Herbert’s solution to the restraints forced on him by one totalitarian regime or another was always to evolve personae—favoring historical figures, as in the famous “Elegy of Fortinbras,” dedicated to Milosz; and, later, Mr. Cogito. Had history not backed him into a corner, I doubt he would have employed this imaginary friend’s services, which are, after all, conceptual; as a result, the poems that feature him as a speaker are both more patently absurd and more erratic than the rest. “Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought” ends on this buoyant, negative note:

when he is cold
he will attain the state of satori

and he will be as the masters recommend
vacant and

Herbert rescues this antic poem with the unexpected pairing of apparent and impalpable opposites. He never forgets the advice given at the Café des Poètes to the desperate Orpheus by a bourgeois gentleman in Cocteau’s Orphée: You must astonish us.

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