At first only cherries and the comic flight
of bats, the apple moon, a drowsy owl,
the tang of icy water on school outings.
The city’s towers rise like words of love.
Afterwards, long after, Provence’s golden dust,
fig trees in the vineyards, the lesson of white Greece,
obscure museums, Piero’s Madonna great with child
—in the interim, two occupations, two inhuman armies,
death’s clumsy vehicles patrol your streets.

Long day spent translating Georg Trakl,
“The Captive Blackbird’s Song,” that blissful first Paris
after years of Soviet scarcity and squalor;
your sly smile, your schoolboy jokes, the gravitas
and cheer you brought to Meaux’s little cathedral
(Bossuet watched us rather dourly),
Berlin evenings: Herr Doktor, Herr Privatdozent,
the rice you scattered at friends’ weddings like confetti—
but the quiet bitterness of bad months, too.

I liked to imagine your strolls
in Umbria, Liguria; your dapper chase,
your quest for places where the glaciers
of the past melt, baring forms.
I liked to imagine you roving
through poetry’s mountains, seeking the spot
where silence suddenly erupts in speech.
But I always met you in the cramped apartments
of those gray Molochs called great cities.

You sometimes reminded me of life’s tragedies.
Life seldom let you out of sight.
I think of your generation, crushed by fate,
your illness in Madrid, in Amsterdam
(Hotel Ambassade), even in holy Jerusalem,
the hospital Saint-Louis, where you lay one summer
with heat melting houses’ walls and nations’ borders,
and your final weeks in Warsaw.
I marvel at your poems’ kingly pride.

(translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)

This Issue

May 9, 2002