782. Report from a Besieged City, by Zbigniew Herbert

Too old to carry arms and to fight like others—

they generously assigned to me the inferior role of a chronicler
I record—not knowing for whom—the history of the siege

I have to be precise but I don't know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in autumn perhaps yesterday
     at dawn
here everybody is losing the sense of time

we were left with the place an attachment to the place
still we keep ruins of temples phantoms of gardens of houses
if we were to lose the ruins we would be left with nothing

I write as I can in the rhythm of unending weeks
monday: storehouses are empty a rat is now a unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor is killed by unknown assailants
wednesday: talks of armistice the enemy interned our envoys
we don't know where they are being kept i.e. tortured
thursday: after a stormy meeting the majority voted down
the motion of spice merchants on unconditional surrender
friday: the onset of plague saturday: the suicide of
N.N., the most steadfast defender sunday: no water we repulsed
the attack at the eastern gate named the Gate of the Alliance

I know all this is monotonous nobody would care

I avoid comments keep emotions under control describe facts
they say facts only are valued on foreign markets
but with a certain pride I wish to convey to the world
thanks to the war we raised a new species of children
our children don't like fairy tales they play killing
day and night they dream of soup bread bones
exactly like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander in the confines of the City
along the frontiers of our uncertain freedom
I look from above on the multitude of armies on their lights
I listen to the din of drums to barbaric shrieks
it's incredible that the City is still resisting
the seige has been long the foes must replace each other
they have nothing in common except a desire to destroy us
the Goths the Tartars the Swedes the Emperor's troops regiments of
                       Our Lord's Transfiguration
who could count them
colors of banners change as does the forest on the horizon
from the bird's delicate yellow in the spring through the green the red
                       to the winter black

and so in the evening freed from facts I am able to give thought
to bygone far away matters for instance to our
allies overseas I know they feel true compassion
they send us flour sacks of comfort lard and good counsel
without even realizing that we were betrayed by their fathers
our former allies from the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are not guilty they deserve our gratitude we are so grateful
they have never lived through the eternity of a siege
those marked by misfortune are always alone
Dalai Lama's defenders Kurds Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words proponents of compromise
have won a slightly advantage over the part of the dauntless
usual shifts of mood our fate is still in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders shrinks
but the defense continues and will last to the end
and even if the City falls and one of us survives
he will carry the City inside him on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look at the face of hunger the face of fire the face of death
and the worst of them all—the face of treason

and only our dreams have not been humiliated

                                                              (Warsaw 1982)

(trans Czeslaw Milosz)

Source: New York Review of Books, August 18, 1983

783. Zazen on Ching-t'ing Mountain, by Li Po

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
(trans Sam Hamill)

784. from The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar

The hoopoe answered them: 'How can love thrive
In hearts impoverished and half alive?
"Beggars," you say—such niggling poverty
Will not encourage truth or charity
A man whose eyes love opens risks his soul—
His dancing breaks beyond the mind's control.
When long ago the Simorgh first appeared—
His face like sunlight when the clouds have cleared—
He cast unnumbered shadows on the earth,
On each one fixed his eyes, and each gave birth.
Thus we were born; the birds of every land
Are still his shadows—think, and understand.
If you had known this secret you would see
The link between yourselves and Majesty.
Do not reveal this truth, and God forfend
That you mistake for God Himself God's friend.
If you become that substance I propound,
You are not God, though in God you are drowned;
Those lost in Him are not the Deity—
This problem can be argued endlessly.
You are His shadow, and cannot be moved
By thoughts of life or death once this is proved.
If He had kept His majesty concealed,
No earthly shadow would have been revealed,
And where that shadow was directly cast
The race of birds sprang up before it passed.
Your heart is not a mirror bright and clear
If there the Simorgh's form does not appear;
No one can bear His beauty face to face,
And for this reason, of His perfect grace,
He makes a mirror in our hearts—look there
To see Him, search your hearts with anxious care.

(trans Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis)

Source:The Conference of the Birds

785. The Evening, by Georg Trakl

With dead shapes of heroes
You, moon, fill
The silent forests,
Sickle moon—
With the gentle embrace
Of lovers,
The shadow of times of renown,
Fill the moldering rocks all around;
So bluish it glitters
Against the city,
Where, cold and evil,
A rotting generation dwells
And prepares a dark future
For white grandchildren.
You moon-swallowed shadows,
Sighing in the empty crystal
Of the mountain lake.

(trans Robert Firmage)

 Source: Song of the Departed: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl