From Notting Hill Editions
In Still Life with a Bridle, published by Notting Hill Editions, the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, discovers the extraordinary in the ordinary as he ventures abroad.
Just after crossing the Belgian-Dutch border, suddenly and without reason or reflection I decided to change my original plan. Instead of the classical road to the north I chose the road to the west, in the direction of the sea. I wanted to get to know Zeeland, even if superficially; I had never been there. All I knew was that I would not experience great artistic revelations. Until now my travels through Holland had always followed the movement of a pendulum along the coast. That is, to speak graphically, from Bosch's Prodigal Son in Rotterdam to The Night Watch in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, a trajectory typical for someone who devours paintings, books and monuments, leaving all the rest to those who, like the Biblical Martha, care only for earthly things.
At the same time I realised my limitations, because clearly the ideal traveller knows how to enter into contact with nature, with people and their history as well as their art. Only familiarity with these three overlapping elements can be the starting point of knowledge about a country. This time I allowed myself the luxury of leaving behind 'essential and important' things in order to compare monuments, books and paintings with the real sky, the real sea and real land. So we are driving through an enormous plain, a civilised steppe, the road as smooth as an airport runway amid endless meadows similar to the flat green paradise in the polyptych of the Van Eyck brothers in Gent.
Though nothing extraordinary happens, though I am prepared because I have read about it a hundred times, changes still take place in my sensory apparatus that are difficult to describe yet at the same time very concrete. My eyes of a city dweller, unused to the expansive landscape, fearfully and uncertainly check the faraway horizon as if learning to fly above an unattainable surface. It is similar to a huge overflow rather than a mainland, which in my experience is always associated with an accumulation of elevations, mountains, rising cities that break the line of the horizon.
This is why I was in a state of constant alarm during my journeys in Greece and Italy, a never-ending need to reach a broader 'birdlike' perspective that would allow me to take in the whole image, or at least a great part of it. This is why I climbed the steep slope of Delphi, strewn with marble, to see the spot of the mortal duel of Apollo with the beast. This is why I tried to climb Olympus in the illusory hope of embracing the entire Valley of Thessaly from sea to sea (to my misfortune, the gods had an important meeting in the clouds just at that moment, so I saw nothing). I also patiently polished winding steps in the towers of Italian city halls and churches.
But my efforts were rewarded only with something that could be called a 'torso of a landscape' - splendid, of course splendid fragments. Later they became pale and I arranged them in my memory like postcards, these deceitful images with false colours and false light, untouched by emotion. Here in Holland, I had a feeling the smallest hill would be enough to take in the entire country: all its rivers, meadows, canals, its red cities, like a huge map that one can bring closer or move farther from the eyes. It was not at all a feeling accessible to lovers of beauty, or purely aesthetic.
It was like a particle of the omnipotence that is reserved for the highest beings: to embrace the limitless expanse with its wealth of detail, herbs, people, waters, trees, houses, all that is contained only in God's eye - the enormous magnitude of the world and the heart of things. Thus we drive through a plain that puts up no resistance, as if the laws of gravity were suddenly suspended. We move with the motion of a sphere on a smooth surface. We are overwhelmed by a powerful sensual feeling, blessed monotony, sleepiness of the eyes, dulled hearing and the retreat of touch because nothing happens around us to cause anxiety or exaltation.
Only later, much later, do we discover the fascinating richness of the great plain. A stop in Veere. It is reasonable to begin the sightseeing of a country not from its capitals or spots marked with 'three stars' in a guide but precisely from a godforsaken province abandoned and orphaned by history. A matter-of-fact and laconic Baedeker from 1911 I never part with has devoted twelve cool lines to Veere ('Manche Erinnerungen aus seiner Blutezeit'), while my precious Guide Michelin flies on the wings of touristlike poésie de circonstance: 'Une lumière douce, une atmosphère ouatée et comme assoupie donnent à Veere l'allure d'une ville de légende . . . Ses rues calmes laissent le visiteur sous un charme mélancolique.'
The square with the city hall is lit with amber light; a pretty building, with sculpted details but strong at the same time, sits squatly on the ground, proof of old splendour. A number of sculptures in niches on the façade: portraits of councillors, mayors and benefactors of local history. During my night wanderings I come upon a powerful building, thickset and smooth - a sculpture of God without a face. It emerges from the night similar to a rock growing from the ocean; not a single ray of light reaches this place. A dark mass of primordial matter against the background of night's blackness. An attack of alienation, but a gentle one that touches most people transported into a foreign place. A sense of the otherness of the world, a conviction that nothing happening around takes me into account, that I am superfluous, rejected, and even ridiculous with my grotesque intention to see the old church tower.
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