After the Wall-paper Dawn: Reading “Wooden Bird” and “Why the Classics” by Zbigniew Herbert
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott
“burst joy’s grape against his palate fine”
I read Herbert’s “Wooden Bird” mainly for two gorgeous lines, “between a fern from the forest / and a fern from Larousse,” coordinates of melancholy that cheer me up. My wife thinks I’ve been ignoring the cruel parts of what is a pretty short poem. Not that Herbert is cruel, but the wooden bird suffers in a hostile world. I admit I don’t dwell on the suffering, but in figuring out how the poem casts its spell and where, oh where in the forest it leaves us, I’ve come to see that I haven’t been ignoring the bird’s plight but taking it for granted, which I submit is a species of Miles Davis’s “If you’re not nervous, then you’re not paying attention.” The bird’s suffering is the condition in which the woodland details seem to serve as terms of an allegory, a trip from certainty through precariousness to maybe despair. But the bird crosses the allegory’s double lines, jumps the rail and hangs there out of reach, nearly invisible in the poem’s nightfall. It’s a sly fable, a swift ode to being, the being of the poet constrained by authority or of the imaginative reader, that interior exile, yourself. In this summer of 2020, I want to read the poem, and this reading to operate, as ventilation, a window onto concerns that can revitalize us.
“Wooden Bird” names a contradiction, a stiff version of a thing that’s supposed to be perma-startled, an intimate of the air. At first, Herbert charms us:
In the warm hands
a wooden bird
began to live
Though “began” casts the children into doubt — will their warmth falter? — a fable with nursery magic is a fine thing. It was a pleasure to identify with the rabbit hero in The Velveteen Rabbit even when I was reading it to my kids, in part because I knew I was feeling what I was supposed to: “Look at me, I’m a real boy!”
under enamel feathers
a tiny heart gave itself
a glass eye
caught fire with sight
The heart gives itself to the children who animate the toy and, in the Velveteen vein, love it, imbue it with personality so that nursery magic can happen. Or the heart gives itself to being alive, to the world.
a painted wing
(Did Herbert know Hopkins’ “stirred for a bird” from “The Windhover”? The translators did, probably. Did he feel chthonic tug from another phrase in Hopkins’ poem, “plough down,” turned earth soft as underfeathers?)
a dry body
felt craving for the forest
The half-alive bird feels but not for the children — it craves the forest, the primordial home, its origin, as the children who animate the toy are playing with questions of birth, the apparent creation out of nothing, we were not and now we are, incredible no matter how clinical, or wild, the explanation.
like a soldier in a ballad
with its sticks of legs it drummed
the right leg drummed — forest
the left leg drummed — forest
it dreamed green light
closed eyes of nests
at the bottom
The craving half-animate bird is leaving! Goodbye, velveteen fairytale; we must supply a provisional nursery or Where the Wild Things Are bedroom-glade where the wooden bird can be marching or dreaming of marching like a soldier in a ballad, in this case a toy soldier with the usual instability from which the bird’s getting ideas about teetering off in search of fullfilment. A single glass eye “caught fire with sight.” I see the wooden bird lying on its side. But maybe the fire of sight is strong enough for one eye only. Regardless, the children have vanished; the bird dreams of green light because it’s not in a glade but wishes it were. Maybe it’s lying in the nursery still, not marching but dreaming of it, playing a soldier who is in turn imagining green peace, stolid wooden bird, left right, marching toward its preordained end.
The bird with green forest in its eyes dreams of “closed eyes of nests,” nests that have been abandoned or close themselves to the bird, like the sleeping or purposely blind eyes that lie “at the bottom,” but the bottom of what? However you’re picturing the bottom of the forest, site of magic and mystery where the deliberately blinded or sleeping or dead nests are, it’s to that imaginary location the wooden bird is marching. We follow it there and suspect the wooden bird is our emissary.
at the forest’s edge
woodpeckers picked out its eyes
its tiny heart blackened
from the torture of common beaks
yet it marched on
shoved about by venomous mushrooms
jeered at by orioles
at the bottom of dead leaves
it sought a nest
The once safe wooden bird has become that allegorical figure, closer than an emissary, its tiny heart like ours, “blackened / from the torture of common beaks.” Despite its suffering, the bird will soldier on. But in the last two stanzas, the forest that had been solidifying becomes notional, doubling the layers between the fictive but possible nursery and the “place” at which the wooden bird has arrived:
it lives now
on the impossible border
between matter animate
between a fern from the forest
and a fern from Larousse
on a dry stalk
on one leg
on a hair of wind
on what tears itself away from reality
but hasn’t enough heart
does not transform itself
into an image
There are not more autumnally revivifying lines than “between a fern from the forest / and a fern from Larousse.” It’s us! The deep notes have been plucked (to be so known), we’re getting our bearings (left right), trying to imagine where this “impossible border” can be, what the situation looks like, how the bird feels. It lives “on what tears itself away from reality,” which, as the anaphora of “on” lines prepares us to know, is as much place as object or sustenance: it is in the end the same as the wooden bird, and the wooden bird who “tears itself away from reality” cannot fulfill its imperative, it cannot “transform itself / into an image.”
If that toy bird is us, as of course it must be, we won’t prevail as matter, but we’re not going to survive as image either, not longer than memories of us, and in those memories not substantively, not as “an image.” The futility is exquisite. It’s liberating. No false promise. The truth we fire all cylinders to comprehend. But of course we’re not the bird — we’re the readers who activate the poem, who read meaning in the synaesthetic imaginary, crossed senses rich with penumbra and emanations.
To get at what we’re doing, and gesture at where we are, at the end of “Wooden Bird,” I need to look at “Why the Classics,” a short three-section poem that concludes Milosz and Scott’s Selected as a quiet exhortation and ars poetica. In it, Herbert contrasts Thucydides with the “generals of the most recent wars” who
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence
they accuse their subordinates
(Sound like anyone you know?) But Thucydides, who “was late with relief” and “… paid his native city / with lifelong exile,”
… says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly
Thucydides is Herbert’s model of vigorous refinement, and it’s not a stretch or a knock on the poet’s sense of himself to say that Thucydides is a stand-in for Herbert. He lived through the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland; he lived under the Stalinist regime that destroyed his culture and hounded him for his role in the resistance by way of an uncertain legal status — he was an exile in his own land. He had plenty to complain about, but he was in league with obscured histories, the golden mean, irony, Dutch still lifes. Herbert is my model of vigorous refinement. He gets described as astringent, Apollonian, classical, but he’s also conversant with sweetness, romantic love and compassion.
Let’s look at the final section of “Why the Classics,” in which Herbert comes to the point of the title:
if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity
what will remain after us
will be like lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns
Look how sly he is! He asks us to hold the broken jar for a minute while he finds his keys. He’s coming back with Thucydides, but he leaves us waiting with the weeping lovers inside their scant horizon. The lovers are as real as Thucydides. Still, they’re not what Herbert would have us leave behind. But yes they are — they are what he leaves behind.
That alternation between feeling and ironical distance is the principle behind the bathetic last lines of “Wooden Bird”: “but hasn’t enough heart / enough strength // does not transform itself / into an image.” In the deflation we feel, puzzling over what he means by “image,” by “transform itself” (transform itself), we can recognize Herbert’s stand against self-pity. Turning to interpret, we step away from the bird — we’re not it. Where are we, then?
Herbert’s taken us with him on a walk along the “impossible border” of legibility. Like an electron, we’re particle and wave, eluding measurement. I think the image into which the wooden bird can’t transform itself is an eidolon or something similarly powerful. Stuck between the material and the conceptual, the wooden bird who is you hovers where words peter out. But you can’t not imagine a green polar bear. Herbert’s done it again: When you’re told the wooden bird can’t transform itself into an image, you can’t not try to help the poor thing, not try to transform yourself into the third state, the eidolon or whatever that unites the material and the conceptual, can’t not try to carry words across the border.
Paused here just past the brink of the knowable, we’ve given our July 2020 minds an airing, refreshing them while exercising our liberty, or refusing to enter the orange one’s tent through the back flap of obsession. Reading “Wooden Bird” is political, then, doubly so because the negotiations between Herbert and us “promote the idea that there exists a much greater, circumambient energy and order within which we have our being,” as Heaney puts it in “Joy or Night.” The writing is the act of a mind choosing the right words, which is delighting in language, a mind delighting in finding the way inside the shared language. And your meeting with the poem is a kind of communion within the cultural imaginary of which the forces of conformity are merely a part.
Benjamin Gantcher’s first book of poems, Snow Farmer (CW Books, 2017), was a finalist in several book contests. His work appears in many journals, including Tin House, Guernica and The Brooklyn Rail, and he was Poet of the Week at Brooklyn Poets. His chapbook Strings of Math and Custom was published by Beard of Bees Press, and his first poetry manuscript, If a Lettuce, earned finalist honors in the National Poetry Series and Bright Hill Press contests. A recipient of a LABA fellowship as well as residencies from the UCross Foundation and the Omi International Arts Center, Gantcher is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a former poetry editor of failbetter. He teaches English in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn with his family.