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A Great Zbigniew Herbert Poem

1 Aug

“There is a curious poem by Zbigniew Herbert, ‘Mona Lisa.” Leonardo’s painting in the Louvre symbolizes the Europe of supreme cultural achievements, but a Europe that was for many years forbidden to the inhabitants of countries behind the Iron Curtain. Images of war and annihilation are the background for the representation of a dream about going one day to Paris. The narrator obviously is a survivor with obsessive memories. Those very memories make a mockery out of a meeting with Mona Lisa, an inert object.”

Through seven mountain frontiers
barbed wire of rivers
and executed forests
and hanged bridges
I kept coming –

through waterfalls of stairways

whirlings of sea wings

and baroque heaven

all bubble with angels

-to you

Jerusalem in a frame

So I’m here

You see, I am here

I hadn’t a hope

but I’m here

Laboriously smiling

resin colored mute convex

As if constructed out of lenses

concave landscape for a background

between the blackness of her back

which is like a moon in clouds

and the first tree of the surroundings

is a great void froths of light

so I’m here

sometimes it was

sometimes it seemed that

don’t even think about it

only her regulated smile

her head a pendulum at rest

her eyes dream into infinity

but in her glances snails are asleep

so I’m here

they were all going to come

I’m alone

when already

he could no longer move his head

he said

as soon as all this is over

I’m going to Paris

between the second and the third finger

of the right hand

a space

I put in this furrow

they empty shells of fates

so I’m here

it’s me here

pressed into the floor

with living heels

Quoted in Czeslaw Milosz, Beginning With My Streets, trans. Madeline G. Levine NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1991, 74-76.

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