What Our Dead Do

By Zbigniew Herbert 1924–1998 Zbigniew Herbert

Translated By John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter

Jan came this morning
—I dreamt of my father
he says

he was riding in an oak coffin
I walked next to the hearse
and father turned to me:

you dressed me nicely
and the funeral is very beautiful
at this time of year so many flowers
it must have cost a lot

don’t worry about it father
—I say—let people see
we loved you
that we spared nothing

       six men in black livery
       walk nicely at our sides

father thought for a while
and said—the key to the desk
is in the silver inkwell
there is still some money
in the second drawer on the left

with this money—I say—
we will buy you a gravestone
a large one of black marble

it isn’t necessary—says father—
better give it to the poor

       six men in black livery
       walk nicely at our sides
       they carry burning lanterns

again he seemed to be thinking
—take care of the flowers in the garden
cover them for the winter
I don’t want them to be wasted

you are the oldest—he says—
from a little felt bag behind the painting
take out the cuff links with real pearls
let them bring you luck
my mother gave them to me
when I finished high school
then he didn’t say anything
he must have entered a deeper sleep

this is how our dead
look after us
they warn us through dreams
bring back lost money
hunt for jobs
whisper the numbers of lottery tickets
or when they can’t do this
knock with their fingers on the windows

and out of gratitude
we imagine immortality for them
snug as the burrow of a mouse

"What Our Dead Do" from Elegy for the Departure by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. Copyright © 1999 by Zbigniew Herbert. Translation copyright © 1999 by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, www.harpercollins.com

Source: Elegy for the Departure (The Ecco Press, 1999)

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Poet Zbigniew Herbert 1924–1998

POET’S REGION Poland

Subjects Death, Living, Relationships, Family & Ancestors

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy, Refrain

 Zbigniew  Herbert

Biography

"One of Poland's most honored and influential poets," as Robert Hudzik describes him in Library Journal, Zbigniew Herbert enjoys an international reputation. His poetry, marked by a direct language and a strong moral concern, is shaped by his experiences under both the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships. As Bogdana Carpenter writes in World Literature Today, "from his extremely destructive experiences Herbert manages to draw . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Death, Living, Relationships, Family & Ancestors

POET’S REGION Poland

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy, Refrain

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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