Friday, November 03, 2006

Zbigniew Herbert

Zbigniew Herbert


The Envoy of Mr. Cogito
by Zbigniew Herbert

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind decives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn no leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
fothey will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lup of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - werent' there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign - arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast you dark star

repeat old in cantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go beacuase only in this way will you be admited to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go.

translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter

Mr. Cogito - the Return
by Zbigniew Herbert


Mr. Cogito

has made up his mind to return
to the stony bosom
of his homeland

the decision is dramatic
he will regret it bitterly

but no longer can he endure
empty everyday expressions
--comment allez-vous
--wie geht's
--how are you

at first glance simple the questions
demand a complicated answer

Mr. Cogito tears off
the bandages of polite indifference

he has stopped believing in progress
he is concerned about his own wound

displays of abundance
fill him with boredom

he became attached only
to a Dorian column
the Church of San Clemente
the portrait of a certain lady
a book he didn't have time to read
and a few other trifles

therefore he returns
he sees already
the frontier
a plowed field
murderous shooting towers
dense thickets of wire

armor-plated doors
slowly close behind him

and already
he is
in the treasure-house
of all misfortunes


so why does he return
ask friends
from the better world

he could stay here
somehow make ends meet

entrust the wound
to chemical stain remover

leave it behind in waiting rooms
of immense airports
so why is he returning

--to the water of childhood
--to entangled roots
--to the clasp of memory
--to the hand the face
seared on the grill of time

at first glance simple the questions
demand a complicated answer

probably Mr. Cogito returns
to give a reply

to the whisperings of fear
to impossible happiness
to the blow given from behind
to the deadly question

translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter

The Monster of Mr. Cogito
by Zbigniew Herbert


Lucky Saint George
from his knight's saddle
could exactly evaluate
the strength and movements of the dragon

the first principle of strategy
is to assess the enemy accurately

Mr. Cogito
is in a worse position

he sits in the low
saddle of a valley
covered with thick fog
through fog it is impossible to perceive
fiery eyes
greedy claws

through fog
one sees only
the shimmering of nothingness

the monster of Mr. Cogito
has no measurements

it is difficult to describe
escapes definition

it is like an immense depression
spread out over the country

it can't be pierced
with a pen
with an argument
or spear

were it not for its suffocating weight
and the death it sends down
one would think
it is the hallucination
of a sick imagination

but it exists
for certain it exists

like carbon monoxide it fills
houses temples markets

poisons wells
destroys the structures of the mind
covers bread with mold

the proof of the existence of the monster
is its victims

it is not direct proof
but sufficient


reasonable people say
we can live together
with the monster

we only have to avoid
sudden movements
sudden speech

if there is a threat
assume the form
of a rock or a leaf

listen to wise Nature
recommending mimicry

that we breathe shallowly
pretend we aren't there

Mr. Cogito however
does not want a life of make-believe

he would like to fight
with the monster
on firm ground

so he walks out at dawn
into a sleepy suburb
carefully equipped
with a long sharp object

he calls to the monster
on the empty streets

he offends the monster
provokes the monster

like a bold skirmisher
of an army that doesn't exist

he calls-
come out contemptible coward

through the fog
one sees only
the huge snout of nothingness

Mr. Cogito wants to enter
the uneven battle

it ought to happen
possibly soon

before there will be
a fall from inertia
an ordinary death without glory
suffocation from formlessness

translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter

Mr. Cogito on Virtue


It is not at all strange
she isn't the bride
of real men

of generals
athletes of power

through the ages she follows them
this tearful old maid
in a dreadful hat from the Salvation Army
she reprimands them

she drags out of the junkroom
a portrait of Socrates
a little cross molded from bread
old words

--while marvelous life reverberates all around
ruddy as a slaughterhouse at dawn

she could almost be buried
in a silver casket
of innocent souvenirs

she becomes smaller and smaller
like a hair in the throat
like a buzzing in the ear


my God
if she was a little younger
a little prettier

kept up with the spirit of the times
swayed her hips
to the rhythm of popular music

maybe then she would be loved
by real men
generals athletes of power despots

if she took care of herself
looked presentable
like Liz Taylor
or the Goddess of Victory

but an odor of mothballs
wafts from her
she compresses her lips
repeats a great--No

unbearable in her stubbornness
ridiculous as a scarecrow
as the dream of an anarchist
as the lives of the saints

translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter

Our fear

Our fear
does not wear a night shirt
does not have owl's eyes
does not lift a casket lid
does not extinguish a candle

does not have a dead man's face either

our fear
is a scrap of paper found in a pocket

"warn Wojcik the place on Dluga Street is hot"
our fear
does not rise on the wings of the tempest
does not sit on a church tower it is down-to-earth

it has the shape of a bundle made in haste
with warm clothing provisions
and arms

our fear
does not have the face of a dead man
the dead are gentle to us
we carry them on our shoulders
sleep under the same blanket
close their eyes
adjust their lips
pick a dry spot
and bury them

not too deep
not too shallow

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz

Report from a Besieged City

Too old to carry arms and to fight like others-
they generously assigned to me the inferior role of a chronicler
I record--not knowing for whom--the history of the siege

I have to be precise but I don't know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in autumn perhaps yesterday at dawn
here everybody is losing the sense of time

we were left with the place an attachment to the place
still we keep ruins of temples phantoms of gardens of houses
if we were to lose the ruins we would be left with nothing

I write as I can in the rhythm of unending weeks
monday: storehouses are empty a rat is now a unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor is killed by unknown assailants
wednesday: talks of armistice the enemy interned our envoys
we don't know where they are being kept i.e. tortured
thursday: after a stormy meeting the majority voted down the motion of spice merchants on unconditional surrender friday: the onset of plague saturday: the suicide of N.N.,
the most steadfast defender sunday: no water we repulsed
the attack at the eastern gate named the Gate of the Alliance

I know all this is monotonous nobody would care

I avoid comments keep emotions under control describe facts
they say facts only are valued on foreign markets
but with a certain pride I wish to convey to the world
thanks to the war we raised a new species of children
our children don't like fairy tales they play killing
day and night they dream of soup bread bones
exactly like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander in the confines of the City
along the frontiers of our uncertain freedom
I look from above on the multitude of armies on their lights
I listen to the din of drums to barbaric shrieks
it's incredible that the City is still resisting
the siege has been long the foes must replace each other they have nothing in common except a desire to destroy us
the Goths the Tartars the Swedes the Emperor's troupes regiments of Our Lord's Transfiguration
who could count them
colors of banners change as does the forest on the horizon
from the bird's delicate yellow in the spring through the green the red
to the winter black

and so in the evening freed from facts I am able to
give thought to bygone faraway matters for instance to our
allies overseas I know they feel true compassion
they send us flour sacks of comfort lard and good counsel
without even realizing that we were betrayed by their fathers
our former allies from the time of the second Apocalypse their sons are not guilty they deserve our gratitude so we are grateful
they have never lived through the eternity of a siege
those marked by misfortune are always alone
Dalai Lama's defenders Kurds Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words proponents of compromise
have won a slight advantage over the party of the dauntless
usual shifts of mood our fate is still in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders shrinks
but the defense continues and will last to the end
and even if the City falls and one of us survives
he will carry the City inside him on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look at the face of hunger the face of fire the face of death
and the worst of them all--the face of treason

and only our dreams have not been humiliated

Warsaw 1982

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz

Transformations of Livy
by Zbigniew Herbert

How did they understand Livy my grandfather my great grandfather
certainly they read him in high school
at the not very propitious time of the year
when a chestnut stands in the window--fervent candelabras of blooms--
all the thoughts of grandfather and great grandfather running breathless to Mizia
who sings in the garden shows her decolletage also her heavenly legs up to the knees
or Gabi from the Vienna opera with ringlets like a cherub Gabi with a snub nose and Mozart in her throat
or in the end to kindhearted Jozia refuge of the dejected
with no beauty talent or great demands
and so they read Livy--O season of blossoms--
in the smell of chalk boredom naphthalene for cleaning the floor
under a portrait of the emperor
because at that time there was an emperor
and the empire like all empires
seemed eternal

Reading the history of the City they surrendered to the illusion
that they are Romans or descendants of the Romans
these sons of the conquered themselves enslaved
surely the Latin master contributed to this
with his rank of Court Councillor
a collection of antique virtues under a worn-out frock coat
so following Livy he implanted in his pupils the contempt for the mob
the revolt of the people--res tam foede--aroused loathing in them
whereas all of the conquests appeared just
they showed simply the victory of what is better stronger
that is why they were pained by the defeat at Lake Trasimeno
the superiority of Scipio filled them with pride
they learned of the death of Hannibal with genuine relief
easily too easily they let themselves be led
through the entrenchments of subordinate clauses
complex constructions governed by the gerund
rivers swollen with elocution
pitfalls of syntax
--to battle
for a cause not theirs

Only my father and myself after him
read Livy against Livy
carefully examining what is underneath the fresco
this is why the theatrical gesture of Scaevola awoke no echo in us
shouts of centurions triumphal marches
while we were willing to be moved by the defeat
of the Samnites Gauls or Etruscans
we counted many of the names of peoples turned to dust by the Romans
buried without glory who for Livy
were not worth even a wrinkle of style
those Hirpins Apulians Lucanians Osunans
also the inhabitants of Tarentum Metapontum Locri

My father knew well and I also know
that one day on a remote boundary
without any signs in heaven in Pannonia Sarajevo or Trebizond
in a city by a cold sea
or in a valley of Panshir
a local conflagration will explode

and the empire will fall

Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter

The Nepenthe Family
by Zbigniew Herbert

Did Jean-Jaques the Tender know about the pitcher plant
-it was described by Linnaeus he should have know it-
so why was he silent about this scandal of nature

one of many scandals but perhaps
beyond the capacity of the hear and tear glands
of the one who sought only comfort in nature

this is criminal grows in the dark jungles of Borneo
and lures with a flower that is not a flower
but the main vein of a leaf fanned out in the form of a pitcher

with a hinged lid and very sweet mouth
that draws insects to the teacherous banquet
like the secret police of a certain empire

for who can resist-fly or man-
the sticky nectars orgy of colors glowing with hues
of white of violet of meat like the windows of a red travern

where a kind innkeeper with a beautiful daughter wife
sends the company of drunken guests drained of blood
to heaven or hell depending on their merits

it was a fovrite of the Victorian decadents
combining the salon of debauchery with the torture chamber
everything was there-rope nails venom sex the knout the coffin

and we live peacefully with the pitcher plant
among gulags concentration camps with no concern for the knowledge
that innocence in the world of plants-does not exist

translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter

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