Thursday, September 11, 2014

Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp by Zbigniew Herbert

Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp


Truly my infidelity is great and hard to forgive
for I do not even remember the day or the hour
at which I abandoned you my childhood friends

first I address you humbly
pen with a wooden holder
painted or finely lacquered

in a Jewish shop
—creaking steps a bell over the glass door—
I picked you out
in the shade of indolence
and before long you bore
on your body
my pensive teethmarks
traces of school’s angst

O silver nib
outlet of the critical mind
courier of consoling knowledge
—of the fact the earth is round
—of straight and parallel lines
in the shopkeeper’s box
you were a fish waiting for me
amid a school of other fish
—I was amazed there were so many
objects ownerless and completely
forever mine
I put you piously in my mouth
and felt on my tongue
the long taste
of sorrel
and the moon

O ink
honorable Sir Encaustum
of a distinguished lineage
as the evening sky
slow to dry
and very patient
we turned you
into a Sargasso Sea
drowning blotting paper
hairs flies and curses
in your wise depths
to mask the odor
of a gentle volcano
the call of the abyss

who remembers you now
my fond fellows
you disappeared quietly
behind time’s last cataract
who remembers you gratefully
in an era of harebrain ballpoints
of arrogant objects
without grace
or past

if I speak of you
I’d like to speak
as if I were hanging an ex voto
on a shattered altar


Light of my childhood
blessed lamp

sometimes I come upon
your dishonored body
in a secondhand store

yet once you were
a shining allegory

spirit stubbornly battling
against gnostic demons
given over to the eye
transparently plain

at the bottom of your reservoir
kerosene—elixir of primeval forests
a wick’s slippery snake
with a head of flames
slim maidenlike glass
and a silvery tin shield
like Selene at full moon

your princessy moods
O beautiful and cruel
hysterics of a prima donna
not sufficiently applauded

a cheerful aria
summer’s honey glow
above the glass mouth
a fair braid of sunlight
and suddenly
dark basses
ravens and crows alight
invective and swearing
prophecies of destruction
a fury of smoke bombs

like a great playwright you knew the tides of passion
and the swamps of melancholy black towers of pride
blazing glow of fires rainbows the unleashed oceans

effortlessly you summoned out of nothingness
landscapes cities gone wild mirrored in water
at a sign from you the crazy prince of the island
and the balcony in Verona appeared obediently

I was devoted to you
O luminous initiation
lever of knowledge
under night’s hammers

and my other
flat head cast on the ceiling
looked down menacingly
as if from a box of angels
at the theater of the world

I thought then
I should save
from the flood

yes so it might go on living
and we inside it as in a shell


I have never believed in the spirit of history
a puffed-up monster with a murderous eye
a dialectical beast kept on a torturer’s leash

or in you—four horsemen of the Apocalypse
Huns of progress galloping across the steppes of heaven and earth
destroying on your way everything honorable old and defense

I wasted years learning history’s simplistic workings
the monotonous procession and the unequal struggle
between the thugs at the head of addled crowds
and a handful of the righteous and reasonable

not much is left
not much at all

and compassion

lightly we leave the gardens of childhood the gardens of things
scattering manuscripts oil lamps dignity and pens on our flight
such is our deluded journey along the cliff side of nothingness

forgive me for my ingratitude O pen with your archaic nib
and you inkwell—you still contained so many good ideas
forgive me oil lamp—you die out like a deserted campsite
I paid for my betrayal
but then I didn’t know
you were gone forever
and that it would be

(Translated by Alissa Valle)

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