Mr Cogito Studies His Face in the Mirror
by Zbigniew Herbert
In Mr Cogito, the post-modern Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) takes on no lesser subjects than identity and aging. We enter the heart of the poem I will discuss with the title of the book, “Mr Cogito”—“Cogito,” from Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”)—and then the full title of this particular poem: “Mr Cogito Studies His Face in the Mirrior.” This poem is a 28-line interrogation of ancestry, in which we travel back in time into the gene pool of Herbert’s Cogito, looking as he gazes at his face in a mirror.
“Mr Cogito Studies His Face in the Mirror” begins:
Who wrote our faces chicken pox for sure
marking its o’s with a calligraphic pen
but who bestowed on me my double chin
what glutton was it when my whole soul
yearned for austerity why are my eyes
set so closely together it was him not me
waiting in the scrub for the Vened invasion
It’s hard to stop here, or pause at all, to excerpt from such a rich meditation. This, like many, but not all, of the poems in this collection, appears without punctuation (as translated by Alissa Valles). Herbert’s Cogito considers the sensory responsibilities of the face—the ears, for example, are “two fleshy seashells/ no doubt left me by an ancestor who strained for an echo / of the thunderous march of mammoths across the steppes”—the lexicon of complexions, and then on to the nose. In lines 16-27, a minor turn occurs, and the speaker also remembers that the finery of civilization—including that which might be bought “in art salons,” including “powders potions masks / the cosmetics of nobility,” and “the musk of old books”—also made him who he is. We ride this epic journey of the flesh, one that spans centuries, as the face is made palpable as “a sack of old meats fermenting.” We taste the “paleolithic hunger and terror” that lifts us to such a pitch it is almost a relief when we reach the quiet, ordinary lines:
an apple falls not far from the tree
the body is locked into the chain of species
Almost a cliché, but for their precise placement, in these two lines Herbert sets us back on the ground in iconic language and imagery commonly heard and used. We are in the world of Isaac Newton, Adam and Eve. These set up the major turn, which is the final line in the poem, that at once cements and opens the poem up, the turn I carry with me, and often quote. Here is the turn, with the lines that precede it:
the apple falls next to the apple tree
the body linked to the chain of species
that’s how I lost the tournament with my face
The lack of punctuation is particularly resonant here, leaving the last word, the “face,” open. The surprise, the tension, the turn, in fact, maybe isn’t the entire last line but in the single word “tournament.” The word yanks us back to the “medieval cravings and sins” we read four lines earlier, a singular yet universal struggle, the lifelong game of it. In choosing “tournament,” we experience the tragedy of losing as sport: noble, time-honored, and bitterly amusing. Herbert’s gestures here, as in other poems, are quietly dramatic armatures or conduits of composition. He uses the turn as an inward/outward boomerang, the simultaneous point in a poem where we know and don’t know a thing. He pushes us out and tugs us back into the work to reexamine the clues that clicked their way through Cogito’s thinking, then ours, again. He uses the turn to re-engage the reader, doing elegant battle with the eyes, the ears, the nose, offering the “sudden cry” as he falls into “fell into the void only to return in me.”
Herbert’s turns often expose interiority as inevitability. A memorable turn like the one found at the end of “Mr Cogito Studies His Face in the Mirror” penetrates the surface of the poem the way the hot sun warms the skin on our faces, then sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually reaches down to the bone. It energizes a poem, deepens it with what is obvious, but not. We get it. We don’t. We feel it. We wonder.
Elaine Sexton’s latest collection of poems is Causeway (New Issues). Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Art in America, Poetry, Pleiades, Oprah Magazine and other media online including Poetry Daily, and From the Fishouse. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute.