Zbigniew Herbert--Polish



Zbigniew Herbert


Herbert was born in 1924 in a Polish-speaking area of the former Soviet Union. During the war he studied Polish literature at the clandestine Jan Kazimierz University. It was at this time he came into contact with the Home Army resistance movement of which he became an active member. He moved to Cracow in 1944 where he studied law and philosophy. His first collection of poetry, String of Light, was published in 1956. Throughout the 1950s he was forced to work at menial jobs because of his refusal to adhere to the official Communist party doctrine. He became editor of Poezja, one of Poland’s leading poetry magazine, a position he held from 1963-1968. His early work was translated into English in 1968, by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott,  making him one of the most popular contemporary poets in the English-speaking world. He died in Warsaw in 1998. 

Report from the Besieged City

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others -

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler

I record - I don't know for whom - the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began

two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn

everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

all we have left is the place the attachment to the place

we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses

if we lose the ruins nothing will be left

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks

monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency

tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants

wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned our messengers

we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture

thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected

the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender

friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible defender

N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back

an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance

all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anyone

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts

only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets

yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world

that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children

our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing

awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones

just like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the city

along the frontier of our uncertain freedom.

I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights

I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks

truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself

the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns

nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination

Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration

who can count them

the colours of their banners change like the forest on the horizon

from delicate bird's yellow in spring through green through red to winter's black

and so in the evening released from facts I can think

about distant ancient matters for example our

friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize

they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice

they don’t even know their fathers betrayed us

our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse

their sons are blameless they deserve our gratitude therefore we are grateful

they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity

those struck by misfortune are always alone

the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation

have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles

a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller

yet the defence continues it will continue to the end

and if the City falls but a single man escapes

he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile

he will be the City

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death

worst of all - the face of betrayal

and only our dreams have not been humiliated



A Ballad That We Do Not Perish

Those who sailed at dawn
but will never return
left their trace on a wave—

a shell fell to the bottom of the sea
beautiful as lips turned to stone
those who walked on a sandy road
but could not reach the shuttered windows
though they already saw the roofs—

they have found shelter in a bell of air
but those who leave behind only
a room grown cold a few books
an empty inkwell white paper—

in truth they have not completely died
their whisper travels through thickets of wallpaper
their level head still lives in the ceiling
their paradise was made of air
of water lime and earth an angel of wind
will pulverize the body in its hand
they will be carried over the meadows of this world