Sunday, September 17, 2017

`We Are Alone'

On this date, Sept. 17, in 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, sixteen days after Nazi Germany invaded the country from the west. The invasion had been secretly agreed upon less than a month earlier with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The battle was over, Poland subdued, by Oct. 6. The Soviets were driven out of Poland by the Germans in the summer of 1941, and the Germans were driven out in turn by the Red Army three years later. Zbigniew Herbert published “September 17” in Paris in 1982, during the rise of Solidarity, when Poland was yet again threatened with invasion from the east. Herbert dedicates the poem to Józef Czapski, who survived the Katyn massacre in 1940 and whose memoir, The Inhuman Land, was published in English in 1951. Here is “September 17” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, Report from the Besieged City, 1985):

“My defenseless country will admit you invader
where Jaś and Mary went walking to school
the path won’t be split into an abyss

“Rivers are too lazy not quick to flood
knights sleeping in the mountains continue to sleep
so you will enter easily uninvited guest

“But sons of the earth will gather at night
funny carbonari plotters of freedom
they will clean old-fashioned weapons
will swear on a bird on two colors

“And then as always—glows and explosions
boys like children sleepless commanders
knapsacks filled with defeat crimson fields of glory
the strengthening knowledge—we are alone

“My defenseless country will admit you invader
and give you a plot of earth under a willow—and peace
so those who come after us will learn again
the most difficult art—the forgiveness of sins”

In their notes to the poem, the Carpenters report: “The carbonari were a secret political association organized in Italy in the nineteenth century to establish a republic.”

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