The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Poetry Saturday

Posted on: February 3, 2007

I meet at least one new poet every week. During a daily Metaxucafe browse I met Zbigniew Herbert, whose first name I have no hope of correctly pronouncing, at the Cruelest Month. The title of his poem, “Elegy to Fortinbras”, wriggled in my brain faintly, but full recognition did not occur until I half-completed the poem.

Herbert is considered by many to be a giant in letters, inexplicably not a Nobel Prize winner among other things. But in English his works have only been translated in spurts, lacking any overall cohesiveness. Harpercollins appears to be making an effort at changing that with The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert: 1956-1998 already available in Canada. Being impulsive I idly considered purchasing it, based on a reading of a single elegy and the deep *Chapters discount (almost in half, poor publisher). But it would be more prudent if I first tried his other poems. The library has a few, but all different translations, and the some times significant differences in expression–seen in different Rilke translations for example–make me uncomfortably aware of how experimental translating is; I feel as if I have no hold on the actual poet at all, just incorporeal impressions given by people whose skills I have no means of assessing. I get depressed, but only momentarily. Then I pick up the book again.

“Elegy of Fortinbras”

To C.M.

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenseless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums
drums I know nothing exquisite
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs The night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

*Once a books price hits the $40 its online retailers with discounts for me, chain or otherwise.


2 Responses to "Poetry Saturday"

If only I had all the time in the world, I’d learn a ton of languages so I could read things in the original … but, alas, I don’t.

Yeah, neither do I, but it’s something that’s always bothered me with poetry because people tend to do so many different translations of one poet. It’s better than nothing, I guess.

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