Monday, 7 November 2011

Mmm... Monday: Zbigniew Herbert, Part the First

Earlier in the year I read Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo, mainly because it was being turned into a movie and I was intrigued by the prospect of a story about a guy riding around in his limo over the course of one day.

I mean, seriously.

So, I read it and it confused the hell out of me, which is probably why I fell in love with it. This was before the blog so there’s no review (luckily). I tricked a friend into reading it by telling her that it was an awesome read (which it truly is), but really I just wanted someone to discuss it with. She didn’t get it either and it has now turned into this big joke between us; the core of which is the mention of the rat becoming/eating the currency. When we were discussing the novel we talked about the fact that it derived from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, but for some inexplicable reason I never actually read it.

Colour me an idiot.

Bla bla bla, last night we were having one of our marathon conversations (they’ve been known to last up to 8 hours – really) and of course that damn rat was mentioned again and so I decided to finally read the poem and I just have to say that I am ridiculously blown away by this.

Report from the Besieged City

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others -

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record - I don't know for whom - the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

all we have left is the place the attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned our messengers
we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture
thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible
N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance

all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anyone

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts
only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the city
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom.
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself
the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them
the colours of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird's yellow in spring through green through red to winter's black

and so in the evening released from facts I can think
about distant ancient matters for example our
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice
they don’t even know their fathers betrayed us
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are blameless they deserve our gratitude therefore we are grateful
they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity
those struck by misfortune are always alone
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defence continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all - the face of betrayal
and only our dreams have not been humiliated

I actually got chills when reading this the first time. And an open jaw.

How can I not have read this before?

One of the things that I love is the lack of punctuation which allows us to interpret the composition of words in different ways.

all of this is monotonous, I know. it can't move anyone

all of this is monotonous. I know it can't move anyone

The way the narrator distances himself from the goings-on by first letting us know that he was not allowed to take part, and then by diminishing his role as a chronicler is, to me, probably the most poignant part of this poem.

Apart from the rat becoming the unit of currency.

Jokes aside, I’ve now read this three times and still get the same feeling of complete awe when I get to that last sentence. It’s just absolute perfection.

And yes, Cosmopolis makes so much more sense now.

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