Herbert: “Thoughts about my father”

His stern face in a cloud over the waters of childhood
(so rarely did his hand hold my warm head)
given to trusting but not forgiving
he blazed the forests and straightened paths
carried the lantern high when we entered the night

I thought that I would sit at his right hand
and separate light from darkness
and judge the living
— things worked out differently

a vendor of bric à brac hoisted his throne

he was born for the second time tiny very fragile
transparent skin very fine cartilage
he shrunk his body so that I could lift him

in an unimportant place a stone casts a shadow

he grows in me we consume our disasters
burst out laughing
when they say how little is needed
to be reconciled

— Zbigniew Herbert (1974)

The above is my translation of Herbert’s “Thoughts about my father.”
Original title: “Rozmyślania o ojcu.”


13 thoughts on “Herbert: “Thoughts about my father”

  1. This puts me in a somber, sullen mood. I find that I am glad my own father did not live to see these times and what has become of many things he loved, and spared the witnessing of those squanderings. I still miss the old man, but I’m glad he missed this. But my soul feels suddenly weighed down to realize the gloomy import of being glad about such a thing.

  2. Pingback: Herbert: “Thoughts about my father” | Reaction Times

  3. My dad is 81, and we still play golf together. Playing golf with him on his 80th birthday was one of my life’s highlights. There are so many things that i do, little things and big, that remind me of him: mannerisms, looks, chuckles. I love my father. This poem reminds me of all those times with him. Thanks for this, PA.
    LBF – you are right, every family is a ruin. We can build it, re-build it, or not. Thanks for your honest words.

  4. Fixed my relationship with my old man a few years back. We had both said pretty brutal things we didn’t really mean. Life seems much better these days. Thks for this translation

  5. “Fixed my relationship with my old man a few years back.”

    Yeah, I had the same bad interlude about twenty years ago; it lasted about nine months but many regrettable things were uttered. Things are infinitely better now and we have a great relationship and I can’t help but think that our rough spell has turned out to be some sort of catharsis of built up frustration and regret…..yeah, following and dealing with one’s patrimony. That’s not meant to be easy.

  6. Funny you posted this. I just finished reading a comment on another blog that references intergenerational conflict. I don’t think this is given enough attention, but is very important. Some examples that may paint a fuller picture.

    1. I went to my grandmother’s funeral in DC. Interesting scene as I was dropped off by a taxi and mistook my own half-brother for someone else because I had not seen him in 10-15 years. But there was an old military guy (fairly high ranking is my guess given the circumstances that he went to my grandparents house in the afternoon to drink and talk Republican politics) and he took the opportunity in his impromptu eulogy to advise everyone to get a Mexican gal to help because they are great.

    2. My mother relied heavily on her folks to help clean up the mess when she broke down after my Dad left. When my grandpa died she put her mother in a home. As a high schooler I would visit her and take her out frequently even though because of dementia she thought I was her brother, the priest.

    In contrast my mom was very tight when I was young (I wore two spring coats in winter instead of a winter coat in northern Illinois). In comparison to my grandmother in the home my mother is in a single-family three bedroom home with in-home nursing care. My children, wife, and I provide the maintenance and lawn care to the home (15-20 hours per week) and I am on call 24/7 for when any issue may arise. I make sure that we are compensated for our work because it is my duty to myself and my family to do so. My mother has made it clear through several actions that her well-being is above all else and if that means leaving the grandkids high and dry, then so be it.

    3. My father in-law retired in early 50s as a state employee after abut 25 years of work. He will receive 20+ years of pension and I will never make more money than he does per year, despite having more productivity and training, because his pension increases each year by a sizable percentage. Where I work most employees recently had a the same percentage salary cut that he sees each year in pension increase.

    I have seen the same in the private sector as older union employees guaranteed their own high salaries at the cost of the next generation being sold down the river. New factory hires around here make a few bucks above minimum wage which is clearly not enough to support a family.

    4. I don’t think it is so much the fact that wages have sunk or even that the older generation fixed the system in their favor that rubs the wrong way, but that they will then turn around and spout some Ayn Rand BS. They have no idea what is going on outside of their nice Florida retirement center, where the gardens are kept by an army of low paid illegals, and Fox news…and they don’t care to know.

  7. The intergenerational conflict described in the comment by Dudeman above is of a different type than that dynamic as described in the poem.


    Baby Boomer retirement is an aberration. With the so-called Economy in the tank, people are coming to realize this. Those Boomers who are FORTUNATE enough to manage or hold on to a retirement lifestyle, are in an unusual and precarious position. But a lot of them take it for granted, or consider it a birthright or something.

    Retirement of that sort is not the course of life per usual. In all of the kingdom of life, and amongst humans in history, it is struggle and or work unto death; though at some point the old and infirm cannot work and are cared for. But in the case of America, the Baby Boomer retirement plan is a hoax. Their wealth is entirely at the expense of everyone else, and it can no longer be afforded.

    Easy Energy has been the basis of our entire so-called Economy.

  8. and he took the opportunity in his impromptu eulogy to advise everyone to get a Mexican gal to help because they are great

    Those comments are just weird.

    “They are just great those Mexicans! They will work and slave all day in the kitchen and then make sexy time on their knees with nary a protest. They are very servile – at least the women! – you can get them to do ANYTHING.

    Get a Mexican.”

  9. Reading every comment on this thread that was about the commenter’s father (or mother in one case) was valuable to me. I can relate in a number of cases.

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