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This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

on Zbigniew Herbert (translated by Donald Gardner)
The detour via History – on Zbigniew Herbert
K. Michel
Translated by Donald Gardner

And so the intractable word ‘thus’: In the morning, five men are escorted across the yard and forced to stand against a blank wall. Five men, two of them young and the others middle-aged. Nothing more is known of them. Everyone holds their breath as the platoon level their rifles; all at once everything is blazingly clear in the garish light. The yellow wall, the cold blue sky behind the barbed wire instead of a horizon above the wall.

A poem from the early 1950s by Zbigniew Herbert begins with this description. It is not clear whether it refers to the German occupation or to the Stalinist terror and this is not important; it could be a description of any execution. Whatever the case may be, at the moment when the rifles are aimed, a revolt breaks out among the five senses that would gladly escape like rats from a sinking ship. But by then the bodies have already been floored and lie there covered up to their eyes in shadows. The poet goes on to write: I did not learn this today; I knew it before yesterday; so why have I written insignificant verses about flowers? And he asks what the men talked about in the night before their execution. About prophetic dreams maybe? About adventures in the brothel; a voyage; car parts; that vodka is the best beverage by far and that you can get a headache from wine; about girls, or fruit or about life.

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