Yesterday, after spending most of the afternoon cleaning and re-arranging our garage (onerous task), I settled myself on the back deck with a glass of scotch, a small cigar, my notebook and a volume of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
Herbert was a Polish writer who, despite growing up in an authoritarian environment, managed to compose magnificent, soul-rending verse.
As I was reading poems like “Mama” and “Chord”, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it wold be like to live as an artist in a society where personal and aesthetic freedoms are strictly curtailed, the regime relentless in its pursuit of any kind of opposition, the smallest display of rebellion.
It was someone’s job to
scrutinize every syllable,
search each metaphor
and allusion for
significance, a deeper
meaning that might
subvert the apparatus,
throw a monkey
wrench into the works,
or cast the slightest
aspersion against the
omnipotence of the
…but artists like Herbert and Vasily Grossman and Andrei Tarkovsky managed, somehow, to frustrate their ideological masters, producing works of lasting genius. What was it that made them so strong, so immune to the powers of the state, when so many of their colleagues caved in to pressure, conformed, compromised their visions? Was it some form of faith? Pride? Strength of will?
My God, the courage it would take to stand your ground, refuse to dilute or skew your art. Would I be that strong under similar circumstances? Could I resist the blandishments and threats? Choose exile and disgrace over safety and security?
Which somehow led me around to:
I cannot see the
My faith is
not so simple,
I ask for proofs
and the universe
spasms of hilarity.
God is laughing
but I, stubborn
fail to crack
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Maybe you were a subversive.
Part of a cell.
Or you ordered some questionable books.
Matching some profile.
Compromised by a friend.
Betrayed by a rival.
Brought in for routine questioning.
Vehemently denying all charges.
Tragically expiring while in custody.
The official inquiry tactfully deflecting blame.
A closed casket, to spare your poor mother.
© 2016 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Photo credit: Liam Burns
The Forgiveness of God
you have so much to answer for
your immunity hereby revoked
escorted to the dock
subjected to a brutal cross-examination
where were you?
when were you aware?
what did you do?
complicit or negligent?
your answers unsatisfactory
throwing yourself on the mercy of the court
contrition the last refuge
once all other appeals are exhausted
© 2016 by Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)