Five Men

Zbigniew Herbert
Translated from the Polish by Czesław Miłoz & Peter Dale Scott

1They take them out in the morningto the stone courtyardand put them against the wallfive mentwo of them very youngthe others middle-agednothing morecan be said about them2when the platoonlevel their gunseverything suddenly appearsin the garish lightof obviousnessthe yellow wallthe cold bluethe black wire on the wallinstead of a horizonthat is the momentwhen the five senses rebelthey would gladly escapelike rats from a sinking shipbefore the bullet reaches its destinationthe eye will perceive the flight of the projectilethe ear record a steely rustlethe nostrils will be filled with biting smokea petal of blood will brush the palatethe touch will shrink and then slackennow they lie on the groundcovered up to their eyes with shadowthe platoon walks awaytheir buttons strapsand steel helmetsare more alivethan those lying beside the wall3I did not learn this todayI knew it before yesterdayso why have I been writingunimportant poems on flowerswhat did the five talk ofthe night before the executionof prophetic dreamsof an escapade in a brothelof automobile partsof a sea voyageof how when he had spadeshe ought not to have openedof how vodka is bestafter wine you get a headacheof girlsof fruitof lifethus one can use in poetrynames of Greek shepherdsone can attempt to catch the color of morning skywrite of loveand alsoonce againin dead earnestoffer to the betrayed worlda rose

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Zbigniew Herbert was born in Lwów, Poland, in 1924. In his late teens he fought in the under-ground resistance against the Nazis. Herbert studied law, economics, and philosophy at the universities of Krakow, Torun, and Warsaw. His books include Selected PoemsReport from the Besieged City and Other PoemsMr CogitoStill Life with a BridleThe King of the AntsLabyrinth on the Sea, and Collected Poems. He died in 1998.

Czesław Miłoz was a Polish-American poet, prose writer, translator, and diplomat. Regarded as one of the great poets of the twentieth century, he won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Throughout his life and work, Miłosz tackled questions of morality, politics, history, and faith. As a translator, he introduced Western works to a Polish audience, and as a scholar and editor, he championed a greater awareness of Slavic literature in the West. 

Miłosz died in Kraków, Poland, in 2004. 


Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and English Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, is a poet, writer, and researcher. He was born in Montreal in 1929. He is married to the author and psychologist Ronna Kabatznick; and he has three children.

His chief poetry books are the three volumes of his trilogy SeculumComing to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror (1989), Listening to the Candle: A Poem on Impulse (1992), and Minding the Darkness: A Poem for the Year 2000. In addition he has published Crossing Borders: Selected Shorter Poems (1994, published in Canada as Murmur of the Starsi), Mosaic Orpheus (2009),  Tilting Point (2012), and Walking on Darkness. In November 2002 he was awarded the Lannan Poetry Award.

New York, New York

“Zbigniew Herbert is a poet for this place; above all, for this time.”
— Joseph Brodsky

“Now, nearly 10 years after his death, Herbert’s voice is gathered, uncensored and unimaginably strong, in one dynamic volume.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“English readers have cause for celebration...”
Philadelphia Inquirer

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