Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Report from the Besieged City by Zbigniew Herbert

Report from the Besieged City

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others - 

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler 
I record - I don't know for whom - the history of the siege 

I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began 
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn 
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time 

all we have left is the place the attachment to the place 
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses 
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left 

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks 
monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency 
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants 
wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned our 
we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture 
thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected 
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender 
friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible defender 
N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back 
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance 

all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anyone 

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the 
only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets 
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world 
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children 
our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing 
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones 
just like dogs and cats 

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the city 
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom. 
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights 
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks 
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself 
the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns 
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination 
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the 
who can count them 
the colours of their banners change like the forest on the horizon 
from delicate bird's yellow in spring through green through red to winter's 

and so in the evening released from facts I can think 
about distant ancient matters for example our 
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize 
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice 
they don’t even know their fathers betrayed us 
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse 
their sons are blameless they deserve our gratitude therefore we are grateful 
they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity 
those struck by misfortune are always alone 
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers 

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation 
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles 
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance 

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller 
yet the defence continues it will continue to the end 
and if the City falls but a single man escapes 
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile 
he will be the City 

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death 
worst of all - the face of betrayal 
and only our dreams have not been humiliated 

(Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)

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