The video below shows a progression of scenes from the 1981 film “Interrogation,” chronicling the breaking down of a Stalin-era political prisoner. What proves Krystyna Janda a great actress is how she makes the extraordinary familiar. Toward the end of the video her character attempts suicide and it looks real. First, her eyes dart sidelong like a schoolboy passing a note behind the teacher’s back, then those wild-animal teeth flash brightly, then her childlike surprise upon finding herself past the point-of-no-return toward death.

Zbigniew Herber’s “The Interrogation of an Angel” is musically interpreted in that video. The poem is typical of Herbert’s pregnant simplicity; in his own words, he does not create images, he just knocks on doors that open freely for anyone who wants to see.

The poem has strange descriptions. “The eons of his hair” is a literal translation, there is no idiomatic meaning. An “angel” is interrogated, referred to as “he” but he is given feminine qualities, with the long hair up in a bun and the blushing. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that subject of the interrogation is a man and the hint of androgyny is a metaphor for innocence. But on another level, Herbert could be talking literally about angels — which are spirits, they don’t reproduce so they don’t have sexual characteristics. They don’t even have material form, though they can assume human shape to accommodate our senses. So with that interpretation: a real angel is locked in human form, is killed, and then something of metaphysical significance happens.

As to depictions of flesh-and-blood human beings, “The Sopranos” features a scene or two in which a hapless wretch sits wide-eyed on a stool as the stony-faced gangsters stand over him. The fellow who ran afoul of Tony’s crew looks like a worm on a hook. There is a reason why people who survive war captivity don’t want to talk about it: torture is not photogenic. The subject doesn’t look like he’s maxing out a rep like they show in heroic movies, he looks like a crying baby. “Dehumanizing” really does mean that.

Can dehumanization be transcended? Yes, if the prisoner’s belief in his rightness is strong. Few people have the constitution to withstand social disapproval, much less torture. Some do, though. So, where physical endurance gives out, there has to be something else because there are many accounts of defiant martyrdom. There was also a Man who was wrongly accused, mocked and spat-on, flogged, a crown of thorns pushed down on his head…

Przesłuchanie Anioła / The Interrogation of an Angel
(Zbigniew Herbert, 1969) 

Kiedy staje przed nimi / Standing before them
w cieniu podejrzenia / in the shadow of suspicion
jest jeszcze cały / he is still wholly
z materii światła / of light’s substance

eony jego włosów / the eons of his hair
spięte są w pukiel / are pulled in a lock
niewinności / of innocence

po pierwszym pytaniu / after the first question
policzki nabiegają krwią / his cheeks flush red

krew rozprowadzają / the blood is distributed
narzędzia i interrogacja / with tools and interrogation

żelazem trzciną / with iron and cane
wolnym ogniem / with open flame
określa się granice / the body’s limits
jego ciała / are defined

uderzenie w plecy / a strike to the back
utrwala kręgosłup / fixes the spine
między kałużą a obłokiem / between a puddle and a cloud

po kilku nocach / after a few nights
dzieło jest skończone / the work is completed
skórzane gardło anioła / the leathery throat of the angel
pełne jest lepkiej ugody / is full of sticky agreeableness

jakże piękna jest chwila / how beautiful is the moment
gdy pada na kolana / when he falls to his knees
wcielony w winę / guilt incarnate
nasycony treścią / saturated with narrative

język waha się / the tongue hesitates
między wybitymi zębami / between the broken teeth
a wyznaniem / and the confession

wieszają go głową w dół / they hang him head-down

z włosów anioła / from the hair of the angel
ściekają krople wosku / drip drops of wax
tworząc na podłodze / forming on the floor
prostą przepowiednię / a simple prophecy



The Mudshark’s Rue

“The Saddest Story Ever Told” is a poem by Olivier Allstrom (1878 – 1963). I wonder if it doesn’t, in places, project male sentiments onto a female who made an irreversible mistake. Mudsharks strike me as too degraded to have these higher feelings. But I could be wrong.

Women who mix sentence themselves to internal exile. I heard of a European girl who married darkly in America and once visited her native country with her kids. A man smirked and told her, “Your parents must be very proud.” Henceforth, she traveled alone.

The poem:

“The Saddest Story Ever Told”

When a white girl marries a negro, her sun of life goes down.
And glaring spots of sin appear on her white wedding gown.
And white and black men stand aghast, while viewing this strange role;
And mutter, “they will wreck themselves, and damn each other’s soul.”

We know a carnivorous bug has crept into her brain
And gnawed away her self-respect, which left her half insane.
Now all her racial pride has flown beyond redemption’s fold
And she begin’s life’s saddest tale that ever yet was told.

Three days and nights she felt black lips press smug against her own,
And on the fourth, her troubled soul, let out a frightful groan.
And so the weeks and months flew by, and then a baby came;
She looked at it with tear filled eyes, and hung her head with shame.

And then she dreamed of other days, sweet, girlhood days gone by,
And of the white friends left behind, and so we hear her cry;
“O, could I turn life’s pendulum backwards a few short years
I would not bear this cross today, nor shed these bitter tears.”

“My baby would be white as snow, and sleep upon my breast
Like a fledgling robin that slumbers in its nest.
While now, O God, my mongrel child just whimpers through the night
Till in my sleepless dreams I scream, not white, O God, not white!”

And so I stagger through my days far from God’s love and grace,
Till now, I know, no black man lives, can take a white man’s place.
My offsprings shall be mongrel bred, their hue-skin shall remain,
For even God with all His power, cannot remove the stain.

I sold my birthright for a mess, I mixed my white-born blood
With black blood, so I languish here like one bogged down in mud.
Though God may grant a pardon, I never can retrace
My footsteps down life’s narrow road, back to the white man’s race.

So now I groan, “It might have been,” had racial pride been mine.
Today I’d hug a pure white child, and call him half divine,
I’d lift him up before the world, and praise his father’s name,
While now, my baby’s mongrel face, reminds me of my shame.

All other crimes may be forgiven when prayer its power fulfills;
The scheming crook may find new hope, and even the man that kills,
But all my prayers can never clear my baby’s mongrel skin,
Nor make him white as driven snow, nor cleanse my soul of sin.

I was my father’s future hope, my mother’s joy and pride,
But I got lost on life’s dark road, and there my spirit died.
I smeared my all-white heritage and left the white man’s track,
Now my descendants for all time shall be forever black.

I try to hide from all the stars, the moon and setting sun;
For all mankind of my white race, condemn what I have done;
I tremble and my teardrops flow, I pray, but pray in vain;
For nevermore shall I be one with my white race again.

And so dark clouds above me roll, deep waters crash below,
I sink, and reap what I have sown, and drink my cup of woe.
My mother sleeps deep in her grave, my dad lies at her side,
For both were crushed when I became a negro’s common bride.

Now, should I decide to leave him, where could I choose to go?
My misspent life will follow me like footprints in the snow.
Before me lie dark jungles where paramours seek a prey;
Behind me death keeps whispering, “I am the only way.”

This black and white, prenuptial mess, this racial suicide;
Must be forbidden by the law, men must find racial pride!
Then, never again, forever, shall tales like mine unfold.
With all its shame and sadness, that ever yet was told.


“A Letter To Che”

I don’t get many of the allusions, but it’s fair to say that the song is about people who blindly follow fashion and revolutionary ideologies. It came out around the time of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, so there is that as well. “A Letter to Che” (orig. List Do Che) by the band Strachy Na Lachy is musically in the style of tango.


Celują mi prosto w serce / They’re aiming straight at my heart
Dziś kupców jest dyktatura / Today’s dictatorship of merchants
Oni mierzą do mnie jak do szczura / They aim at me like at a rat 
Tych złotych Czterdzieści i Cztery / Those golden Forty Four
Kod z kresek na parabelce / A code of notches on the pistol
Zwymiotowało moje serce / My heart vomited
Taka dziwna przebija je gwiazda [x2] / Such a strange star pierces it

Hej ty i cała twoja wiara / Hey you and your comrades
Zastyga krew na transparentach / The blood on the banners dries
Ja pamiętam cię tylko ze zdjęcia / I remember you only from a photo
Komendancie Che Guevara / Commandant Che Guevara

Mijałem targ na sygnale / I passed the market on lights and siren
Twarz twoją widziałem wspaniale / Saw your face clearly
Tam gdzie kurwy grzyby i krasnale / Among whores mushrooms and dwarves
Na szklankach i na firankach / And on knick-knacks

Aż tu pewnego poranka / Until one morning
SMS z okolic piekła: / A text message from hell:
“Czerń dzisiaj głodna i wściekła” / “Hungry and vicious is darkness today”
Tak napisała Zetkin Clara / So wrote Clara Zetkin

[Refrain x2]

Roll call of Cuban political prisoners c. 2003:
Raúl Oliverio Castañeda
Alejandro González Raga
Margarito Broche Espinosa
Fabio Prieto Llorente
Osvaldo Acosta

Zawalił się kapitalizm / Capitalism collapsed
Światu but na nodze już się zapalił / The world’s feet are on fire
W Gawroszewie robią bomby w barach / They make bombs in bars
I palą hawańskie cygara / And smoke Havana cigars


Znów modna jest broda Jezusa / The Jesus beard is back in style
Na widokówkach z Nablusa / On postcards from Nablus
I znów odbiera wojsk paradę / And the military parade
Osama Bin Checko-Laden / Is reviewed by Osama Bin Chekho-Laden

A ja gdy z mego snu się zbudzę / And when I awake
Zaraz wam zdradzę to hasło: / I’ll reveal the slogan:
“Nie pozostanę wredną wszą / “I won’t be a wretched louse
W brodzie Fidela Castro” [verse x2] / In Fidel Castro’s beard”

[Latin music]

Ile ty chcesz za te szklankę [x4] / How much do you want for this glass

[Refrain x2]

Ile ty chcesz za te szklankę / How much do you want for this glass


“I shake like a spleen ripped out of an eel”

An older friend once explicated the llyrics of this 1981 anti-Communist song for me, connecting each verse with a historic circumstance. I wish I remembered more of his commentary. The only one I recall is that the “jug-ears of naïve confidants” refers to secret police.

The subject of “Witkacy’s Self-Portrait” (Autoportret Witkacego) is Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885 – 1939), commonly known as Witkacy, a prolific artist and writer best known for his expressionistic paintings and eccentric persona. A biographical note about Witkacy, referring to his period of service as an officer in Russian imperial army:

Witkiewicz witnessed the Russian Revolution while stationing in St Petersburg. He claimed that he worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage, and that when the Revolution broke out he was elected political commissar of his regiment. His later works would show his fear of social revolution and foreign invasion, often couched in absurdist language. — Infogalactic

Living in Poland in the 1930s, he fled toward the country’s eastern frontier when Germany invaded in 1939 and committed suicide seventeen days later when Soviet Union attacked from the east.

Translating songs or poems involves a tradeoff between three things: original intended meaning (word choice), meter, and rhyme. I always focus on the first. With meter, I aim to make it as close as possible to the original in terms of the syllable-count and scansion but I keep a soft touch there. A matching rhyme scheme between unrelated languages is too unlikely, and not worth doing at the cost of compromising the other two priorities.

The song taps into Witkacy’s style of absurdism. With a leap of faith, it is relevant now. The regular stanzas in the original have an AABA rhyme scheme. Roger Waters should perform my English translation:


Witkacy’s Self-Portrait

By habit I watch the world
So it’s not from narcotics
That my eyes are red
Like laboratory rabbits’

I just got up from the table
So it’s not from deprivation
That I have the clenched lips
Of hungry Mongols

I listen to sounds not words
So it’s not for fecund thought
That I have the jug-ears
Of naïve confidants

I sniff out the cutthroats
So it’s not for the sake of folklore
That my nose casts the shadow
Of aggrieved Semites

I see the shape of things in their essential form
And that makes me great and unrepeatable

Unlike you – ladies and gentlemen if you’ll forgive me –
Who are an idiot’s rhyme copied on a duplicator [line x 2]

My neck’s rather stiff
But I’m still alive
Because politics to me
Is dishwater in a crystal glass

My mind is hard like an elbow
So don’t kick me
Because the revolution to me
Is red fingernails

I’m as sensitive as a membrane
So by evening and morning
I shake like a spleen
Ripped out of an eel

I’m terrified of the apocalypse
So to calm my mood
I scream like a child
That’s locked in a dark room

I more than any of you choke and gag!
I more than any of you wish to stop living but can’t!

[The first person-singular pronoun above allows a primal scream in both languages: “aaaaaaaaiiii” in English and “yaaaaaaaah” in Polish. — PA]

But I won’t let anyone touch me and therefore
When necessary I’ll be the one
Who deprives the world of Witkacy


Lyrics: Jacek Kaczmarski. Music: Przemysław Gintrowski


A Poem About Leftism (Reprise)

“I ceased not in my efforts to level mankind” — leftism, from a 1983 poem by Zbigniew Herbert. Read along with the musical interpretation below. I posted this a long time ago but this one is worth a revisit from a larger audience and with my improved translation. Theseus was AltRight.


   Moje ruchome imperium między Atenami i Megarą
My movable empire between Athens and Megara
   władałem puszczą wąwozem przepaścią sam
I ruled over wilderness canyon abyss alone
   bez rady starców głupich insygniów z prostą maczugą w dłoni
with no advice from stupid old men or insignias but with a primitive club
   odziany tylko w cień wilka i grozę budzący dźwięk słowa Damastes
clad only in the shadow of the wolf and the horrific sound of the word Damastes

   brak mi było poddanych to znaczy miałem ich na krótko
I lacked subjects that is to say I had each one for a short time
   nie dożywali świtu jest jednak oszczerstwem nazwanie mnie zbójcą
they did not live to dawn however it’s slander to call me a murderer
   jak głoszą fałszerze historii
as cry the falsifiers of history

   w istocie byłem uczonym reformatorem społecznym
in essence I was learned social reformer
   moją prawdziwą pasją była antropometria
my true passion was anthropometry

   wymyśliłem łoże na miarę doskonałego człowieka
I devised a crucible for the perfect man
   przyrównywałem złapanych podróżnych do owego łoża
I fit the captured travelers to that bed
   trudno było uniknąć – przyznaję – rozciągania członków obcinania kończyn
it was difficult to avoid – I admit – stretching members cutting limbs

   pacjenci umierali ale im więcej ginęło
patients kept dying but the more perished
   tym bardziej byłem pewny że badania moje są słuszne
the more I was sure that my studies are just
   cel był wzniosły postęp wymaga ofiar
the goal was sublime progress requires sacrifices

   pragnąłem znieść różnicę między tym co wysokie a niskie
I longed to abolish the difference between what is high and what is low
   ludzkości obrzydliwie różnorodnej pragnąłem dać jeden kształt
to humanity disgustingly diverse I longed to give one shape
   nie ustawałem w wysiłkach aby zrównać ludzi
I ceased not in my efforts to level mankind

   pozbawił mnie życia Tezeusz morderca niewinnego Minotaura
Theseus took my life that slayer of the innocent Minotaur
   ten który zgłębiał labirynt z babskim kłębkiem włóczki
he who plumbed the labyrinth with a girl’s bundle of yarn
   pełen forteli oszust bez zasad i wizji przyszłości
so full of trickery without principles or vision of the future
   mam niepłonną nadzieję że inni podejmą mój trud
I have an inextinguishable hope that others will take up my toil
   i dzieło tak śmiało zaczęte doprowadzą do końca
and the masterpiece I started so boldly they’ll lead to its end



Morning Songs

An aubade is a composition about or evocative of sunrise. As popular songs go, Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” is among the prettiest. Beck’s euphonic Morning is a keeper:

Can we start it all over again this morning?
I let down my defenses this morning
It was just you and me this morning
I fought all my guesses this morning
Won’t you show me the way it could’ve been?

I’ll relate an experience that might sound like nothing much but it continues to have an effect on me a year-and-a-half later. Make of it what you will. At dawn, my father-in-law and I were passing through a little town in eastern part of Poland, he drove. It’s countryside with birch forests and tall, flower-adorned crucifixes at every crossroad.

Driving slowly through the wioska, we turn a corner and a burst of early morning’s sunlight floods everything. How to describe this. My perception opened for a moment. This lasted for a microsecond. What I saw, when we turned that corner, was a young woman pushing an infant stroller and a little boy walking with her.

They were real people, actually walking on the sidewalk and like I said, the vision was a flash but during it their silhouettes against the golden sunlight made an effect of the light being the sole reality. People who describe their near-death experience talk about an overwhelming sense of being embraced by love and for that moment, without a prelude and ending at that same instant, that is exactly what I felt.

That morning is when I stopped worrying.

“When the Morning Lights Arise” (orig. “Kiedy ranne wstają zorze”) is Franciszek Karpiński’s aubade, written c. 1800. My translation:

When the morning lights arise
To You the earth, to You the sea,
To You the elements sing:
Be praised, mighty God.

And man, without measure
Showered with Your gifts,
Whom You created and saved,
How can he not praise You?

Still rubbing my waking eyes
I at once call to my Lord,
To my Lord in Heaven
And I seek Him by me.

Some into the sleep of death have fallen
After lying down last night…
We still woke up
To praise You, God.


A Poem About Gods

I’m discovering Zbigniew Herbert’s (1924 – 1998) poems as we speak. In one of his poems, Herbert described himself as a bard who merely knocks on doors behind which truths are revealed. Herbert’s Apollo and Marsyas below (orig. “Apollo i Marsjasz”) describes a torture-execution. In Greek myth, satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest. The contest was judged by the Muses, Marsyas lost and was flayed alive for his affrontery in challenging a god.

As always, I recommend reading along with the musical interpretation. It’s not an inviting proposition, given the language barrier, which is why I made the line-by-line translation.

“Apollo and Marsyas” — Zbigniew Herbert

właściwy pojedynek Apollona  / the actual duel between Apollo
z Marsjaszem  / and Marsyas
(słuch absolutny  / (an absolute ear
contra ogromna skala)  / vs. immense scale)
odbywa się pod wieczór /  takes place in the early evening
gdy jak już wiemy  / and as we already know
sędziowie /  the judges
przyznali zwycięstwo bogu  / ruled in favor of the god

mocno przywiązany do drzewa  / tightly bound to a tree
dokładnie odarty ze skóry  / meticulously stripped of his skin
Marsjasz  / Marsyas
krzyczy  / cries
zanim krzyk dojdzie /  before the cry reaches
do jego wysokich uszu /  his mighty ear
wypoczywa w cieniu tego krzyku /  he reposes in the shade of that cry

wstrząsany dreszczem obrzydzenia /  shaken with disgust
Apollo czyści swój instrument /  Apollo cleans his instrument

tylko z pozoru /  only seemingly
głos Marsjasza  / is Marsyas’ voice
jest monotony /  monotonous
i składa się z jednej samogłoski /  and composed of one vowel
A  / A

w istocie Marsjasz opowiada  / in fact Marsyas relates
nieprzebrane bogactwo  / of the inexhaustible richness
swego ciała /  of his body

łyse góry wątroby  / the bald hills of the liver
pokarmów białe wąwozy  / the white digestive gorges
szumiące lasy płuc  / the murmuring forests of lungs
słodkie pagórki mięśni /  the sweet mounds of muscle
stawy żółć krew i dreszcze /  the joints bile blood and shudders
zimowy wiatr kości  / the bones’ winter wind
nad solą pamięci  / over the salt-flats of memory

wstrząsany dreszczem obrzydzenia  / shaken with disgust
Apollo czyści swój instrument  / Apollo cleans his instrument

teraz do chóru  / now the choir
przyłącza się stos pacierzowy Marsjasza  / is joined by the spinal stack of Marsyas
w zasadzie to samo A  / in principle the same A
tylko głębsze z dodatkiem rdzy /  only deeper and with a touch of rust

to już jest ponad wytrzymałość  / this is now beyond the endurance
boga o nerwach z tworzyw sztucznych /  of a god with nerves of synthetic fiber

żwirową aleją / down the gravel alley
wysadzaną bukszpanem  /  lined with boxwood
odchodzi zwycięzca /  departs the victor
zastanawiając się  / wondering if
czy z wycia Marsjasza  / Marsyas’ howls
nie powstanie z czasem /  aren’t the birth of
nowa gałąź /  a new branch
sztuki – powiedzmy – konkretnej /  of – shall we say – concrete art

nagle /  suddenly
upada mu  / at his feet falls
skamieniały słowik  / a petrified nightingale

odwraca głowę /  he turns his head
i widzi  / and sees
że drzewo do którego przywiązany był Marsjasz /  that the tree to which Marsyas is tied
jest siwe  / has turned white

zupełnie /  completely