Sunday, June 28, 2015

Zbigniew Herbert

18 Translations by Oriana Ivy

Oriana Ivy on Translating Zbigniew Herbert

Zbigniew Herbert was the first "live" poet I got to hear — not in Warsaw where I was born, but in Los Angeles, when I was an undergraduate at UCLA. My first poetry reading ever! It was thanks to Herbert that I discovered modern Polish poetry.

I fell in love with his poems, and I had to see what they looked like in English, what they sounded like. I wanted to see if I could pour his magic into English. Every translator knows how difficult that can be.

About Oriana

Oriana was born in Poland and came to the United States when she was 17. Her poems, essays, book reviews, and translations from modern Polish poetry have been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry 1992, Nimrod, New Letters, The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Black Warrior, Wisconsin Review, Prairie Schooner, Spoon River Review, Southern Poetry Review, and many other journals and anthologies. A former journalist and community college instructor, she teaches poetry workshops. She lives in San Diego.

Poetry by Zbigniew Herbert

She Was Setting Her Hair

She was setting her hair before sleep
and before the mirror it lasted infinitely long
epochs passed between one bending of the arm
and another

from her hair quietly slipped out
the soldiers of the Second Legion
named after Augustus Antoninus
the comrades of Rolland artillerists from Verdun

with strong fingers
she secured the glory above her head

it lasted so long
that when she finally
began her rocking
march toward me
my heart obedient so far
and thick grains of salt
appeared on my skin

The Elegy of Fortinbras

My prince now that we are alone we can talk man to man
though you are lying on the steps and can see as much as a dead ant
a black sun with broken rays
I could never think about your hands without smiling
now they lie on the stone pavement like a toppled star
as helpless as before This is really the end
The hands lie separately The sword lies separately The head separately
and the feet of a knight in soft slippers

You will have a soldier's funeral though you were not a soldier
it's the only ritual on which I'm something of an expert
There'll be no tall candles or singing there'll be guns and noise
a black shroud dragging on the ground hard-heeled boots
artillery horses the beat of the drum I don't know anything beautiful
these will be my maneuvers before taking power
one has to seize the city by the throat and shake it a bit

You had to die anyway Hamlet you were not fit for life
you believed in crystal ideas and not in human clay
you lived in constant spasms as if in a dream
you hunted chimeras
you bit greedily into the air and vomited it at once
you didn't know any human thing you couldn't even breathe

Now you are at peace Hamlet you have done your duty
and are at peace the rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part the dramatic play
but what is a hero's death next to the eternal vigilance
on a tall chair a cold orb in hand
looking out on an anthill and the face of the clock

Farewell prince I must get busy with the projects of canals
and a decree concerning prostitutes and beggars
I must also improve the penal system
since as you correctly noted Denmark is a prison
I must be off to business Tonight a star called Hamlet
will be born We will never meet
what will remain of me won't become the subject of a tragedy

Neither to greet nor to part we live on archipelagoes
and this water these words what can they do what can they do my prince


I thought:
she will never change

will always be waiting
in a white dress
and blue eyes
at the threshold of all doors

will always be smiling
and putting on her necklace

the string broke
now the pearls winter
in the cracks of the floor

mother likes coffee
a warm stove

she sits
adjusts the glasses
on her pointed nose

reads my poem
contradicts with her gray head
the poem that fell down from her lap

she purses her lips keeps silent
it’s not a cheerful talk
under the lamp the source of sweetness

an unexalted sorrow
from what wells does he drink
on what roads does he walk
this son so unlike the dream

I nourished him with gentle milk
unrest is burning him
I washed him with warm blood
his hands are rough and cold

far away from your eyes
pierced with blind love
loneliness is easier to bear

a week later
in a cold room
with a choked throat
I read her letter

each word stands separate
like a loving heart

Thinking About My Father

His severe face in a cloud over the waters of childhood
he rarely held my warm head
inclined to the presumption of guilt unforgiving
he uprooted forests straightened paths
carried the lantern high when we entered the night

I thought I would be sitting at his right hand
we would be dividing darkness from light
and judging the living
what really happened was different

a peddler of second-hand goods carted off his throne
and the mortgage record the map of our domain

he was born a second time slight very frail
with a transparent skin almost non-existent bones
he kept diminishing his body that I might receive it

in an unimportant place in the shadow of a stone

he grows within me we eat our defeats
we burst out laughing
when they say how little
it takes to be reconciled

A stone is
a perfect being

equal to itself
staying within its limits

precisely filled
with stone sense

its smell
does not resemble anything
does not frighten
does not awaken desire

its ardor and aloofness
are just and dignified

I feel a severe reproach
as I hold it in my hand
and false heat penetrates
its noble body

Stones do not tame
to the end they will look at us
with a bright and very calm eye

Report From Paradise

In paradise the work week is thirty hours
salaries are higher prices always dropping
physical labor is not tiring (because of lower gravity)
chopping wood is like typing
the social system is stable the government moderate
it's certainly better in paradise than in any country

At first it was supposed to be different
luminous circles choirs and rungs of abstraction
but one couldn't separate body from soul
precisely enough and the soul would arrive
with a drop of blubber a thread of muscle
one had to compromise
mix the grain of the absolute with the grain of clay
still another falling away from the doctrine the ultimate one
only John foresaw it: the resurrection of the body

God is seen by few
exists only for those made of pure pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about floods and miracles
in time all will see God
when this is to take place nobody knows

In the meantime Saturday at noon
the sirens roar sweetly
and heavenly proletarians come out of the factories
carrying their wings awkwardly like violins

Mr. Cogito Laments the Pettiness of Dreams

Even dreams have grown smaller
where are the dream pageants of our grandmothers and grandfathers
when colorful as birds carefree as birds they ascended
the imperial staircase lit with a thousand chandeliers
and grandfather already tamed to the walking stick pressed to his side
a silver sword and unloved grandmother who out of courtesy
put on for him the face of first love

Isiah spoke to them
from clouds like swirls of tobacco smoke
they saw Saint Teresa pale as a wafer
carrying a genuine basket of firewood

their terror was immense as a Tatar horde
their happiness like golden rain

my dream – the doorbell rings I am shaving in the bathroom I open the door
the bill collector hands me my gas and electricity bill
I have no money I return to the bathroom brooding
over the figure 63.50
I raise my eyes and see in the mirror
my face so life-like that I wake up screaming

if at least once a hangman's red tunic appeared in my dream
or a queen’s necklace I would be grateful to dreams

Last Will And Testament

I will to the four elements
that over which I’ve held a brief domain

to fire – thought
let the fire blossom

to the earth which I loved too much
my body a barren seed

to the air – my words and hands
and longings that is to say superfluous things

and that which shall remain
a drop of water
let it move between
the heaven and the earth

let it be transparent rain
a fern of frost a snowflake

never having reached heaven
let it return to that vale of tears my earth

as pure faithful dew
patiently crumbling hard soil

soon I will give back to the four elements
that over which I’ve held a brief domain

I will not return
to the source of peace


Gothic towers of needles in a stream-cut valley
nearby Mount Tamalpais in thick fog like the ocean's
fury and ecstasy

in this preserve of giants they display a cross-section of a tree
a copper-colored stump of the west
with regular rings like circles on water
someone perverse marked here the dates of human history
an inch from the center Rome is burning during the reign of Nero
midway the battle of Hastings the night-time expedition of the drakkars
Anglo-Saxons in panic the death of the unfortunate Harold
described with a compass
finally near the shoreline of bark the Normandy invasion

the Tacitus of this tree was a geometrician he knew no adjectives
he didn't know the syntax of terror he didn't know any words
so he counted added years and centuries as though to say
there is nothing
except birth and death only birth and death
and inside the sequoia's bloody marrrow

Mr. Cogito Tells About the Temptations of Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam
desired to reach God

in the attic once
while grinding lenses
he suddenly pierced the veil
and stood face to face

he spoke a long time
(and as he spoke
his mind waxed great
and his soul)
he asked questions
about the nature of man

— God absent-mindedly stroked his beard

he asked about the First Cause

— God stared into infinity

he asked about the Ultimate Cause

— God cracked his knuckles
cleared his throat

when Spinoza finished
God spoke thus

you discourse very well Baruch
I like your geometrical Latin
its precise syntax
the symmetry of your argument

however let us talk
about Really Great Things

look at your hands
bruised and trembling

you are ruining your eyes
in the dark

you eat poorly
dress poorly

buy a new house
forgive the venetian mirrors
for repeating the surface

forgive the flowers in the hair
forgive the drunken song

look to your income
like your colleague Descartes

be cunning
like Erasmus

dedicate a treatise
to Louis XIV
he won't read it anyway

calm down rational fury
it is going to fell thrones
and blacken the stars

think about a woman
who will give you a child

see Baruch
now we are talking about Great Things

I want to be loved
by the ignorant and the violent
they are the only ones
who really crave me

now the veil descends
Spinoza remains alone

he sees no golden cloud
no light on the heights

he sees darkness

hears creaking of the stairs
going down

Mr. Cogito Encounters in the Louvre
the Statue of the Great Mother

This small cosmology in fired clay
slightly larger than the human palm
comes from Boetia
head like the sacred Mount Neru
hair flowing like the great rivers of the earth
neck a sky pulsing with heat
a necklace of clouds
sleepless constellations

send us the holy water of fertility
you whose fingers burst into leaves
we born of clay
like the ibis the snake and the grass
want you to hold us
in your strong hands

on the belly a square earth
guarded by double sun

we do not want other gods
our fragile house of air
will suffice stone tree
simple names of things
carry us carefully from night to night
then blow out our senses
at the threshold of the question

abandoned in a glass case Mother
stares with the surprised
eye of a star

Mr. Cogito Meditates on Redemption

He shouldn’t have sent his son

too many saw
the son’s pierced palms
his ordinary death

we were doomed
to be reconciled
through the worst of reconciliations

too many nostrils
drew in with pleasure
the smell of his fear

one mustn’t
fraternize with blood

he shouldn’t have sent his son

it was better to reign
in a palace of marble clouds
on the throne of terror
holding the scepter of death

Thorns and Roses

Saint Ignatius
flaming and white
threw himself upon a rosebush
to mortify the flesh

with the bell of his black habit
he wanted to drown out
the beauty of the world
gushing from the earth as from a wound

but lying at the bottom
of the cradle of thorns he saw
that the blood flowing down his forehead
congealed on his eyelashes
in the shape of a rose

and his blind hand
seeking thorns
had been pierced
with the sweet touch of petals

the deceived saint wept
amid the mockery of blossoms

thorns and roses
roses and thorns
we pursue happiness

Mr. Cogito in Upright Posture

In Utica the citizens
don't want to defend themselves

an epidemic of self-preservation
is sweeping through the town

the temple of liberty
has been turned into a flea market

the senate is debating
on how not to be a senate

the citizens don't want to defend themselves
they take accelerated courses
in falling on their knees

they passively await the enemy
write loyal-subject speeches
hide their gold

they sew new flags
innocent and white
they teach children to lie

they have opened their gates
through which now enters
a column of sand

outside of that things as usual
commerce and copulation

Mr. Cogito would like to rise
to the occasion

to look fate
straight in the eye

like Cato the Younger
see Lives

however he has neither
a sword or the means
to send his family overseas

thus he waits like the others
paces about the sleepless room

against the advice of the stoics
he'd like to have a diamond body
and wings

he watches through the window
the setting sun of the republic

he has little left
actually only
the choice of the posture
in which he wishes to die

this is why
he doesn't go to bed
to avoid suffocation
while asleep

to the end he would like to stay
equal to the occasion

fate looks him in the eye
at the spot where his head
used to be

Song About the Drum

The pastoral flutes are gone
the gold of Sunday trumpets
green echoes of the horns
violins too are gone

only the drum has stayed
the drum plays on
a solemn march funeral march

simple emotions on stiff legs
walk to the beat
the drummer plays
one thought one word
when the drum calls forth a steep precipice

we carry ears of grain or tombstones
whatever the wise drum foretells
when the step beats the skin of the pavement
the hard step that will transform the world
into one parade and one shout

finally all humanity is marching
finally everyone is in step
calf skin two batons
have broken the tower of loneliness
silence is trampled on
and death not terrible when in a crowd

the column of dust over the parade
will part like obedient sea
we will descend low into the abyss
of empty hell also higher
we will examine the unreality of heaven
and freed from fear
the whole procession will turn into sand
carried by the mocking wind

and so the last echo will pass
over the insubordinate mold of the earth
only the drum the drum will stay
dictator of conquered music

The Seventh Angel

The seventh angel
is completely different
even his name is different

not like Gabriel
support of the throne
and its canopy

nor like Raphael
tuner of the choirs

nor like Azrael
director of the planets
geometrician of infinity
eminent expert in theoretical physics

is dark and nervous
has been punished many times
for smuggling in sinners

between heaven and the abyss
the constant rumble of his feet

he does not maintain his dignity
and they keep him
only because of the number seven

but he's not like the others

not like the leader of the hosts
all coat of mail and feathered helmet

nor like Azrafael
decorator of the world
protector of luxuriant vegetation
with wings like two great oaks

not even like
apologist and kabalist

When they paint the seven
Byzantine painters
make Shemkel
look like the others

they'd fall into heresy
if they painted him
as he is
dark nervous
in a faded old halo

Caligula Speaks

Among all the citizens of Rome
I loved only one
Incitatus--a horse

when he entered the Senate
the unstainable toga of his coat
gleamed in the midst
of purple-lined assassins

Incitatus possessed many merits
he never made speeches
had a stoic temperament
I think at night in the stable he read the philosophers

I loved him so much that one day I decided to crucify him
but his noble anatomy made it impossible

he accepted the honor of consulship with indifference
exercised authority in the best manner
that is not at all

he would not be persuaded toward a lasting liason
with my second wife Caesonia
thus unfortunately the lineage of centaur ceasars
was not engendered

that's why Rome fell

I determined to have him declared a god
but on the ninth day before the February calends
Cherea Cornelius Sabinus and the other fools
interfered with my pious plans

he accepted the news of my death with calm
was thrown out of the palace and condemned to exile
he bore this blow with dignity

he died without descendants
slaughtered by a thick-skinned butcher from Ancium

Tacitus is silent
about the posthumous fate of his meat

The Clock

On the surface a miller's calm face, round-cheeked and shiny like an apple. A single dark hair moves across it. But look inside: a nest of worms, the interior of an anthill. And this is supposed to lead us to eternity.


Who would think a warm neck could grow immobile, limbs eager for flight and joy stiffen into four straight stilts. Long ago chairs were beautiful flower-eating animals. But they let themselves be tamed too easily, and now they are the lowest species of quadrupeds. They have lost steadfastness and courage. They have only patience left. They have never trampled anyone, never bucked under anyone. Surely they suffer from a sense of wasted life.

The despair of chairs manifests itself in creaking.


It’s impossible to imagine the sleep of fish. Even in the darkest corner of the pond, deep in the reeds, their sleep is a constant wakefulness: always the same posture and the absolute impossibility of saying about them: they laid down their heads.

Their tears are like a scream in a vacuum – uncounted.

Fish cannot gesture their despair. This justifies the dull knife skipping along the spine, ripping off the sequins of scales.

~ Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Oriana Ivy