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

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Elegy Of Fortinbras

Translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s “Elegy of Fortinbras” (1961). Fortinbras is William Shakespeare’s fictional Norwegian prince and conqueror of Denmark. He appears in the final scene of “Hamlet.” The original poem “Tren Fortynbrasa” is under the YouTube video below. 

***

Now that we’re alone we can talk Prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but a black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenseless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies separate The head separate
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral though you weren’t a soldier
it is the only ritual I am somewhat acquainted with
There will be no candles no singing only cannon fuses and salvos
Crape dragged on the cobblestones helmets studded boots artillery horses
drums drums I know it’s nothing exquisite
those will be my maneuvers as I assume control
one has to take the city by the throat and shake it a bit

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you bit at the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not even know how to breathe

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but it belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared to eternal vigilance
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a raised chair
with a view on the anthill and on the clock’s dial

Adieu Prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do Prince

***

This musical interpretation is perfect:

“Caligula”

This one goes out to various Western leaders.

Reading the old chronicles, poems and biographies, Mr. Cogito sometimes experiences the physical presence of long-dead persons

Caligula speaks:

of all the citizens of Rome
I only loved one
Incitatus – the horse

when he entered the senate
the flawless toga of his coat
glistened immaculate among the gutless purple-hemmed cutthroats

Incitatus had many virtues
he never gave speeches
stoic nature
I think that at night in the stables he read the philosophers

I loved him so much that one day I decided to crucify him
but his noble anatomy opposed it

indifferently he accepted the dignity of the consul
he executed his power superlatively
what I mean is, he did not do it at all

he couldn’t be persuaded into a permanent bond of love
with my fourth wife Caesonia
so unfortunately the line of emperor-centaurs was not created

therefore Rome fell

I decided to nominate him god
but on the ninth day before February
Cherea Cornelius Sabinus and other fools obstructed these sacred intentions

he calmly accepted the news of my death

he was banished from the palace and sentenced to exile

he took that blow with dignity

he died without heirs
slaughtered by a thick-skinned butcher from the town of Anzio

on the posthumous fate of his meat
Tacitus is silent

— Zbigniew Herbert (c. 1974) from his volume of poetry “Mr. Cogito”

My translation. The original poem is under Show More in the YouTube video.

Good Friday

What happened to Barabbas? I asked no one knows
Let off his chain he stepped on to the white street
he could turn right go forward turn left
spin in circles crow with joy like a cock
He the Emperor of own arms and head
He the Potentate of his own breath

I ask because I was somewhat involved in the matter
Lured by the crowd in front of the palace of Pilate I shouted
like the others free Barabbas Barabbas
All chanted were I alone to stay silent
all would be exactly as it was to be

Now Barabbas perhaps rejoined his gang
In the hills he kills cleanly robs quickly
Or he set up a pottery shop
and crime-stained hands
he purifies in works of clay
or he’s a water carrier mule driver loan shark
or a ship owner — on one of them sailed Paul to the Corinthians
or — this cannot be ruled out —
he became a valuable spy in the pay of the Romans

Behold and admire the capricious game of fate
of possibility potencies of fortune’s smile

And a Nazarene
was alone
with no options
up a steep
path
of blood

— Zbigniew Herbert (1990)


The above is my translation of Herbert’s “Speculation about Barabbas.” Original title: “Domysły na temat Barabasza.”

“Dispatches from a Besieged City”

Here is a fragment from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Dispatches from a Besieged City” (orig. “Raport z oblężonego Miasta”). Herbert wrote this poem during Poland’s 1981-1983 Martial Law as an allegory for that event, using imagery from the 1939 siege of Warsaw and the 1944 Uprising to tell a larger story of nations that are under attack. Do we know of any nations that are under attack today?

Translated excerpts from Herbert’s poem:

Too old to carry a weapon and fight like the others —
I was assigned by their grace the chronicler’s role
I write — do not know for whom — about the siege
I have to be exact but I do not know when the raid precisely began
two hundred years ago last December September maybe yesterday at dawn
all of us here ail of the loss of the sense of time
[…]
I write as well as I can to the rhythm of endless weeks
Monday: the warehouses are empty the rat became a unit of currency
Tuesday: the mayor has been murdered by unknown perpetrators
Wednesday: talks of a ceasefire the enemy interned our emissaries
we don’t know of their whereabouts read: their place of slaughter
Thursday: after a stormy meeting the majority rejected
the spice merchants’ proposal for unconditional surrender
Friday: the beginning of plague Saturday: N.N. the steadfast defender
committed suicide Sunday: no water we repelled an attack at the Eastern Gate
[…]
in the evening I like to wander around the borders of the City
along the borders of our uncertain freedom
I look down at the ant heaps of their troops their lights
I listen to the noise of the drums the barbaric screams

[…]

(The full original poem is HERE. Przemysław Gintrowski interprets the poem musically HERE.)

The selected passages above feature a speaker who reports on the everyday conditions of the siege in a resigned and matter-of-fact way. Herbert then shifts the speaker’s tone, over the course of several additional free-verse stanzas, into bitterness and then anger upon noting the ghastly precociousness of the city’s children.

Herbert’s speaker then reaches an epiphany to resist despite the lack of hope. He gets there by connecting his situation to that of history’s other besieged people who have always been ignored, or at best condescendingly pitied, by the rest of the world. He concludes that defending the real and the metaphoric ruins is all that’s left to do.

***

In his Harvard lectures that he later compiled and published in a volume titled “The Witness of Poetry,” Czesław Miłosz said that in reading the scribbled notes of concentration camp inmates, he noticed that it was not educated adults, but rather children who most vividly described their conditions.

One of the worst thing a child can feel is a recognition that he is abandoned by trusted adults. And in thinking about cities under siege from a child’s — or in this case a teenage girl’s — point of view, see a German girl’s now-famous YouTube video, which was banned from Facebook. The brave 16-year-old girl, named Bibi Wilhailm, makes a heartfelt appeal for help. She also denounces the adults and authority figures who have abandoned her to the terror of the refugees.

Her video is at the end of this post. Here is a transcript of her words from the English subtitles:

16 y/o German girl talks about muslim immigration, destruction of her own country (Engl. subs)   [title of the YouTube video]

Hello, you can read the newspapers but this video is about the real situation in Germany. I would like to tell everyone about this on Youtube and Facebook. I am almost 16. I would like everyone to know what is going on, what I am authentically feeling at this moment.

And I am so scared everywhere. For example, if my family and I go out together, or if I see a movie with my friends. Usually I stay at home, but sometimes I stay out until 6 pm in winter, and it is so scary. It is just very hard to live day-to-day life as a woman.

I just want to say that I am not a racist. But one day, a terrible thing happened at the supermarket. I ran all the way home. I was so frightened for my life. There’s no other way to describe it.

My aunt and her friend have said you have to grow up. Why should we, children, have to grow up in such fear? It’s not just me, my friends too. You can see on Facebook, a 17 year old attacked, a 15 year old attacked, two 12-year olds attacked, so many. It is really so sad that this is happening … because of YOU PEOPLE.

I cannot understand why they do this. But more importantly, I cannot understand why Germany is doing nothing! Why is Germany standing by, watching, and then doing nothing? Please explain, why. Men of Germany, these people are killing your children, they are killing your women. We need your protection. We are so scared, we don’t want to be frightened to go to the grocery store alone after sunset. The politicians live alone in their villas, drink their cocktails, and do nothing. They do nothing! I do not know what world they live in, but please, people, please help us! Please, do something! I cannot understand why this is happening. One day, my friend and I were walking down the street, and a group of Arabs were protesting and demonstrating. They shouted, “Allah! Allah! Allah is the one God! Kill those infidels! Allah Allah!” What should I do? Should I wear a burka? Why should I have to convert to Islam?

It’s fine if you believe in Allah, but why do you want to make everyone else believe in Allah too? I just think it would be better if there were no religion. Stop trying to make everyone else believe in your God when they do not want to.

Please, people of Germany. Do something!

When I try to tell the authorities about what has happened, they hold their hand up towards me and they say it is a problem and then ignore it. and they laugh. It is unfair. They laugh at us. They say we are dumb. They think this not only of me, but of the entire state of Germany. They don’t care about our fear. Please help us. This is an emergency! There are more and more of them.

One time in summer, the Muslims said we were sluts for walking outside in a t-shirt.

Yes, we were wearing t-shirts. It’s summer!

Another day, I was wearing this. My friend and I purchased it while shopping hehe. If we feel like wearing it, we will wear it! And you Muslims have no right to physically assault or rape us for it! God willing, never in my life. You have no right to attack us because we are wearing t-shirts. You also have no right to rape.

The life of Germany has changed because these people cannot integrate. We give them so much help. We support them financially and they do not have to work. But they only want more babies and more welfare and more money. Men of Germany, please, patrol the streets and protect us. Do this for your women and your children. If you do that, I believe that we will have a chance.

This sort of action would be wonderful. We would be so grateful and thankful. So many thanks, if steadily, more men would come to protect us. We are so scared.

I am so upset about what Merkel has done.

Thank you, Angela Merkel, for killing Germany! I have no more respect for you, Merkel. I do not think you know what you have done. You do not see how our lives have changed. Open your eyes! Is this normal? Should I, a 16-year old who is almost 17, be so scared to walk outside my house? No, it is not normal. You have killed Germany!

This is the truth. We are no longer allowed to walk outside. We are no longer allowed to wear our clothes. We are no longer allowed to live the German life. This is the sad truth.

I think it’s about time to end this video. I believe I have given a full account from a normal person. I hope others can see this and understand.

I only want to end with one message: Men, please, help your women. Help your children. I am so scared. My friends have the same fear. We are shocked that this has happened. I hope this video can convince you, and that this terrible events can stop.