Friday, November 15, 2019

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Zbigniew Herbert
(Translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter)

 Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - weren't there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

 The poem posted above is a profound one, almost an ethical manifesto, by Zbigniew Herbert(1924-1998) ,one of the most original and memorable Polish poets of last century. Mr. Cogito is his ironic alter ego, an imaginary character that the poet has employed in many of his poems to voice truths too painful or difficult to say aloud. There are circumstances in our lives when others try to dwarf us, stifle our voice, and puncture our stature when we strive to make a righteous living. The poem is addressed to those who dare to be different, for whom courage entailing defeat is not an act of cowardice.

 In this poem, the poet appears to be looking back on his life in Poland during the long years of war and repression (under soviet occupation). Here,  Mr. Cogito seems to stagger slightly as he walks in the world, a world in crippled condition, full of contradictions. An envoy is a messenger and here the voice of the envoy to Mr Cogito is the  voice of Herbert  as the poet himself never ever compromised his principles till his death.  His tone is sardonic and yet simple and humorous. His message has stoic appeal and moral equilibrium.

 The poem starts with something that is so difficult to grasp-“golden fleece of nothingness your last prize”. Possibly, the concept of a heaven where eternal rivers flow and young houris wait on seems so much more easier to understand. Every exhortation of Herbert in this poem is immediately countered by a sharply contrasted, merciless warning; his conviction of the unconditional obligation to remain 'faithful' to the heritage of moral values and to retain an 'upright attitude' clashes constantly with his conviction of the equally unconditional inevitability of physical defeat ('company of cold skulls' and 'with murder on a garbage heap'). Thus the poem while emphasizing the ultimate futility of 'upright attitude', it paradoxically leaves intact the strength of the final call 'to be faithful' to the very same attitude.

 From a point of rhetoric, the poem may sound absurd as it encourages only to immediately discourage, points out an obligation only to warn that its fulfillment would mean ridicule, defeat and annihilation. If there is a key to this apparent contradiction, it is hidden in the sentence 'you were saved not in order to live'. Survival and salvation are by no means equal. Even though the latter is undoubtedly more important, this fact does not mean that the question of physical survival can be dismissed or forgotten: on the contrary, those who are aware of danger can be heroic. Thus Mr. Cogito is a solitary hero: the cost of his refusal to surrender is that he must accept the prospect that his isolated attitudes and actions will meet inexorable defeat.

The ending word 'Go' has the ring of a stern command of our valiant forefathers.

If a poem can be termed great in its virginal sense, this is one .

 PS: Please note that the poet had total disregard for Comma, Semi-colon, dash etc and hence you should read and perhaps re-read this poem slowly to grasp its import.


Report from the Besieged City: Zbigniew Herbert (Author), John Carpenter (Translator), Bogdana Carpenter (Translator)

 The poetry of Zbigniew Herbert by Stanislaw Baranczak

Thursday, October 17, 2019

From the Stoop

From the Stoop

By Tarjei Vesaas

Translated by Roger Greenwald

The shadows creep in across the clearing
like cool, quiet friends
after a burning day.

Our mind is a silent
kingdom of shadow.
And the shadows creep inward
with their friendly riddles
and their twilit blossoming.

The first shadow-tips
reach our feet.

We look up calmly:
Are you here already,
my dark flower.

Tarjei Vesaas, one of the greatest Norwegian fiction writers, has been less well known as a poet. Roger Greenwald, the leading translator of Scandinavian poetry, has impeccably translated Vesaas’ poems in the award-winning book ‘Through Naked Branches’. Tarjei Vessas’ poems are often narrative and carry symbolic overtones even when the apparent canvass is rooted in rural landscape. There is a sense of mystery and an element of angst apparent in many of his poems. His poems are intuitive and allusive in their theme and development. Aspects such as man’s alienation, gloominess of existence, death, search for meaning in life are captured more with an acute aural sensibility than visual (Roger Greenwald states in his insightful introduction that Vesaas is more fascinated by the mute and aural elements in nature than visual) in many of his poems. Through his allegiance to Norwegian Oral traditions, Vesaas crafts stunning and deeply perceptive poems with sparse vocabulary, pregnant pauses, mystical and associative imagery, murmurs and assonances.

This poem starts on a benevolent tone and gradually builds up with playful adjectives and imagery (friendly riddles/ twilit blossoming) to a somber finale with that racking question –‘Are you here already, /my dark flower.’

Source : Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas, Revised Edition. Translated, edited,and introduced by Roger Greenwald. Boston: Black Widow Press, 2018

Friday, August 30, 2019

Before You Came

Before You Came

By Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Translated by Agha Shahid Ali

Before you came,
things were as they should be:
the sky was the dead-end of sight,
the road was merely a road, wine merely wine.

Now everything is like my heart,
a colour at the edge of blood:
the grey of your absence, the colour of poison, of thorns,
the gold when we meet, the season ablaze,
the yellow of autumn, the red of flowers, of flames,
and the black when you cover the earth
with the coal of dead fires.

And the sky, the road, the glass of wine?
The sky is a shirt wet with tears,
the road a vein about to break,
and the glass of wine a mirror in which
the sky, the road, the world keep changing.

Don't leave now that you're here-
Stay. So the world may become like itself again:
so the sky may be the sky,
the road a road,
and the glass of wine not a mirror, just a glass of wine.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Pakistan is widely regarded as the greatest Urdu poet of the twentieth century and the iconic voice of a generation. Had he not been from the Indian subcontinent, he would have received Nobel Prize which he richly deserved. Although he is best remembered for his revolutionary verses that decried tyranny and called for justice, his oeuvre also extended to scintillating, soulful poems of love, solitude and separation. 

This poem shows how his beloved has transformed everything mundane into radiant and how her absence has made the same sights dismal and dreary.
Source: The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Author), Agha Shahid Ali (Translator)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Before I Could Call Myself Ángel Gonzalez

Before I Could Call Myself Ángel Gonzalez

By Angel Gonzalez

Translated by Steven Ford Brown

Before I could call myself Ángel Gonzalez,
before the earth could support the weight of my body,
a long time
and a great space were necessary:
men from all the seas and all the lands,
fertile wombs of women, and bodies
and more bodies, incessantly fusing
into another new body.
Solstices and equinoxes illuminated
with their changing lights, and variegated skies,
the millenary trip of my flesh
as it climbed over centuries and bones.
Of its slow and painful journey,
of its escape to the end, surviving
shipwrecks, anchoring itself
to the last sigh of the dead,
I am only the result, the fruit,
what’s left, rotting, among the remains;
what you see here,
is just that:
tenacious trash resisting
its ruin, fighting against wind,
walking streets that go
nowhere. The success
of all failures. The insane
force of dismay…

Angel Gonzalez (1925-2008) was one of the most important Spanish poets of Twentieth century. I have been reading his selected poetry titled “Astonishing World", brilliantly translated by Steven Ford Brown.

Like Neruda, the range of his poetry is quite vast and varied. A sense of solitude, an awareness of losses caused by time (and love too), a search for solutions based on the intensity of living on the one hand and on solidarity among people on the other are some of the recurring motifs in his poems. There are in this collection beautiful poems on love, nature, music, philosophy, science, politics (the failure of Spanish Republic under Franco) and history.

The above poem is outstanding as it traces his own evolution through epochs overcoming many odds by his strength of resistance and his survival after many geological, biological and political changes

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Ode to a Dead Carob Tree

Ode to a Dead Carob Tree

By Pablo Neruda

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden.

We were traveling from

Totoral, dusty

was our planet,

pampa encircled

by azure sky:

heat and light in emptiness.

It was

passing through

Yaco Barranca

toward forsaken Ongamira

that we saw

horizontal on the prairie

a toppled giant,

a dead carob tree.

Last night’s


ripped out its silvery


left them twisted

like tangled hair, a tortured mane

unmoving in the wind.

I walked closer, and such

was its ruined strength,

so heroic the branches on the ground,

the crown radiating such

earthly majesty,

that when

I touched its trunk

I felt it throbbing,

and a surge

from the heart of the tree

made me close my eyes

and bow

my head.

It was sturdy and furrowed

by time, a strong

column carved

by earth and rain,

and like a


it had spread its rounded

arms of wood

to lavish

green light and shadow

on the plain.

The American

storm, the


north wind

of the prairie,

had overtaken

this sturdy carob,


strong as iron,

and with a blast from the sky

had felled its beauty.

I stood there staring

at what only yesterday

had harbored

forest sounds and nests,

but I did not weep

because my dead brother

was as beautiful in death as in life.

I said good-bye. And left it

lying there

on the mother earth.

I left the wind

keeping watch and weeping,

and from afar I saw



caressing its head.

In “Ode to a Dead Carob Tree,” Pablo Neruda feels an immediate kinship with a fallen tree. He is on his way elsewhere, but the tree stops him, he lets it stop him. This act of stopping and attending mindfully to what the present moment presents is crucial. In a sustained act of seeing, Neruda takes it all in, the fallen carob tree’s physical form, its roots “twisted / like tangled hair,” but also its kingly spirit — its heroic “branches on the ground,” its crown that radiates an “earthly majesty.”

Seeing the tree in this way, being with it, leads to an act of empathic connection: he touches the tree. It is this physical contact that allows Neruda to experience “a surge / from the heart of the tree.” Notice how easily he says “the heart of the tree” and how easily we accept it, remembering for a moment what we have learned to forget — that all things are animated by the same life force that animates us, that all things are our brothers and sisters. And then Neruda closes his eyes and bows his head in an ancient gesture of vulnerability and reverence.