From the poetry I have translated from the Polish over the last two decades only a small part was commercially published−I must admit I have been rather bad in promoting my work and dealing with all the bureaucracy this involves. As a result, “my drawers are (rather) full”−to use a Polish phrase denoting literary output not shared with a readership. Here I post at least some of these poems.
Bolesław Leśmian (1877-1937)
Still sleeping… On your lashes tiny sparks of morning,
Dreams haunt your hand, for it trembles and frets.
Keep breathing—without end. Be forever—charming.
I love your sleeping motion, the rising of your chest.
How many years ago was our first caress?
How many days have passed since our last sorrow?
What saddened us last night? What will hurt tomorrow?
Will we ever neglect craving happiness?
Night will come with the eyes of an unearthly doe
One look, and it kills. We’ll fall—dreaming out…
Why? Just like others? Must you really die?
Same as our neighbors?… for them, let us pray…
Translation prompted by a song to the poems by Leśmian and Rainer Maria Rilke: http://youtu.be/bpGSE-yqhr8; hence it follows the rhythmical structure of the original.
Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012)
Here, outmoded like a comma,
rests the author of some poems.
The earth accepted her corpus, though as a rule
she belonged to no literary school.
Yet her grave is hardly ornate,
just this few lines, ferns, and mice.
Passerby boot your portable device
and blog on Szymborska’s fate.
Witold Wirpsza (1918-1985)
In chaotic and turbulent times
Musing upon damascus steel
Restores order in one’s head.
In the Middle East swords were hardened
By inserting their red-hot blades
Into chests and hearts
Of live slaves. Then the blade was removed. Blood ennobled it.
We can assume the slave
Would be killed anyway for some offense,
And considering other possibilities
This was a gentle kind of killing.
Next. Such a saber was expensive
Because the cost of production
Included the cost of a slave. Only the cream
Of Saracen knights could afford it.
The knights went to
Battle, and the steel
Saturated with blood-rich nitrogen
Was inserted into the bodies of enemies and then
Removed. Which was not a production cost anymore.
Subsequent killings followed the initial one;
Not in a closed circle,
But an open-ended killing chain.
It is good to think about this
In chaotic and turbulent times
When nothing follows nothing.
Not even blood follows blood.
(an attempt at uncomplicated speech)
The Apotheosis of the Dance
- BEETHOVEN IN THE TWILIGHT
The true account of Beethoven’s death
Turns out to be incorrect. The date does not
Match: the day, the year, and even the century. B.
Died a few days ago, in the twentieth
He was walking through wet snow on a street
In Lwów, wearing a hooded overcoat
And sturdy boots. It was mid December,
The Zodiac sign was correct.
It was twilight and his shadow dissolved
In the damp. The street was nearly empty.
A car passed him slowly, then
A shot was fired and B. fell
On his stomach. Shortly after, the police found
A pistol next to him, still smelling of gunpowder.
A wound was in his temple.
All of a sudden it became
Unclear whether this was a suicide, or
A murder. Later, a document included
In the investigation suggested intended
Suicide, but the date did not match. B.
Would have had to have been over a century and a half old.
It was established that the car belonged
To the Mafia.
When the ambulance arrived and
The paramedics placed B. on a stretcher
He breathed normally even if the doctor declared
Him dead. B. was heavy, and it was hard to lift
The stretcher so the paramedics started
To dance a pantomime representing the carrying
Of a corpse; the police officers danced as well and
A few random passersby (one of the officers
Pretended he was the one who killed himself,
And the other, that he was the murderer, and they started a fight).
Then dwarfs showed up in a procession, dressed like days
In the calendar from 1827 to almost the present day. Then
The stars from the sign of Sagittarius broke away
From the sky and started sparkling so shadows
Started dancing. Beethoven breathed normally
In syncopation with the harmonic suspensions.
2. STALIN AT THE CROSSROADS
A sentimental poet, Dzhugashvili, wrote
Under the pen name Stalin; this was so
Because while participating in one of the first
Crusades he fell for a short time into the hands
Of the Saracens, and as a slave was employed
In the hardening of damascene steel. He was
Burned and was released as unfit for useful work.
Fascinated with the production process, he took on
His proper name after the final product, and
Began writing sentimental poems. He read
Them at fairs in Southern England: he was
Or rather a vagabond: he did not really
Understand what he was doing, a simpleton. At night
He moved from village to village, even in the winter,
In cold weather. One night, as the thermometer
Showed minus twenty degrees
Réaumur and the night was starry,
A pack of hungry wolves surrounded him at a crossroads.
He had nothing to defend himself with; first he hid
A signpost, but it was a poor shelter, so he took
A manuscript from his pocket and in the moonlight
He started to recite mellifluously. This was too much
For the wolves: first they gently paused, then
Started dancing, squatting and jumping,
Turning around and pirouetting in the silver glow
Of the stars. Stalin’s manuscripts too started to glint
Silver and also to stretch, narrow and flex:
In a curious way this was damascene steel,
And now Stalin too started dancing, shaking and squat-
Ting, fencing and slashing the boisterous
Wolves until he killed every last one.
Then he moved
On. The next day the thugs from the local satrap
Passing there found the corpses of three
Beheaded local maidens under the signpost.
Stalin never turned up again, and there was no more
Sentimental poetry in southern England.
3. KNIGHTS AT THE ASSUMPTION
An idiot, a magnificent one, only danced by himself. Nothing
But danced. At high noon. He would drive to the market
In his battered car, cram it
Between the stalls (without touching anything) in the very
Center of the market; then he would exit and climb
Onto the car’s roof. There he danced, by himself.
Knights had been pursuing this idiot for a long time, but
Weren’t magnificent. One highnoon they moved
To the market with an armed and hoofed clatter,
Their dancing horses’ levades overturned
The stalls so that apples whirled and hens flew fluttering
From their broken cages, with the wingless merchants
Waving their upper extremities. The idiot was
On the car’s roof and the knights
Jumped at the car and lifted it with their swords,
Abruptly. The impact sent the idiot up in the air,
Yet he did not stop dancing; he flew higher and higher,
And more alone, the merchants ran away, and only
The knights were left, holding the battered car up
With the blades of their swords.
The idiot’s exposed halo
Glimmered close to the sun; and the sun danced.
The sun and the idiot became the same. Six
Knights petrified and the car too became a fossil.
4. PLATO AT THE KEYBOARD
Music critics of the southern hemisphere
Generally concurred that Plato’s repertory
Was meager and hardly diverse: two or three
Composers from the second half of the eighteenth
Century, and exercises by Hanon and Merz that
He presented rather skillfully as encores.
Plato would begin his performances with two sonatas
In C-major by Mozart, then he would play something by some
Minor composers, and then an encore—regardless
Of the strength of the applause.
However one critic, a stranger
In that geographical region, who had suddenly appeared
Some unknown place, figured out a trick—he did not
The concerts, instead he sneaked onto the porch
Of the house where Plato lived, and spied
And eavesdropped when the pianist practiced. At first
No sound reached him because Plato was
Bent over the keyboard so low that his beard
Completely covered it, and his fingers danced
In his hair rather than on the keyboard, and did not
Sounds; you could imagine these were
Exercises. Then Plato lifted his beard from the keys
And played a sonata by Mozart, as if it was the encore.
After dinner he got drunk.
Drunk, he played in sequence:
Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky and
Schönberg. He never returned to the eighteenth century,
As he drank more, his fingers started to dance and
Between his beard and the keyboard so that the sound
Rang out, then did not. The stranger critic wrote a pamphlet
On this condition and published it Anno Domini
1584 at the Lazarus Press in Cracow.
5. DANTE IN TRAINING
Dante Alighieri was trained for a few years
In a school for executioners and torturers in Biecz near
Cracow. At that time (the sixteenth century) it was a
School. It had well-developed colleges and departments
With top practitioners. The College of Torture, or
Evidence, included the Departments of: Limb Stretching,
Iron Branding, Pincer Pulling, Witch Dunking, etc.
The College of Implementation of Qualified
Death Sentences included the Departments of:
Wheel Breaking, Impaling and Iron
Maiden; it also offered training in
Different ways of blinding, tongue extraction and limb
Cutting. The College of Implementation of Unqualified
Death Sentences was modest. It included the
Hanging, Burning at the Stake
And Beheading with Swords and Axes, also called
The Stump Department. There was also a Tall Stump
A.k.a. the Crucifixion Department; however it dealt only
Commendably, anatomy and physiology
Were also taught, as well as the working of poisons,
The latter only furtively, as it could lead to the suspicion of alchemy.
The labs and tool shops were very well
There were no institutes dealing with
Firearms, electricity or gases; they did not
Anticipate the future. But this is a minor point.
Dante, when he came
To Biecz, turned out to be a less than mediocre student,
Especially in the theory courses; but he was also slow in practical
Subjects. For instance, he could not properly
Separate the head from the torso because he did not know
The layout of the neck bones; conversely, he burned
The non-pain-sensitive areas because he did not know the network
Of nervous connections. In other words, with him what was
Supposed to be painless (a decapitation) was torture, whereas inflicting
Pain (burning) was ineffective and the truth did not come
Out. He drew poorly and could barely read
Once during a class in witch dunking
He grabbed a specially prepared effigy and instead of
Dunking it, he took it in his arms and at the river bank,
At high noon he started dancing a bolero, a dance unknown
In that region; he accompanied himself by singing out of tune.
Among the principals was so great that before they knew it,
Dante disappeared from their view dancing up the river.
They sent warrants after him, to no avail, even if Dante
Still danced up the river. But the river had no up.
6. A CANCAN
They were gathered together, made to stand
In a row and everyone was given
A partner. This was likely in the Libyan Desert in a natural
Stone amphitheater. The music came from an un-
Known location, the organizers were dressed up in police
Uniforms and they acquired batons.
Suddenly everything started
To move. Joseph Dzhugashvili was the prima ballerina,
And also the prima donna; every so often his slender legs
Pricked a pointe on the ardent sky with his refined shoes;
He hummed soprano to the rustling of his taffeta
Skirts. His partner was William Shakespeare,
The tailor who sewed these very skirts, and now tried
To trip the prima ballerina (Stalin) to which Stalin
Responded with pirouettes; later Stalin’s pirouettes became
Proverbial among policemen.
To the left, Plato frolicked
A little off rhythm, for which he got batons in the neck,
He was backed by Catherine née von Anhalt-
Zerbst, a Neolithic sculptress, stocky, in
Poorly cut skirts, but with a great sense of tact.
To the right was Beethoven; he did what he wanted,
In the air to the drumbeat of the lingerie, syncopating, and confusing
The steps of his partner who was Augeas’ stable boy. Dante
Was partnered with six times six executioners, who were hor-
Sing around like crazy, reveling in flut-
Tering laces; later the policemen claimed that the strongest
Sexual vapors came from the executioners. Dante himself
Danced awkwardly and was in everybody’s way.
The magnificent idiot
Performed only when the others left the stage in an
Orderly fashion, and were led away in handcuffs to
The stone dungeons, for ever and ever. The idiot
Did not dance a cancan; he wore black, spot-
Less tails. Nobody watched his show even if he
Juggled with six times six swords won ages ago from the knights
Who pursued him, and now were lost no one knows where.
Although over that neighborhood the tramping of horses was heard,
Chanting a cancan rhythm down from the heavens.
Berlin, spring 1973
Appendix, “added by life”
to the notebook of Malte-Laurdis Brigge
Gesang ist Dasein
Song is reality
as he looked
into the eternal
he abandoned his wife and daughter
his little daughter Ruth
the fruit of his marriage
with Clara Westhoff
a word turned into a body
a seed into a child
the blood of blood
the bone of bones
I won’t write letters anymore
why should I tell anyone
that I am changing
if I change
I won’t be the same
as I was
this was what Malte said
but his Double sent letters to
“Verehrte, liebe Baronesse”
He wanted to leave
his only little daughter
with his aristocratic friend
but she refused to take her
On a bench in the background
an untouched basket with roses
To the right a lion
to the left a unicorn
and carpets are here Abelone
Carefully she picks
the color of the next carnation
instead of playing
instead of feeding lions
in a real pigsty
(not on the tapestry
in the Musée de Cluny)
Ruth was the opposite
of her famous Father
she worked in a cow-shed
as if she wanted to remind him
about the dung and the muck
as if she wanted to shed
famous metaphors and roses
as if she wanted to bring down things
from heaven to earth
as if she wanted to degrade
too lofty ambitions
the crystal ball
she’d chosen a “simple” life
on a farm
finally on November 17, 1972
a 70-year old woman
she inflicted on herself
an anti-esthetic death
together with her husband she committed suicide
in a car
with the exhaust pipe
hooked to the inside
she choked on the fumes
as if even in her last gesture
she were anti-Rilkean
–so the newspapers wrote–
she inflicted on herself death
that was repulsive cruel disgusting
The grave in Raron
(mit dem berühmten Rosenspruch)
the bones of the Poet were thrown away
with the trash
the priest did not pay
attention to that place of eternal
rest of these mortal remains
“wrote the newspapers” with outrage
about these poor bones
dumped in the trash
Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight,
You’re nobody’s dream under so many