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From An Unwritten Theory of Dreams

Zbigniew Herbert, translated from the Polish by Alissa Valles

In memory of Jean Améry

1.

The torturers sleep soundly their dreams are rosy
good-natured genocides—foreign and home-grown
already forgiven by brief human memory
a gentle breeze turns the pages of family albums
the windows of the house open to August the shade of an apple-tree in bloom
under which a fine brood has gathered
grandfather’s open carriage an expedition to church
first communion mother’s first embrace
a campfire in a clearing and a starry sky
without omens or mysteries without an Apocalypse
so they sleep soundly their dreams are wholesome
full of food drink fleshy bodies of women
with whom they play erotic games in bushes in groves
and over it all floats a never-forgotten voice
a voice pure as a spring innocent as an echo
singing of a boy who spied a rose on the heath

memory’s bell awakens no ghosts or nightmares
memory’s bell repeats its great absolution

they wake in the early morning full of will and strength
carefully they shave their bourgeois cheeks
what remains of their hair they style as a laurel wreath
in the waters of oblivion that wash all away
they lather their bodies with soap of the brand Macbeth

2.

Why does sleep—the shelter of all human beings
withhold its grace from the victims of violence
why do they bleed at night between clean sheets
and enter their beds as if they were torture chambers
cells on death row or the shadow of the gallows
after all they too had mothers and they have seen
the woods clearing sky blossoming apple-tree rose
who drove it all from every corner of their souls
they too experienced moments of happiness so why
does their howling awaken the innocent household
why do they tear off yet again on their mad escape
beating their heads on a wall and then sleep no more
staring dully at the clock which won’t change a thing

memory’s bell repeats its great terror
memory’s bell beats an unceasing alarm

it’s truly hard to admit the torturers won the victory
the victims have been vanquished for all of eternity

so they must make terms with this punishment without guilt
with the scar of shame the fingermarks on their cheeks
the abject will to survive—the temptation of forgiveness
the story of hell is now rightly felt to be in bad taste

there’s no longer any place to lodge your complaint
the tribunal of dreams delivers unfathomable verdicts

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