Apr 28, 2009

Two Poems--By Zbigniew Herbert

The New York Review of Books

Volume 45, Number 16 · October 22, 1998

Two Poems

By Zbigniew Herbert
I can't find the title
of a memory about you
with a hand torn from darkness
I step on fragments of faces
soft friendly profiles
frozen into a hard contour
         circling above my head
         empty as a forehead of air
         a man's silhouette of black paper
I reproach myself for the sin of forgetfulness
you left an embrace like a superfluous sweater
a look like a question
our hands won't transmit the shape of your hands
we squander them touching ordinary things
calm as a mirror
not mildewed with breath
the eyes send back the question
every day I renew my sight
every day my touch grows
tickled by the proximity of so many things
life bubbles over like blood
Shadows gently melt
let us not allow the dead to be killed—
perhaps a cloud will transmit remembrance—
a worn profile of Roman coins
the women on our street
were plain and good
they patiently carried from the markets
bouquets of nourishing vegetables
the children on our street
scourge of cats
the pigeons—
                  softly gray
a Poet's statue was in the park
children would roll their hoops
and colorful shouts
birds sat on the Poet's hand
read his silence
on summer evenings wives
waited patiently for lips
smelling of familiar tobacco
         women could not answer
         their children: will he return
         when the city was setting
         they put the fire out with hands
         pressing their eyes
         the children on our street
         had a difficult death
         pigeons fell lightly
         like shot down air
now the lips of the Poet
form an empty horizon
birds children and wives cannot live
in the city's funereal shells
in cold eiderdowns of ashes
the city stands over water
smooth as the memory of a mirror
it reflects in the water from the bottom
and flies to a high star
where a distant fire is burning
like a page of the Iliad
The new gods walked behind the Roman army at a suitable distance, so
Venus' swaying hips and Bacchus' uncontrolled fits of laughter would not seem improper. Ashes were still warm, ants and beetles solemnly burying the barbarian heroes.The old gods watched the entrance of the new ones from behind trees,
without sympathy but with admiration. The white, hairless bodies seemed weak yet attractive.Despite difficulties with language a summit meeting took place. After
a few conferences, spheres of influence were divided up. The old gods were content with minor positions in the provinces. But for important ceremonies their figures were carved in stone—crumbly sandstone—together with the gods of the conquerors.The real shadow on the collaboration was cast by Cernunnos. Although
he adopted a Latin ending on the advice of his colleagues, no laurel could conceal his spreading, constantly growing horns.This is why he usually resided in distant woods. Often he could be
seen in the dark meadows at dusk. In one hand he holds a serpent with a lamb's head, with the other he draws signs on the air that are completely incomprehensible.
(Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)