Zbigniew Herbert's "A Life"

Thoughts on expectation and exhaustion.

A Life

I was a quiet boy a little sleepy and — amazingly —
unlike my peers — who were fond of adventures —
I didn’t expect much — didn’t look out the window
At school more diligent than able — docile stable

Then a normal life at the level of a regular clerk
up early street tram office again tram home sleep

I truly don’t know why I’m tired uneasy in torment
perpetually even now — when I have a right to rest

I know I never rose high — I have no achievements
I collected stamps medicinal herbs was OK at chess

I went abroad once — on a holiday to the Black Sea
in the photo a straw hat tanned face — almost happy

I read what came to hand: about scientific socialism
about flights into space and machines that can think
and the thing I liked most: books on the life of bees

Like others I wanted to know what I’d be after death
whether I’d get a new apartment if life had meaning

And above all how to tell the good from what’s evil
to know for sure what is white and what’s all black

Someone recommended a classic work — as he said
it changed his life and the lives of millions of others
I read it — I didn’t change — and I’m ashamed to admit
for the life of me I don’t remember the classic’s name

Maybe I didn’t live but endured — cast against my will
into something hard to govern and impossible to grasp
a shadow on a wall

so it was not a life
a life up to the hilt

How could I explain to my wife or to anyone else
that I summoned all my strength
so as not to commit stupidities cede to insinuation
not to fraternize with the strongest

It’s true — I was always pale. Average. At school
in the army in the office at home and at parties

Now I’m in the hospital dying of old age.
Here is the same uneasiness and torment.
Born a second time perhaps I’d be better.

I wake at night in a sweat. Stare at the ceiling. Silence.
And again — one more time — with a bone-weary arm
I chase off the bad spirits and summon the good ones.

from The Collected Poems, translated by Alissa Valles (Harper Collins, 2008)


What a fucking poem. Seriously. What a fucking poem. I should tell you that I am writing this from a place of exhaustion, stemmed in part from the experience of teaching in this school year burdened by a pandemic and the endless revolving door of logistical changes, a school year where sometimes I teach two classes simultaneously, one to a few students in a high school classroom while teaching another to a dozen students on the computer, a school year exhausting in these ways and more for students and parents and teachers. And so I feel this poem deeply today, as I write this.

Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems has been a mainstay for me for a long time. My copy’s pages are crinkled, relentlessly dog-eared. Some of the ink from the poems I turn to the most has lightened, made each poem almost unreadable. It’s a bible of a book. Big, heavy. Full of Herbert’s wit and witness. And this poem is a favorite among so many favorites of Herbert’s. It does so much at once. It enacts the moody, ruminating voice of lifelong exhaustion with its em-dashed pauses and refusal to adhere to any consistent standard of punctuation. The voice, in other words, is the poem. It does not inhabit the poem or inhabit some structure the poem sets out for it. The voice, in all of its sad weariness, dictates the poem.

But I think what I love the most is the scope of this poem. It seeks to detail a life. A literal life. And it does so. And as it does, it moves from the wide gloss of describing whole years in a sentence to the microscopic detail of describing a single photo. And in between are these beautiful, heart-breaking turns of phrase that feel just cast off, borne from all this weariness. And yet they are full of truth. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? Amidst the wreckage of daily life, there is the ordinary experience of finding extraordinary truth.

And there’s so much daily life. Think of some of Herbert’s lines:

up early street tram office again tram home sleep

I collected stamps medicinal herbs was OK at chess

I read what came to hand: about scientific socialism
about flights into space and machines that can think
and the thing I liked most: books on the life of bees

At the heart of today’s poem is a tension. Herbert writes I didn’t expect much followed, not long after, by the sentiment: I truly don’t know why I’m tired. If I didn’t expect much from life at its onset, why am I so tired by it? And not just tired, but world-weary, exhausted?

I’ve been thinking of another poem this week, as well — Alen Hamza’s “Little by Little,” from his book Twice There Was a Country, which is a remarkable book that explores so many of themes explored in this poem: displacement, grief, transcendence, possibility, impossibility. The poem details the act of displacement and critiques the consequences of borders. And then it ends:

And so surrealism in its tainted version
entered my life: no revolution, no

transcendence. Just the horror
of material things.
Little by little, I said fine to life.

Stopped feeding vitamins to pets,
accepted that not all cacti sting,
relegated wonder to the landfill.

Little by little, I said fine to life. Fuck. Hamza mentions, in a brief about-this-poem, that this line was inspired by a few lines that open Pablo Neruda’s poem, “October Fullness”:

Little by little, and also in great leaps,
life happened to me,
and how insignificant this business is.

Neruda’s insignificance and Hamza’s wonder “relegated…to the landfill” are both disillusioned but honest responses to a world that makes it harder — for reasons of violence, power, greed, expectation, and more — to respond to it with the capacity for the “transcendence” that Hamza writes about. Later in Neruda’s poem, he writes:

So be it, but my business was
the fullness of the spirit:
a cry of pleasure choking you,
a sigh from an uprooted plant,
the sum of all action.

How often is our business the fullness of the spirit? How often — I wonder — is our wonder relegated to the landfill because of the experience of some individual or collective trauma? How often does wonder feel like a luxury we cannot afford, or a hope not worth hoping?

I think about such questions with Herbert’s poem today because there is such a bottomless sorrow at the heart of it. Consider this stanza:

Someone recommended a classic work — as he said
it changed his life and the lives of millions of others
I read it — I didn’t change — and I’m ashamed to admit
for the life of me I don’t remember the classic’s name

There’s so much happening here. The desire to read a classic work because of its capacity to change a life. The honest revelation that no, it did not change his life. And the shame, though, still lingering, at not being able to remember what felt like should have been important but turned out not to be. The expectation of a reality, essentially, that differs so greatly from reality itself. And the loneliness of wanting to be a part of something collective only not to feel — or change — the way you were supposed to. It’s no wonder that such a stanza is followed by this devastating line:

Maybe I didn’t live but endured

In Garielle Lutz’s story collection Worsteda collection that feels in solidarity with the challenge of expectation and exhaustion that today’s poem inhabits — one character says:

I tell her I’m no match for my life. It would be better off inside somebody else.

Later, that same character says:

I feel free to explore life more mediocrely.

These are sentiments I feel constantly, and maybe you do too, though — as for the latter — I don’t know how often I give myself permission to be as mediocre as I can be. More often than not, I just assume that I am mediocre and shame myself for it. Such feels true to my experience of the world. A world where I expect my exploration of life to offer me something fuller, less exhausting, than it often does.

What does it mean, to expect something from life? And where does such an expectation come from? How is it furthered? Doubted? Walked back on? Altered? And in what ways do the expectations that are placed on us or that we place on ourselves the kinds of things that make life feel, in essence, like a failed attempt at something impossible? The kind of thing that might make someone say, as Herbert writes:

Born a second time perhaps I’d be better.

I think often of how, as I’ve gotten older, my prevailing feeling underlying each day has almost always been one of fear. In her novel The Shame — about a woman’s burgeoning desire to leave her family and her idyllic home because of the ways in which society, late capitalism, and the expectations of motherhood made her feel unfulfilled — Makenna Goodman writes:

I keep looping around to the same feeling: fear, in general, about being an adult.

Later, she writes that, even despite this fear:

My life had to go on…even in the face of my unworthiness. I had to wake up and make coffee while my kids played with their stuffed animals.

I feel that same emotion, that same lonely desire to simply continue, when Herbert writes:

How could I explain to my wife or to anyone else
that I summoned all my strength

One great tragedy of the expectation of a fulfilling life is the way it almost always renders you lonely, particularly if you cultivate the self-awareness to recognize such loneliness. It was like a tweet I saw the other day, which I can’t remember enough to find. Something about how going to therapy only makes you sadder. I laughed to myself and then thought of how therapy often makes me anxious. The hours leading up to it this frantic paranoia — what will I talk about, and what will it do to me? Only to find myself crying 40 minutes into a session because of something I didn’t remember, or didn’t want to remember, or didn’t think of thinking about in a certain way. And I feel a little better for it. For the crying, for the talking. And I feel a little worse. Maybe it’s like Jo Ann Beard writes about living and dying in her essay “Now” — “he let go and we hang on, and both are beautiful and stupid.”

I don’t know if Herbert was lonely as he wrote this poem. But he was certainly old. And his age maybe afforded him the sad, honest realization that most days you have to “chase off the bad spirits and summon the good ones.” I hope I’m not alone in wishing that wasn’t the case. But most days, it feels like it is. What to do about that? I don’t know. I think I am trying to ask myself what I am using my self awareness for. In what ways am I saying fine to life, little by little? How can I subvert such a thing? In what ways am I refusing myself the possibilities of transcendence? Herbert’s point seems to be, in part, that life is exhausting because it simply is. Because there is so much to endure and so much to expect. And sometimes we endure, expecting something, and receive nothing. In between, there are so many questions. In between, too, is the experience of exhaustion as the result of all this labor and all this tension.

Such exhaustion is difficult not just because of how it feels to be exhausted, but also because, I’d argue, the first things we abandon when we are exhausted are our best qualities. I notice this when I teach. When I am exhausted as a teacher, I lose my patience and lose my capacity for wonder. I find it harder to be surprised by my students — which is one of the most beautiful aspects of teaching. And I find it harder to sit with them and try to cultivate the environment for surprise while they work through their own personal expressions of their own personal exhaustions.

I feel this everywhere. I go to the grocery store and within a few minutes I am exhausted by both the amount of choice and the pressure placed on me to choose. I go to work and am exhausted by my labor, no matter the love involved. I read, sometimes, and am exhausted by my reading. I sit often and feel shame that I am sitting. I start cooking the moment I get home, thinking it will free me. It doesn’t. I get stressed at the garlic sitting in the melted tablespoon of butter, as it tries not to burn. I sweat and resent my sweating. I think most people, as Herbert writes, are summoning all their strength. And I think the world, as Hamza writes, so often relegates wonder to the landfill. As such, our strength is summoned to endure the “horror / of material things.” Every so often, we are buoyed by some small moment of joy, and we continue. What then? I don’t know. I only know a few things: we shouldn’t have to be exhausted, but we shouldn’t have to feel ashamed when we are. It’s not our fault. It’s not your fault.


A note:

I hate to engage in any form of self-promotion, but here is some. This summer, if you are interested, I am teaching two virtual workshops for The Stables — a creative collective based in Philadelphia.

The first is a 3 hour poetry workshop on Sunday, June 27th. In it, we will use the phrase “Let me begin again,” borrowed from Terrance Hayes’ poem “The Same City,” as a way to explore reimagination and permission. It will be a fun one (I hope!). Cost is $35. You can sign up here.

The second is a 4-week workshop that meets for a couple hours each Tuesday in July. This one — titled “Permission to Be Generous” — will use generosity, allowance, and a love of the word “and” as a way to give ourselves permission to write into the so-much-ness of ourselves, and refuse endings (at times). This will be a more typical poetry/multi-genre workshop in the sense that we will be generative and generous, and will hopefully emerge from the four weeks with some work we are proud of, some new understandings of permission and allowance, and some good company. Cost is $75. You can sign up here.