are part of the same fabric of human experience. He believes that "the ideal traveler knows how to enter into contact with nature, with people and their history as well as their art. Only familiarity with these three overlapping elements can be the starting point of knowledge about a country." This lover of antiquity, this classicist, wants to immerse himself in the everyday life of the places he visits as much as he longs to see the masterpieces that have remained the same for centuries.

Herbert does not just cursorily look at works of art like most tourists do: he studies them, tries to commit them to memory, sketches them. His drawings show that he was an accomplished artist. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow until a professor told him there wasn't much more he could learn but a lot that could ruin his individual style. And on his trips he put his talent to good use, always walking around with a sketchbook and drawing what he saw. He knew that each visit might be the last one. "This is my last evening in Siena. I go to the Campo to throw a few lire into the Fonte Gaia, though to tell the truth, I have little hope of returning," he says in his essay on Siena in Barbarian. He appreciates his good luck, and his joy at being able to see what others less fortunate have been denied finds its way into his poems, essays, and letters. In June 1959 he sent Czeslaw Milosz a postcard on which he says, "So I am in Italy, that is to say, down on my knees, at the source. I live in Spoleto, a small Umbrian town." A year later he reports to Milosz, "I'm writing now a book of reports from Italy and France." That book of "reports" was Barbarian in the Garden.

herever Herbert traveled in Europe, he felt at home. Yet this consummate European also called himself a barbarian. Was it because he felt that he was somehow different? It couldn't have been anything as trivial or external as a foreign accent, clothes, or behavior, even though people from behind the Iron Curtain showed all the telltale signs of living on its wrong side. In Travels with Herodotus Ryszard Kapuscinski writes that on his way to India via Rome, he was aware that he looked like someone who was out of place, dressed as he was in the style à la Warsaw Pact. After he bought himself a new suit, shirt, and tie, he continued to feel the stares of others when he sat at a café. Now he looked like an oddity because of his all-too-noticeable brand-new clothes. But Herbert never paid much attention to attire and most likely wouldn't have noticed it if someone gave him a funny look. His sartorial taste was limited to practical items. He spent his money on museums, food, and hotels. He never stayed at expensive places, since one night there could have paid for three or four nights at a less fancy establishment. In Naples he stays at the Albergo Fiore "for both patriotic reasons (the owner was a compatriot) and ulterior motives (it was cheap)." In Siena he chooses the modest Tre Donzelle that, even after being renovated, has remained modest to this day.

It's tempting to assume that he calls himself a barbarian because he hails from "the other"—Eastern—Europe, but that explanation isn't true for Herbert. No matter where he travels—from the Acropolis, to Chartres, to Hadrian's Wall—he claims European culture as his own, and all his travels only confirm his sense of belonging to it. Returning from Lascaux, he muses: "Though I had stared into the 'abyss' of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole infinity."

So his choice of the word "barbarian" couldn't have been motivated by the complexes or coyness of a poor relative from the provinces. To Herbert we're simply all barbarians when we enter art's garden. We're also barbarians in the Greek sense of the word because each traveler is always "the other," an intruder of sorts who observes the newly encountered world with a certain detachment. Anyone who has ever traveled knows that we don't experience the reality of the places we travel to the way their residents experience it. On foreign soil we're no longer mastered by our indignation at corrupt politicians, moronic bureaucrats, the absurd rules and regulations that dog our daily lives. The locals may—and, in fact, usually do—have their own share of problems, but we're not responsible for them. We have left all that behind, and even our rage and guilt are on vacation. Now and then, though, we may feel estranged, and Herbert is well aware of that. He comments on this feeling in Still Life with a Bridle (which has been translated into English by John and Bogdana Carpenter): "An attack of alienation, but a gentle one that touches most people transported into a foreign place." But he views this otherness as something positive that allows the traveler to notice what natives can no longer see. Freed from habit and routine, the traveler is in a heightened state of mindfulness because "in a state of alienation the eyes react quickly to objects and banal events that do not exist for the practical eye." Traveling thus becomes a honeymoon for the senses, when predictable responses are replaced by fresh perceptions and a feeling of awe, even at the sight of "small street fragments of reality."

When we travel, otherness has two senses: we're obviously "the other," but the world we encounter is also "the other." And even though it may be bewildering, Herbert believes we should reach out to that otherness. In his short essay "Mr. Montaigne's Travel to Italy," which hasn't been translated into English, he acknowledges that it's more difficult for the modern traveler "to mix in with the concrete otherness of the landscape, the people, and the events" than it was in Montaigne's lifetime. Today's traveler is protected from the quotidian life by "the international hotel, the conventionality of tourism, guidebooks, a hurried contact with notable objects, the injunction to commune with universal works and not with the incomparable, distinctive beauty of life."

Herbert had none of the protections he mentions—but then he never desired them. He wanted to be protected from them. "If the gods protect one from organized tours (through insufficient funds or strong character)," he says in Barbarian, "one should spend the first hours in a new city following a simple rule: straight ahead, third left, straight ahead, third right." The gods always looked out for him, sparing him the indignities of being a conventional tourist, allowing him to follow his own fancy. He travels leisurely, with plenty of unplanned stops and detours, watching life unfold and trying to blend in with the surrounding otherness. Even though he often tells himself he must be on his way, he has time to observe a lizard, to notice "the color of mailboxes, tramways, knockers on doors," to listen to a street organ. Anywhere he goes, he indulges in "the most pleasant item on the schedule—loafing around," just as he does after his visit to the cathedral at Senlis:

wandering aimlessly...staring...picking up pebbles and throwing them away, drinking wine in the darkest spots: Chez Jean, Petit Vatel...smiling at girls, putting your face to walls to catch their smells...joining a dice game, visiting an antique shop and asking the price of an ebony music box...studying the menus in the windows of exclusive restaurants and indulging in licentious fantasies: lobster or oysters for starters; careful reading of the fete's programme and the list of prizes to be won in tombola for the soldiers, and all the other notices, especially those written by hand.

Just as he doesn't believe in "the rapid swallowing of paintings," he takes his time enjoying local food. His descriptions of art in Barbarian are followed by descriptions of the delights of the palate. This Olympian of high taste was obviously someone to whom the pleasures of eating were not foreign. Living under Communism rarely led to a refined taste in food, unless, like Herbert, one was a sensualist and a natural gourmet. On his way to Lascaux, he stops at the small village of Montignac for breakfast and raves about an omelette—"an omelette with truffles is delicious and their smell, as the dish has no taste, is incomparable." Then he follows with a brief lecture on truffles. After viewing the paintings of Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena, Herbert offers gushing praise of pizza, which he learned to love in Naples, and later describes the sensation of drinking Campari. Before leaving Siena he regales the reader with a detailed explanation of how one should drink wine—instruction that no winery owner whose family has been in the business of wine-making for centuries could surpass. When in Arles, he extols the glories of Provençal cooking: "First comes a tin tray with hors d'oeuvres: green and black olives, pickles, endives, and spicy potatoes. Then the delicious fish soup, a cousin of the queen of soups—the bouillabaisse of Marseilles."

When Herbert comes to Orvieto, his writing about food reaches its heights. Never sentimental when he writes about art, he sounds ecstatic describing the local wine:

On the menu I find a wine named after the town. The padrone praises it more loudly than the cathedral... It is more difficult to describe the wine than the cathedral. It is the color of straw and has a strong, elusive aroma. The first sip is rather unimpressive. The effect starts after a moment. The well-like chill flows down, freezing the intestines and heart while the head begins to blaze... The sensation is enchanting.

Herbert's Orvieto is no Proust's "madeleine," although I tend to think that if the local restaurant and trattoria owners were more literary, they could put Herbert to use the way the worthy town of Illiers-Combray has used Proust. Reading Herbert's vignettes on food, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if he'd been born in a place more conducive to epicureanism. Would his aesthetic and spiritual hunger be replaced by something more mundane? But can we really imagine him in the role of a restaurant critic?

Herbert's insatiability, his voracious appetite for the experience of the world—people, landscape, food, art—makes him an ideal traveler. For him, the perfect trip is "what the Germans call Bildungsreise," an educational journey during which we learn about both the world and ourselves. Reading Herbert's Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle, or The Labyrinth at the Sea (which still hasn't been published in English) is also a Bildungsreise. At the end of "Memories of Valois," in Barbarian, Herbert says, "Thanks to Sassetta I shall step into the same river, and time." Thanks to Zbigniew Herbert, I have done the same.

Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has published translations of Polish poetry in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere; her translation of a Janusz Szuber poem appeared in an earlier issue of The Threepenny Review. She lives in Fresno, California.


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