POETS ON THIS PAGE:
LORENZO DE’ MEDICI * JOHANN WOLFGANG van GOETHE * ALEXANDER PUSHKIN * ANNA AKHMATOVA * VICTOR HUGO * JORGE LUIS BORGES * CARLOS DRUMMOND DE ANDRADE * LEOPOLD SEDAR SENGHOR * ABRAHAM REISEN * TOMAS TRANSTROMER * FRANCIS JAMMES * OCTAVIO PAZ * CZESLAW MILOSZ * ZBIGNIEW HERBERT * ATTILA JOZSEF * JANOS PILINSZKY
“How futile every hope is, that we have”
How futile every hope is, that we have, How illusory, all our designs, And how crammed this world with ignorance, We learn from our master–-the Grave. Some think singing and dancing and parties are life, Some let quieter matters guide their minds, Some detest the world and its substances, Some live in a secret they show nothing of. Vain worries and thoughts, and diverse fates For the whole variety of creation, Find us, each time, straying over the earth. Each thing has a moment-–that flits, For Fortune’s a sickness of perpetual motion. Nothing is still. And nothing lasts. Only death.
by Lorenzo de’ Medici (aka Lorenzo the Magnificent), 1449-1492; translated from the Italian by Ted Hughes
Erlkönig (c. 1782) [The Erl-king]
Who rides by night in the wind so wild? It is the father, with his child. The boy is safe in his father’s arm, He holds him tight, he keeps him warm. My son, what is it, why cover your face? Father, you see him, there in that place, The elfin king with his cloak and crown? It is only the mist rising up, my son. “Dear little child, will you come with me? Beautiful games I’ll play with thee; Bright are the flowers we’ll find on the shore, My mother has golden robes fullscore.” Father, O father, and did you not hear What the elfin king breathed into my ear? Lie quiet, my child, now never you mind: Dry leaves it was that click in the wind. “Come along now, you’re a fine little lad, My daughters will serve you, see you are glad; My daughters dance all night in a ring, They’ll cradle and dance you and lullaby sing.” Father, now look, in the gloom, do you see The elfin daughters beckon to me? My son, my son, I see it and say: Those old willows, they look so gray. “I love you, beguiled by your beauty I am, If you are unwilling I’ll force you to come!” Father, his fingers grip me, O The elfin king has hurt me so! Now struck with horror the father rides fast, His gasping child in his arm to the last, Home through thick and thin he sped: Locked in his arm, the child was dead.
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; translated from German by Christopher Middleton
TO SEE THE TEXT OF GOETHE’S “THE DEATH OF A FLY” [CLICK HERE]
Crazed by my soul's thirst Through a dark land I staggered. And a six-winged seraph Halted me at a crossroads. With fingers of dream He touched my eye-pupils. My eyes, prophetic, recoiled Like a startled eaglet's. He touched my ears And a thunderous clangour filled them, The shudderings of heaven, The huge wingbeat of angels, The submarine migrations of sea-reptiles And the burgeoning of the earth's vine. He forced my mouth wide, Plucked out my own cunning Garrulous evil tongue, And with bloody fingers Between my frozen lips Inserted the fork of a wise serpent. He split my chest with a blade, Wrenched my heart from its hiding, And into the open wound Dropped a flaming coal. I lay on stones like a corpse. There God's voice came to me; 'Stand Prophet, you are my will. Be my witness. Go Through all seas and lands. With the Word Burn the hearts of the people.'
by Alexander Pushkin; translated from Russian by Ted Hughes
Clouds are whirling, clouds are swirling; Though invisible, the moon Lights the flying snow while blurring Turbid sky and nigh in one. On and on through broad expanses; Sleigh-bell tinkling—din-din-din… Casting fearful, fearful glances At the dark and eerie plain! “Driver, hey there!….” “Can’t go faster: Drifts have blown across the road; Heavy for the horses, master, And my lids together glued; For the life of me, beside us, Tracks are nowhere to be found; It must be a demon guides us, As he circles round and round. “Over there: see him cavorting, Blowing, spitting in my face; Look—and now the horse is snorting On the edge of the abyss; Like some verst-pole without substance He stood out against the dark; Then he flashed across the darkness, Disappearing like a spark.” Clouds are whirling, clouds are swirling; Though invisible, the moon Lights the flying snow while blurring Turbid sky and nigh in one. No more strength to circle, barely; Silent falls the little bell; “What pulls up the horses?”—”Surely— Stump or wolf? But who can tell?” Raging blizzards, weeping, blowing; Horses snorting in their fear; See his eyes distinctly glowing, As he capers over there; Now the horses speed in frenzy; Sleigh-bell tinkling—din-din-din… I can see a spirits’ medley Gather on the glimmering plain. Endless, hideous hordes are pressing Round us, in the moon’s dull light, Demons whirling, flying, massing, Like November leaves in flight. Crowds of them! Where do they hurry? Why so pitiful their song? Goblin do they haste to bur? Witch to wed they bring along? Clouds are whirling, clouds are swirling; Though invisible, the moon Lights the flying snow while blurring Turbid sky and nigh in one. Swarm on swarm, the demons flying Sweep the sky in endless quest, Till their piteous screams and crying Rend the heart within my breast…
by Alexander Pushkin; translated from the Russian by Irina Henderson
The just man followed then his angel guide Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright; But a wild grief in his wife's bosom cried, Look back, it is not too late for a last sight Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn, And the tall house with empty windows where You loved your husband and your babes were born. She turned, and looking on the bitter view Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain; Into transparent salt her body grew, And her quick feet were rooted in the plain. Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not The least of our losses, this unhappy wife? Yet in my heart she will not be forgot Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.
by Anna Akhmatova ; translated from Russian by Richard Wilbur
The mysterious spring still lay under a spell…
The mysterious spring still lay under a spell, the transparent wind stalked over the mountains, and the deep lake kept being blue,-- a temple of the Baptist not made by hands. You were frightened by our first meeting, but I already prayed for the second, and now the evening is hot, the way it was then... How close the sun has come to the mountain. You are not with me, but this is no separation: to me each instant is--triumphant news. I know there is such anguish in you that you cannot say a single word.
by Anna Akhmatova, Petersburg, 1917; translation from the Russian by Jane Kenyon with Vera Sandomirsky Dunham
The snow fell, and its power was multiplied. For the first time the Eagle bowed its head — dark days! Slowly the Emperor returned — behind him Moscow! Its onion domes still burned. The snow rained down in blizzards — rained and froze. Past each white waste a further white waste rose. None recognized the captains or the flags. Yesterday the Grand Army, today its dregs! No one could tell the vanguard from the flanks. The snow! The hurt men struggled from the ranks, hid in the bellies of dead horse, in stacks of shattered caissons. By the bivouacs, one saw the picket dying at his post, still standing in his saddle, white with frost, the stone lips frozen to the bugle’s mouth! Bullets and grapeshot mingled with the snow, that hailed ... The Guard, surprised at shivering, march in a dream now; ice rimes the grey moustache. The snow falls, always snow! The driving mire submerges; men, trapped in that white empire, have no more bread and march on barefoot — gaps! They were no longer living men and troops, but a dream drifting in a fog, a mystery, mourners parading under the black sky. The solitude, vast, terrible to the eye, was like a mute avenger everywhere, as snowfall, floating through the quiet air, buried the huge army in a huge shroud. Could anyone leave this kingdom? A crowd — each man, obsessed with dying, was alone. Men slept — and died! The beaten mob sludged on, ditching the guns to burn their carriages. Two foes. The North, the Czar. The North was worse. In hollows where the snow was piling up, one saw whole regiments fallen asleep. Attila’s dawn, Cannaes of Hannibal! The army marching to its funeral! Litters, wounded, the dead, deserters — swarm, crushing the bridges down to cross a stream. They went to sleep ten thousand, woke up four. Ney, bringing up the former army’s rear, hacked his horse loose from three disputing Cossacks ... All night, the quivive? The alert! Attacks; retreats! White ghosts would wrench away our guns, or we would see dim, terrible squadrons, circles of steel, whirlpools of savages, rush sabring through the camp like dervishes. And in this way, whole armies died at night. The Emperor was there, standing — he saw. This oak already trembling from the axe, watched his glories drop from him branch by branch: chiefs, soldiers. Each one had his turn and chance — they died! Some lived. These still believed his star, and kept their watch. They loved the man of war, this small man with his hands behind his back, whose shadow, moving to and fro, was black behind the lighted tent. Still believing, they accused their destiny of lèse-majesté. His misfortune had mounted on their back. The man of glory shook. Cold stupefied him, then suddenly he felt terrified. Being without belief, he turned to God: ‘God of armies, is this the end?’ he cried. And then at last the expiation came, as he heard someone call him by his name, someone half-lost in shadow, who said, ‘No, Napoleon.’ Napoleon understood, restless, bareheaded, leaden, as he stood before his butchered legions in the snow.
by Victor Hugo (1802-1885); loosely translated from the French by Robert Lowell from Hugo’s “L’Expiation.”
A closer translation of the same poem:
1 It was snowing. For the first time, conquered By his conquest, the eagle bowed his head. Dark days! Slowly the emperor returned, Leaving behind a Moscow that smoked and burned. It was snowing. At the end of the white plain Another stretched, as white and vast again. The leaders and the flags were swept away . . . An army yesterday, a herd today. No longer could one see the wings and center. It was snowing. Wounded men sought shelter In the belly of dead horses. Where they camped One saw buglers frozen, stone mouths clamped To copper trumpets, silent, white with frost, Still upright in the saddle at their post. Ball, grape, and shell were falling with the snow. The grenadiers, surprised that they shook so, Marched pensively, ice on the gray moustache. It was snowing, always snowing! The cold lash Whistled. These warriors had no bread to eat, They walked across the ice with naked feet. No longer living hearts, they seemed to be A dream lost in a fog, a mystery. A march of shadows under a black sky. Vast solitudes, appalling to the eye, Stretched out, mute and revengeful, everywhere. The sky was weaving silently, of air, A shroud for the Grand Army. And each one Could feel that he was dying, and alone. "Shall we ever leave this empire of the Czar? The Czar and the North . . .The North is worse by far." They jettisoned the guns to burn the wood. To lie down was to die. Confused, they fled And were devoured in the fields of snow. One saw by mounds and ridges that below Whole regiments were sleeping. Oh the falls Of Hannibal! The days after Attila! Fugitives, wounded, caissons, shafts, the mass Crushed at the bridges as it strove to pass . . . A hundred woke, then thousand were left sleeping. Ney, who had led an army, was escaping, Fighting to save his watch from three cossacks, Every night "Qui vive!" Alerts, alarms, attacks! These phantoms grasped their rifles . . . terrifying Shadows were rushing towards them, crying Like vultures. Squadrons of savage men Struck like a whirlwind and were gone again. So a whole army would be lost by night. The emperor was there, he watched, upright As a tree that must endure the woodsman's blow. On this giant, a greatness spared till now, Misfortune the grim woodsman climbed. Each stroke Of the axe insulted the man, the living oak. He trembled at the vengeances, each blow Saw a branch falling to the earth below. Leaders and soldiers, each in his turn fell. While love around his tent stood sentinel, Watching his shadow on the canvas wall, And those to his bright star remaining loyal Accused the heavens of lese-majeste, Suddenly his inmost soul gave way. Stunned by disaster, reft of all belief, The emperor turned to God; the glorious chief Trembled; he thought that he was expiating Something perhaps, and contemplating His legions of the dying and the dead, "God of the armies," Napoleon said, "Is this my punishment?" And from the snow And darkness all around, a voice said, "No." --Part 1
by Victor Hugo (1802-1885); translated from French by Louis Simpson
THE WHITE HIND*
From what rustic ballad out of green England, from what Persian picture, from what secret zone of nights and days that our yesterday encloses, came the white hind I dreamed this morning? It lasted only a second. I saw it cross the meadow and lose itself in the gold of an illusive evening, a slight creature made from a pinch of memory and a pinch of forgetfulness, a one-sided hind. The gods that govern this peculiar world let me dream you but not be your master; perhaps at a bend in the deep time to come I’ll find you again, white hind of a dream. I too am a fleeting dream that lasts a few days longer than dreams of meadows and whiteness.
by Jorge Luis Borges; translated from the Spanish (Argentina) by Joseph Hutchison
*On the above poem:
Borges tells Willis Barnstone that he “physically dictated the words” [he was blind by this time and typically dictated his writings to the companion who would ultimately become his wife, María Kodama] but that he “didn’t make them up”: “The poem was given to me, in a dream, some minutes before dawn. At times dreams are painful and tedious, and I object to their outrage and say, enough, this is only a dream, stop. But this time it was an oral picture that I saw and heard. I simply copied it, exactly as it was given to me.” “You copied it. I think the best things we do are when we yield to what’s there,” I blurted, “when we don’t combine or invent but yield to the obvious vision that is present or imminent, and we’re willing to uncover it, to see it, copy it. In the introduction to the Vita Nuova, if I remember rightly, Dante copies from his book of memory. He is scribe of hidden memory.” “Yes, but Dante worked perhaps not so much to retrieve the memory as to furnish that memory with its experience. My dream was there, one- sided, in a flash, in the morning as I was waking.” “You were cunning enough to receive the dream, as it was, and be its scribe.” “I was cunning enough.”
from Willis Barnstone’s With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires.
In Praise of Darkness
Old age (the name that others give it) can be the time of our greatest bliss. The animal has died or almost died. The man and his spirit remain. I live among vague, luminous shapes that are not darkness yet. Buenos Aires, whose edges disintegrated into the endless plain, has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro, the nondescript streets of the Once, and the rickety old houses we still call the South. In my life there were always too many things. Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think: Time has been my Democritus. This penumbra is slow and does not pain me; it flows down a gentle slope, resembling eternity. My friends have no faces, women are what they were so many years ago, these corners could be other corners, there are no letters on the pages of books. All this should frighten me, but it is a sweetness, a return. Of the generations of texts on earth I will have read only a few– the ones that I keep reading in my memory, reading and transforming. From South, East, West, and North the paths converge that have led me to my secret center. Those paths were echoes and footsteps, women, men, death-throes, resurrections, days and nights, dreams and half-wakeful dreams, every inmost moment of yesterday and all the yesterdays of the world, the Dane's staunch sword and the Persian's moon, the acts of the dead, shared love, and words, Emerson and snow, so many things. Now I can forget them. I reach my center, my algebra and my key, my mirror. Soon I will know who I am.
by Jorge Luis Borges; translated from the Spanish (Argentina) by Hoyt Rogers
AN OX LOOKS AT MAN
They are more delicate even than shrubs and they run and run from one side to the other, always forgetting something. Surely they lack I don't know what basic ingredient, though they present themselves as noble or serious, at times. Oh, terribly serious, even tragic. Poor things, one would say that they hear neither the song of the air nor the secrets of hay; likewise they seem not to see what is visible and common to each of us, in space. And they are sad, and in the wake of sadness they come to cruelty. All their expression lives in their eyes--and loses itself to a simple lowering of lids, to a shadow. And since there is little of the mountain about them -- nothing in the hair or in the terribly fragile limbs but coldness and secrecy -- it is impossible for them to settle themselves into forms that are calm, lasting and necessary. They have, perhaps, a kind of melancholy grace (one minute) and with this they allow themselves to forget the problems and translucent inner emptiness that make them so poor and so lacking when it comes to uttering silly and painful sounds: desire, love, jealousy (what do we know?) -- sounds that scatter and fall in the field like troubled stones and burn the herbs and the water, and after this it is hard to keep chewing away at our truth.
by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, 1902–1987; translated from the Portuguese (Brazil) by Mark Strand
Don’t Kill Yourself
Carlos, keep calm, love is what you're seeing now; today a kiss, tomorrow no kiss, day after day tomorrow's Sunday and nobody knows what will happen Monday. It's useless to resist or to commit suicide. Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself! Keep all of yourself for the nuptials coming nobody knows when, that is, if they ever come. Love, Carlos, tellurian, spent the night with you, and now your insides are raising an ineffable racket, prayers, victrolas, saints crossing themselves, ads for better soap, a racket of which nobody knows the why or wherefor. In the meantime, you go on your way vertical, melancholy. You're the palm tree, you're the cry nobody heard in the theatre and all the lights went out. Love in the dark, no, love in the daylight, is always sad, sad, Carlos, my boy, but tell it to nobody, nobody knows nor shall know.
by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, 1902–1987; translated from the Portuguese (Brazil) by Elizabeth Bishop
(for jazz orchestra : trumpet solo)
1 New York! At first I was confused by your beauty, by those great golden long-legged girls. So shy at first before your blue metallic eyes, your frosted smile So shy. And the anguish in the depths of skyscraper streets Lifting eyes hawkhooded to the sun's eclipse. Sulphurous your Hght and Uvid the towers with heads that thunderbolt the sky The skyscrapers which defy the storms with muscles of steel and stone-glazed hide. But two weeks on the bare sidewalks of Manhattan -- At the end of the third week the fever seizes you with the pounce of a leopard Two weeks without rivers or fields, all the birds of the air Falling sudden and dead on the high ashes of flat rooftops. No smile of a child blooms, his hand refreshed in my hand. No mother's breast, but only nylon legs. Legs and breasts that have no sweat nor smell. No tender word for there are no lips, only artificial hearts paid for in hard cash And no book where wisdom may be read. The painter's palette blossoms with crystals of coral. Nights of insomnia oh nights of Manhattan! So agitated by flickering lights, while motor-horns howl of empty hours And while dark waters carry away hygienic loves, like rivers flooded with the corpses of children. 2 Now is the time of signs and reckonings New York ! Now is the time of manna and hyssop. You must but listen to the trombones of God, let your heart beat in the rhythm of blood, your blood. I saw in Harlem humming with noise with stately colours and flamboyant smells It was teatime at the house of the seller of pharmaceutical products - I saw them preparing the festival of night for escape from the day. I proclaim night more truthful than the day. It was the pure hour when in the streets God makes the life that goes back beyond memory spring up All the amphibious elements shining like suns. Harlem Harlem! Now I saw Harlem! A green breeze of corn springs up from the pavements ploughed by the naked feet of dancers Bottoms waves of silk and sword-blade breasts, water-lily ballets and fabulous masks. At the feet of police-horses roll the mangoes of love from low houses. And I saw along the sidewalks streams of white rum streams of black milk in the blue fog of cigars. I saw the sky in the evening snow cotton-flowers and seraphims' wings and sorcerers' plumes. Listen New York! Oh listen to your male voice of brass vibrating with oboes, the anguish choked with tears falling in great clots of blood Listen to the distant beating of your nocturnal heart, rhythm and blood of the tom-tom, tom-tom blood and tom-tom. 3 New York! I say to you: New York let black blood flow into your blood That it may rub the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life, That it may give to your bridges the bend of buttocks and the suppleness of creepers. Now return the most ancient times, the unity recovered, the reconciliation of the Lion the Bull and the Tree Thought linked to act, ear to heart, sign to sense. There are your rivers murmuring with scented crocodiles and mirage-eyed manatees. And no need to invent the Sirens. But it is enough to open the eyes to the rainbow of April And the ears, above all the ears, to God who out of the laugh of a saxophone created the heaven and the earth in six days. And the seventh day he slept the great sleep of the Negro.
by Leopold Sedar Senghor; translated by Arnold von Bradshaw
HOUSEHOLD OF EIGHT
Household of eight.Beds are two.When it gets late,What do they do? Three with father, Three with mother; Limbs Over each other. When it's night And they go to bed, Mother begins To wish she were dead. A resting place All her own. Narrow-- But you sleep alone.
by Abraham Reisen, 1876-1953; translated from Yiddish by Nathan Halper
2 am: moonlight. The train has stopped out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town, flickering coldly at the horizon. As when a man has gone into a dream so deep he'll never remember having been there when he comes back to his room. As when someone has gone into an illness so deep everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm, cold and tiny at the horizon. The train is standing quite still. 2 am: bright moonlight, few stars.
by Tomas Tranströmer, 2011 Nobel prize for literature winner. Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton from New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011)
I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at the side of the road. I curl up in the back seat and sleep. For how long? Hours. Darkness has fallen. Suddenly I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide-awake, but it doesn’t help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in a backseat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who? At last my life returns. My name appears like an angel. Outside the walls a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora Overture) and the rescuing footsteps come smartly down the overlong stairway. It is I! It is I! But impossible to forget the fifteen-second struggle in the hell of oblivion, a few meters from the main road, where the traffic glides past with its lights on.
by Tomas Tranströmer; translated from Swedish by Robin Fulton
A Prayer to Go to Heaven with the Donkeys
When I must come to you, O my God, I pray It be some dusty-roaded holiday, And even as in my travels here below, I beg to choose by what road I shall go To Paradise, where the clear stars shine by day. I'll take my walking-stick and go my way, And to my friends the donkeys I shall say, "I am Francis Jammes, and I'm going to Paradise, For there is no hell in the land of the loving God." And I'll say to them: "Come, sweet friends of the blue skies, Poor creatures who with a flap of the ears or a nod Of the head shake off the buffets, the bees, the flies . . ." Let me come with these donkeys, Lord, into your land, These beasts who bow their heads so gently, and stand With their small feet joined together in a fashion Utterly gentle, asking your compassion. I shall arrive, followed by their thousands of ears, Followed by those with baskets at their flanks, By those who lug the carts of mountebanks Or loads of feather-dusters and kitchen-wares, By those with humps of battered water-cans, By bottle-shaped she-asses who halt and stumble, By those tricked out in little pantaloons To cover their wet, blue galls where flies assemble In whirling swarms, making a drunken hum. Dear God, let it be with these donkeys that I come, And let it be that angels lead us in peace To leafy streams where cherries tremble in air, Sleek as the laughing flesh of girls; and there In that haven of souls let it be that, leaning above Your divine waters, I shall resemble these donkeys, Whose humble and sweet poverty will appear Clear in the clearness of your eternal love.
by Francis Jammes, 1868-1938; translated from French by Richard Wilbur
WIND AND WATER AND STONE
For Roger Caillois The water hollowed the stone, the wind dispersed the water, the stone stopped the wind. Water and wind and stone. The wind sculpted the stone, the stone is a cup of water, The water runs off and is wind. Stone and wind and water. The wind sings in its turnings, the water murmurs as it goes, the motionless stone is quiet. Wind and water and stone. One is the other and is neither: among their empty names they pass and disappear, water and stone and wind.
by Octavio Paz, 1914-1998; translated from the Spanish (Mexico) by Mark Strand
Campo dei Fiori
In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori baskets of olives and lemons, cobbles spattered with wine and the wreckage of flowers. Vendors cover the trestles with rose-pink fish; armfuls of dark grapes heaped on peach-down. On this same square they burned Giordano Bruno. Henchmen kindled the pyre close-pressed by the mob. Before the flames had died the taverns were full again, baskets of olives and lemons again on the vendors' shoulders. I thought of the Campo dei Fiori in Warsaw by the sky-carousel one clear spring evening to the strains of a carnival tune. The bright melody drowned the salvos from the ghetto wall, and couples were flying high in the cloudless sky. At times wind from the burning would drift dark kites along and riders on the carousel caught petals in midair. That same hot wind blew open the skirts of the girls and the crowds were laughing on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday. Someone will read as moral that the people of Rome or Warsaw haggle, laugh, make love as they pass by the martyrs' pyres. Someone else will read of the passing of things human, of the oblivion born before the flames have died. But that day I thought only of the loneliness of the dying, of how, when Giordano climbed to his burning he could not find in any human tongue words for mankind, mankind who live on. Already they were back at their wine or peddled their white starfish, baskets of olives and lemons they had shouldered to the fair, and he already distanced as if centuries had passed while they paused just a moment for his flying in the fire. Those dying here, the lonely forgotten by the world, our tongue becomes for them the language of an ancient planet. Until, when all is legend and many years have passed, on a new Campo dei Fiori rage will kindle at a poet's word.
by Czesław Miłosz, 1911–2004; from Warsaw, 1943; translated by Louis Iribarne
You Who Wronged
You who wronged a simple man Bursting into laughter at the crime, And kept a pack of fools around you To mix good and evil, to blur the line, Though everyone bowed down before you, Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way, Striking gold medals in your honor, Glad to have survived another day, Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date. And you’d have done better with a winter dawn, A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.
by Czeslaw Milosz, 1911–2004; written in Washington, D.C., 1950; translated from Polish by Richard Lourie
I thought but I know her so well we have been living together so many years I know her bird-like head white arms and belly until one time on a winter evening she sat down beside me and in the lamplight falling from behind us I saw a rosy ear a comic petal of skin a conch with living blood inside it I didn’t say anything then– it would be good to write a poem about a rosy ear but not so that people would say what a subject he chose he’s trying to be eccentric so that nobody even would smile so that they would understand that I proclaim a mystery I didn’t say anything then but that night when we were in bed together delicately I essayed the exotic taste of a rosy ear
by Zbigniew Herbert; translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott
THE ENVOY OF MR. COGITO
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 deceives 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 your sister Scorn not leave you for the informers executioners cowards—they will win they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump 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 unnecessary pride keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror repeat: I was called—weren’t 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 your dark star repeat old incantations 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 because only in this way will you be admitted 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
by Zbigniew Herbert; translated from the Polish by Bogdana and John Carpenter
from Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Ltd. Source: Mr. Cogito (1993)
When my older brother came back from war he had on his forehead a little silver star and under the star an abyss a splinter of shrapnel hit him at Verdun or perhaps at Grünwald (he’d forgotten the details) he used to talk much in many languages but he liked most of all the language of history until losing breath he commanded his dead pals to run Roland Kowaski Hannibal he shouted that this was the last crusade that Carthage soon would fall and then sobbing confessed that Napoleon did not like him we looked at him getting paler and paler abandoned by his senses he turned slowly into a monument into musical shells of ears entered a stone forest and the skin of his face was secured with the blind dry buttons of eyes nothing was left him but touch what stories he told with his hands in the right he had romances in the left soldier’s memories they took my brother and carried him out of town he returns every fall slim and very quiet he does not want to come in he knocks at the window for me we walk together in the streets and he recites to me improbable tales touching my face with blind fingers of rain
by Zbigniew Herbert; translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz
from Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert (The Ecco Press, 1985), Edited and translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. English translation copyright © 1968 by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Scott.
If you set out in this world, better be born seven times. Once, in a house on fire, once, in a freezing flood, once, in a wild madhouse, once, in a field of ripe wheat, once, in an empty cloister, and once among pigs in sty. Six babes crying, not enough: you yourself must be the seventh. When you must fight to survive, let your enemy see seven. One, away from work on Sunday, one, starting his work on Monday, one, who teaches without payment, one, who learned to swim by drowning, one, who is the seed of a forest, and one, whom wild forefathers protect, but all their tricks are not enough: you yourself must be the seventh. If you want to find a woman, let seven men go for her. One, who gives heart for words, one, who takes care of himself, one, who claims to be a dreamer, one, who through her skirt can feel her, one, who knows the hooks and snaps, one, who steps upon her scarf: let them buzz like flies around her. You yourself must be the seventh. If you write and can afford it, let seven men write your poem. One, who builds a marble village, one, who was born in his sleep, one, who charts the sky and knows it, one, whom words call by his name, one, who perfected his soul, one, who dissects living rats. Two are brave and four are wise; You yourself must be the seventh. And if all went as was written, you will die for seven men. One, who is rocked and suckled, one, who grabs a hard young breast, one, who throws down empty dishes, one, who helps the poor win; one, who worked till he goes to pieces, one, who just stares at the moon. The world will be your tombstone: you yourself must be the seventh.
by Attila Jozsef, 1905 – 1937; translated from Hungarian by Gabor K. Tozser
János Pilinszky (25 November 1921 in Budapest – 27 May 1981 in Budapest) was one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the 20th century. Well known within the Hungarian borders for his vast influence on postwar Hungarian poetry, Pilinszky’s style includes a juxtaposition of Roman Catholic faith and intellectual disenchantment. His poetry often focuses on the underlying sensations of life and death; his time as a prisoner of war during the Second World War and later his life under the communist dictatorship furthered his isolation and estrangement.–Wikipedia
THE DESERT OF LOVE
A bridge, and a hot concrete road-- the day is emptying its pockets, laying out, one by one, all its possessions. You are quite alone in the catatonic twilight. A landscape like the bed of a wrinkled pit, with glowing scars, a darkness which dazzles. Dusk thickens. I stand numb with brightness blinded by the sun. This summer will not leave me. Summer. And the flashing heat. The chickens stand, like burning cherubs, in the boarded-up, splintered cages. I know their wings do not even tremble. Do you still remember? First there was the wind. And then the earth. Then the cage. Flames, dung. And now and again a few wing-flutters, a few empty reflexes. And thirst. I asked for water. Even today I hear that feverish gulping, and helplessly, like a stone, bear and quench the mirages. Years are passing. And years. And hope is like a tin-cup toppled into the straw.
by Janos Pilinzsky, 1921–1981; translated by the Hungarian by Ted Hughes and Csokits János
At all times I see them. The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up. Beneath it, harnessed men haul an immense cart. Dragging that giant wagon which grows bigger as the night grows their bodies are divided among the dust, their hunger and their trembling. They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land, the bleak potato fields, and all they know is the weight of everything, the burden of the skylines and the falling bodies of their companions which almost grow into their own as they lurch, living layers, treading each other’s footsteps. The villages stay clear of them, the gateways withdraw. The distance, that has come to meet them, reels away back. Staggering, they wade knee deep in the low, darkly muffled clatter of their wooden clogs as through invisible leaf litter. Already their bodies belong to silence. And they thrust their faces towards the height as if they strained for a scent of the faraway celestial troughs because, prepared for their coming like an opened cattle-yard, its gates flung savagely back, death gapes to its hinges.
by Janos Pilinzsky, 1921–1981; translated by the Hungarian by Ted Hughes and Csokits János
PASSION OF RAVENBRUCK
He steps out from the others. He stands in the square silence. The prison garb, the convict’s skull blink like a projection. He is horribly alone. His pores are visible. Everything about him is so gigantic, everything is so tiny. And this is all. The rest-– the rest was simply that he forgot to cry out Before he collapsed.
by Janos Pilinzsky, 1921–1981; translated by the Hungarian by Ted Hughes and Csokits János
(From János Pilinszky, The Desert of Love. Selected Poems translated by János Csokits and Ted Hughes. Revised and enlarged edition. Anvil Press Poetry, 1989, London.)