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Three Poems

Zbigniew Herbert and Bogdana Carpenter, translated from the Polish by John Carpenter
A NATIVE DEVIL

1

He came from the West, at the beginning of the tenth century. At first he was brimming with energy and ideas. The clatter of his hooves could be heard everywhere, the air smelled of brimstone. This virginal country, closer to hell than heaven, seemed to be his promised land. The wavering soul of the people begged for a baptism of dark fire.

Belfries rocked on the hills. Monks squeaked like mice. Holy water flowed in jugfuls.

2

He leased castles and cities to masters of alchemy and quack magicians. As for himself he sank his ten claws into the healthy meat of the nation—the peasants. He would enter into the body deeply, but leave no trace. Matricides hammered together votive chapels; fallen girls raised themselves up. Those who were possessed smiled idiotically.

The muscles of the angels grew flabby. People fell into a dull virtue.

3

The odor of sulfur left him very quickly. He began to smell innocently of hay. He started to drink. He neglected himself completely. If he enters stables, he won’t tie the cows’ tails together. He doesn’t even tease women’s nipples at night.

But he will outlive everyone. As stubborn as a nettle, lazy as a weed.

FRAGMENT OF A GREEK VASE

In the foreground you see
the handsome body of a youth

his chin leaning on the chest
a knee bent
hand like a dead branch

he has closed his eyes
renouncing even Eos

her fingers thrust into the air
her flowing hair
and the lines of her dress
form three circles of sorrow

he has closed his eyes
renouncing his copper armor

the beautiful helmet
decorated with blood and a black plume
the broken shield
and spear

he has closed his eyes
renouncing the world

leaves droop in the still air
a branch trembles touched by a shadow of flying birds
and only the cricket hidden
in Memnon’s still living hair
proclaims a convincing
praise of life

FURNISHED ROOM

The room has three suitcases
a bed not mine
a closet with a mildewed mirror

when I open the door
the furniture stands still
a familiar smell envelops me
sweat sleeplessness and linen

one picture on a wall
represents Vesuvius
with a plume of smoke

I have never seen Vesuvius
I don’t believe in active volcanoes

the second painting
is of a Dutch interior

from shadow
a woman’s arms
incline a pitcher
a braid of milk trickles down

on the table a knife a cloth
bread a fish a bunch of onions

following the golden light
we climb three steps
through a door left ajar
the square of a garden can be seen

leaves breathe light
birds sustain the sweetness of the day

an unreal world
warm as bread
golden as an apple

peeling wallpaper
untamed furniture
cataracts over mirrors on the walls
these are the true interiors

in my room
with three suitcases
the day vanishes
into a puddle of sleep

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