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Zbigniew Herbert

Episode

We walk by the sea-shore
holding firmly in our hands
the two ends of an antique dialogue
—do you love me?
—I love you


with furrowed eyebrows
I summarize all wisdom
of the two testaments
astrologers prophets
philosophers of the gardens
and cloistered philosophers


and it sounds about like this:
—don’t cry
—be brave
—look how everybody

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A Description of the King

The king's beard on which sauces and ovations
fell until it became heavy as an axe
appears suddenly in a dream to a man condemned to die
and on a candlestick of flesh shines alone in the dark.

One hand for tearing meat is huge as a whole province
through which a ploughman inches forward a corvette lingers
The hand wielding the sceptre has withered from distinction
has grown grey from old age like an ancient coin

In the hour-glass of the heart sand trickles lazily
Feet taken off with boots stand in a corner
on guard when at night stiiffening on the throne
the king heirlessly forfeits his third dimension

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Mr. Cogito and the Imagination

Mr. Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn't appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors of dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

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Architecture

Over a delicate arch--
an eyebrow of stone--

on the unruffled forehead
of a wall

in joyful and open windows
where there are faces instead of geraniums

where rigorous rectangles
border a dreaming perspective

where a stream awakened by an ornament
flows on a quiet field of surfaces

movement meets stillness a line meets a shout
trembling uncertainty simple clarity

you are there
architecture

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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

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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 Wójcik
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

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A Russian Tale

The tsar our little father had grown old, very old. Now he could not even strangle a dove with his own hands. Sitting on his throne he was golden and frigid. Only his beard grew, down to the floor and farther.

Then someone else ruled, it was not known who. Curious folk peeped into the palace windows but Krivonosov screened the windows with gibbets. Thus only the hanged saw anything.

In the end the tsar our little father died for good. The bells rang and rang, yet they did not bring his body out. Our tsar had grown into the throne. The legs of the throne had become all mixed up with the legs of the tsar. His arm and the armrest were one. It was impossible to tear him loose. And to bury the tsar along with the golden throne - what a shame.

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To My Bones

In my sleep it rips through
my meagre skin
throws off the red bandage of the flesh
and goes strolling through the room
my monument a little incomplete

one can be prodigal
with tears and blood
what will endure here the longest
must be thoughtfully provided for

better (than with a priest's dry finger
to the rains which drip from a cloud of sand)
to give one's monument to the academey

they will prop it up in a glass display case
and in Latin they will pray before
the little altar made from an os frontalis

they will reckon the bones and surfaces

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First The Dog

to Laika


So first the faithful dog will go
and after it a pig or ass
through the black grass will beat a track
along it will the first man steal
who with iron hand will smother
on his glass brow a drop of fear


so first the dog honest mongrel
which has never abandoned us
dreaming of earthly lamps and bones
will fall asleep in its whirling kennel
its warm blood boiling drying away


but we behind the dog and second
dog which guides us on a leash

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Why The Classics

1
in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition
among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest
the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief
for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile
exiles of all times
know what price that is
2
generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity

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