Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles

The early 1970s. Even now, they still seem to me a strange and extreme time in America. Nixon had just invaded Cambodia, and in Kent, Ohio, on one idyllic spring afternoon, a few nervous National Guardsmen began shooting kids on a college campus. In L.A., late at night on one FM channel, Charlie Manson’s “girls,” his acolytes, would come on live to tell you to drive immediately to Death Valley to join them because, in the exhausted slang of the times, “it’s all . . . you know, coming down out there.” On the Sunset Strip, the spirit scavengers of all sects were scooping up the penniless and strung-out young as quickly and easily as grunion. And although a large quake brought down some of L.A. and twisted a few freeways into new and inventive shapes, much more remarkable were those homes in the San Fernando Valley that had been simply evacuated afterward—breakfasts congealed on the tables. Those vacant houses . . . what stories they told of the times by saying nothing at all about a past or a future.

What was “coming down”? Nixon was, gradually, and in a few years Saigon would fall to those who, evidently, cared most about it. But those events were hidden then. In those first years of the 1970s, each day felt a little like the day after a revolution that had not happened. Phrases like “the summer of love” and “the gathering of the tribes” were used sarcastically. The Haight looked windswept and evacuated when I walked through it one afternoon in 1970.

What was “coming down” was Time in the Absolute Present, a Present dressed in so many distracting styles that it was possible, in the boundless vanity of the moment, to believe that history was irrelevant. To many people, history meant the literature of failure. Some welcomed its erasure. Some were boasting of having become “post-literate.”

During these strange days, I was honored to drive, more or less regularly, the poet Zbigniew Herbert just about anywhere he needed to go. If poets had chauffeurs, I suppose I would have been happy to have been merely his chauffeur. But he never treated anyone like a chauffeur. We quickly became friends. I was young and knew so little that I must have seemed then to possess that innocence peculiar to Americans; in the world it is known simply as ignorance. I was twenty-four and trying to live authentically in the Present. I had no idea that I wasn’t, that I was simply living in some benign erasure of the past. But I was lucky. In Zbigniew I had found a friend who was almost a classical isle of sanity.

I remember complaining to him one day as we drove through the suburbs east of downtown L.A. that Whitman now seemed to me a poet exclusively of the nineteenth century. Zbigniew smiled as if the name Whitman carried with it a fragrance of pleasure, like the name of a liberated city. And he kept smiling as he looked directly at me and said: “No, I think he is eternal.”

That is the kind of sanity I mean, a radical sanity in which the word eternal is made wild once again and authentic. He said it without any trace of condescension or arrogance. Yet the answer was precise and uncompromising.

One doesn’t compromise with a word like eternal. The term is negotiable only in the mouths of the falsely fashionable guru or the well-intentioned revolutionary who doesn’t know he is merely the instrument of death. Zbigniew was neither.

At Zip and Go University, where we both taught, Zbigniew was largely unknown. But in Europe he was famous, and even in L.A. he was known in the more worldly circles.


One day, when I picked up Zbigniew to drive him to class, he told me he had gone to a party the night before.

“Where?” I asked.

“In Hollywoooed,” he said. That was how he pronounced it: “wooed.”

“I didn’t know you knew anyone in Hollywood.”

“It was Polanski’s,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“Really? You mean you know him? You knew him in Poland?”

“In Warsaw. Yes, since his student days.”He asked if I had seen Rosemary’s Baby. But then he asked me if I liked it.

I had to say: “of course not.”

He nodded. “He still . . . understands. And Roman is a nice boy, good boy.”

There was a pause. I wondered if he wished to qualify that last statement, but no, he did not.

“I go make pee-pee, and then we go to the college: yes?”

Ten minutes later we were stuck in traffic on Fair Oaks Boulevard.

The slightly mischievous beaming smile came over his face again. It was the kind of smile that assured anyone in his presence that good fortune was just around the corner for both of you, and that Zbigniew could not imagine being any happier in any other company. It was one quality he had in common with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and it seemed, in the poet, less a matter of style than of his nature. From the scrupulous, terse classicism of his poems I had imagined the poet must look something like Robinson Jeffers. But Zbigniew was slightly short, slightly plump—and most amazing and disarming of all was his face. His face looked like a sleepy, happy, fledgling bird’s face, a wide-face bird—the face of an adolescent barn owl, an owlet.

But Zbigniew walked, often enough, with a limp that plagued him. Sometimes it was more noticeable than it was at other times. I had the distinct suspicion, though I couldn’t even now say why, that it had something to do with his participation in the Polish Underground. Sometimes the limp was quite pronounced, as if his leg from the knee down were asleep and would not wake, and then somehow he looked as if he both resented and respected its deep sleep. I never asked him about it.


What T.S. Eliot once said of Blake was true of Zbigniew as far as I knew him: “There was nothing of the superior person about him.” Zbigniew was perhaps the most civilized poet I’ve known. His sense of decency was both unstinting and unshakable.

A student poet, John Bowie, a young man naturally shy around everyone he didn’t know well, especially if they were famous, finally got up the nerve to ask Zbigniew if he could show him some of his work. Zbigniew replied, “Only if you will have lunch with me.” A look almost approaching awe came over Bowie’s face then, a look that suggested, sadly enough, that Bowie had never been treated quite as well by anyone in his entire life. Four years later John Bowie would be dead in Iowa City of a weak heart he never knew he had; and so, looking back upon that little meeting between the two of them, the kindness there, and the pleasure Bowie took from that moment into the rest of his short life, it no longer seems to me that such gestures of open decency and welcome are at all insignificant. If, like John Bowie, you only live to be twenty-five, and if you spend most of that time growing up in a little, bleak, monotonous, stucco suburb like Alhambra, where your father is a television repairman, a lunch like the lunch John Bowie had that day with Zbigniew may be something you take with you all the way to the abrupt, breathless end.

Or think of decency in Nazi-occupied Warsaw: What it means is that you never know if the way you treat a friend today may be the last way you treat him at all.

How different Zbigniew’s attitude was from that of a colleague who once said to me, in the corridor where we taught: “Let’s use this key and grab the elevator; we’ll have to see fewer students that way.”

In corridors honeycombed with faculty offices, my colleagues smiled and nodded and said hello repetitively to each other throughout the day. If they stopped smiling and nodding and helloing it usually meant that they planned to kill you. I had to explain this curious custom, which I had just figured out, to Zbigniew, and so I told him when he dropped in after class.

“My face is tired; it has been weight-lifting smiles all day,” he said. “My voice also. The Hello Variations. They are extremely difficult, I think, particularly in the scherzo; just two notes! Elo? Yellöe. Hélo. And yet, I don’t agree. What is more treacherous than one too many smiles?” He paused and looked directly at me for a second. “You don’t know, do you? I will tell you then. Five too many smiles; ten too many smiles.”


One day Zbigniew and I were driving through Monterey Park, a tedious little town east of L.A., another suburb. Its unvarying barracks of ranch style townhouses floated by outside. Zbigniew looked out the window at the pale shades of yellow and green and pink, at the nothing that was there. You couldn’t see the nothing that was not there, for that was Alhambra, or San Gabriel, or Altadena. But we did pass a park of some kind with a few scrawny trees that looked exhausted and as if they had been recently planted. On the other hand, they looked ancient too, as if they had been trying to grow there, straining at the hard-pan soil under them, since Drake sailed by. Somehow a developer had achieved a look of defeat so permanent that even the future had no future in Monterey Park.

“Sometimes,” said Zbigniew, “in communist countries . . . beauty is possible . . .
in . . . what do you call it? I forget.”

“Architecture?” The word suddenly seemed so grand somehow.

“Yes. Sometimes the state says, O.K. But here is not possible.”

“Well, sometimes it is.”

“But there is only one solution for L.A.”

“A solution? For L.A.? What?”

“Burn it,” said Zbigniew, as if the idea was clear to everyone, had been clear for some time now, as if the wholesale torching of everything from Pomona to Hermosa Beach was already on the drawing boards of urban planners. I looked over to see if he was merely kidding, but he kept staring out the window. Perhaps I had not heard him correctly.


Another afternoon, after work, we were waiting for a light to change.

“I cannot drive. If only I could drive a car, then I, even I, not a citizen, I could buy a car!” The innocent light of that smile came over his face again. So he wanted to buy a car. Well, I thought to myself, wheels can make arson a lot easier.

“You never drove, Zbigniew?”

“Once. I drove once, yes.”


He was silent for a moment. Then he began. “It was after a meeting of the Underground. The boy who drove for me was waiting in the car. But dead. The Nazis shot him. Just one shot, a style they had. I came out later . . . I saw him. I had to learn fast. I pushed the boy over to other side of car seat. I drove. Just one time. With the dead boy beside me. I drove.”

He said all this without any visible emotion. It was stated as fact only. That was his way, or one of his ways. It was all a matter of carving out a style so impermissive of the merely and suspiciously personal, a style so lean and scrupulous and classical, that the poem cast out the poet, and what was said cast out the sayer.

I thought of all the above much later, years later. At the moment of the anecdote, hearing it for the first time, I could think of nothing else but that image. Driving for the first time with a dead boy beside him.


Zbigniew was reading the personal ads in the back of the L.A. Free Press. Now and then I would explain the various terms, the abbreviations for gay, black, bisexual, sado-masochism. But some were new to me.

“What does this word mean here, revolution? They use it on every page. It means hashish. It means sex. It means sex oils.”

It was 1971. They were using it on almost every page, even though it meant nothing now. “Sex oils?” I asked.

“Here,” he said, handing me the paper.

“Oh, scented oils. Sure, people use that stuff, some people do.”

“Girls in my classes, I think. But where is this revolution?”

“They just use it. It sounds exciting, and if you were born yesterday, it sells papers, I guess.”

“But hashish, free love, sex oils. That is fun. Revolution is not. I was in only one revolution. Against the Nazis. It was necessary. I hated it. I hated them more.”

I felt that sudden and peculiar tiredness Americans feel when they have to explain a word their culture has corrupted beyond recognition.

“Zbigniew, over here, in L.A. especially, if the phrase viva la muerte made a product sell, like . . . say soap, for example, they’d use it.”

“Really? Viva la muerte. Long Live Death. For the name of a soap? Yes, I like it. It’s O.K. Long Live Death Soap.”

Zbigniew had turned on the TV, and now sat before it with the rapt and attentive expression of a child on his face. In Poland, he said, no one owned televisions. I could hear the canned laughter behind a “Lucy” re-run. It sounded like swirling water. Suddenly it felt as if the television had been on all my life.

“Is Ford a good car?” Zbigniew suddenly asked.

“Some of them are,” I said.

“Is . . . possible to find, here, used Ford?”

Oh, boy

“Zbigniew, I think you’ve come to the right place,” I said, then watched him turn back to the flickering screen, this man from a country with no televisions and no Fords—where thousands knew his poems by heart.


When Zbigniew’s wife, Katrina, arrived from Paris they bought a 1960 light blue four-door Fairlane sedan. Katrina drove it at a more or less unvarying fifty miles per hour through city streets, school zones, alleys, campus parking lots, and posted boulevards throughout the San Gabriel Valley. But on the freeways she held it to an understated seventy-five. Beyond that, I felt, the car would change into something else. Riding with them I’d hold on to the arm rest, and hope. Zbigniew sat in the back seat, answering letters, drawing in his sketch book. Oblivious, absorbed as a child in what he was sketching, his wide face held something both birdlike and very peaceful within it. He seemed happy with Katrina there, and happy with life. When Katrina had the Ford moving fast enough so that I could hear every hose and gasket singing under the hood and the rods beginning to chatter, she would suddenly turn to us, speaking either Polish or French, since she knew no English. It was as if the road no longer held much interest for her. Above forty-five, the whole car shook, but neither of them seemed to notice.

I remember hearing the utterly incomprehensible Polish rising above the engine noise of that moment. I remember too, feeling utterly happy.


After a week or so, the Ford went in for repairs. I went to pick them up at the university. Usually they were full of smiles, but today they were silent and preoccupied. I asked Katrina what was wrong.

“De Gaulle est mort,” she replied. They rode home in silence, reading about it in the paper. De Gaulle? They were, after all, Europeans. They lived in history. For Poles of their generation, for a very brief moment, De Gaulle once must have meant a possible future. Their shared memory of this moment might be, someday, all they had left of him after the erasures of history had taken place.

We passed a Shell station, a Taco Bell, a 7-11, Carpet World . . . what was there to remember here? Burn it? Vote with a flame? That was one way, but in Watts, there was at least a history of misery and outrage. But Alhambra? Rosemead? San Gabriel? You can’t burn something that isn’t there. But of course this is all metaphor. I’d never torch anything larger than a pile of trash.

And yet, I thought, in L.A. or in Warsaw, no one escapes the time into which he is born. It is a particular violation done precisely to him, precisely now. In a way we all live in history, just as, in another way, we begin to live in a future serenely composed of the erasures of that history.

We passed the small roadhouse near the freeway interchange, the advertising: Live Sex on Stage. For the first time I did not cynically imagine the performers as a tired, strung-out hippy couple going through the motions for car salesmen, small-time executives, bitter housewives, professors who had stopped reading. I imagined that they were both beautiful, that they loved having sex on stage and being watched as they did so, that their orgasms were simultaneous, that their hair-styles were reminiscent of no period of time. Strangely enough, they seemed even less interesting when I thought of them that way.

On their last day in America, Zbigniew and Katrina drove to Yosemite National Park in a rented car. Around one of the curves above the valley’s floor they hit a mule deer, a doe. I imagine that it got up just after it was hit, wobbled for a few steps along the roadside, then fell again. I imagine that it kept lifting its head to one side and its still graceful, supple, but slowly benumbed and stiffening neck as it tried to rise again and again—and the blood that had begun to appear a few seconds earlier on its lips now spilled from them, spattering the highway in different random patterns. And because the deer kept swinging its head slowly upward and to one side, I imagine the flecks of blood beginning to appear on its withers, its back, and even on the delicately shocking white of its underbelly. I imagine Zbigniew and Katrina standing there beside it, unable to do anything—until a ranger came and ended it all with one shot from a revolver held to the doe’s temple.

They were both, said Phil and Franny Levine later, sick about it. After all, it was their last day in the United States; they had wanted to stay longer, and the death of something that wild must have seemed to hold, for both of them, wider and larger and more mysterious implications.

I don’t know because I never heard from either one of them again. We promised to write each other, and one night I sat down and wrote a three-page letter to Zbigniew. Then I tore it up. Perhaps some friendships are meant to exist only in a certain place, at a certain time—three people driving casually around L.A. in a blue Ford. I don’t know. I don’t know if I was ever meant to know.


Soon after that, I left L.A. I never tried to write to him again.

But my chronicle of these strange days does not end quite yet. I hadn’t heard any news of Zbigniew for years, and then, about six years ago, at a party in Berkeley, someone said that Czeslaw Milosz had been in Warsaw and, at a reception for him, Zbigniew came up and asked Milosz if he knew of anyone who could turn down the heat in the room.

“And . . . ?” I asked the man telling the story.

“That’s it; that’s all I heard,” he said, sipping a glass of wine.

“That word heat—I wonder if it has some cryptic significance,” said a woman standing beside him. Her remark was meant to be adequately clever, and I suppose it was. I had often wondered about Zbigniew, especially with the news of Solidarity. Now I was thinking about him again. I had been afraid the anecdote ended there.

And then, shortly after that, at a reception after he had read in Iowa City, I asked Milosz if he knew how Zbigniew was. Since I was a complete stranger to him, I didn’t expect much in the way of a reply, and the party was fairly noisy. I’m not sure he heard me, or, if he had heard me, whether he understood my question. At any rate, he did not answer and a few seconds later someone began speaking to him in Polish.

Even more recently someone wrote me to say that he had heard Zbigniew was in “bad shape,” suffering from severe depression and dividing his time between Warsaw and Berlin, where he was in the care of a psychiatrist.

But after all, these are rumors. Poets collect them the way they collect lint, and trouble, and eternity.

After all, the future can’t erase everything—can it  

(reprinted by permission of The Antioch Review)