from Wszelki Wypadek (Could Have), 1972
Translated from Polish by Vuyelwa Carlin
We read the letters of the dead like puzzled gods –
gods nevertheless, because we know what happened later.
We know what money wasn’t repaid,
the widows who rushed to remarry.
Poor, unseeing dead,
deceived, fallible, toiling in solemn foolery.
We see the signs made behind their backs,
catch the rustle of ripped-up wills.
They sit there before us, ridiculous
as things perched on buttered bread,
or fling themselves after whisked-away hats.
Their bad taste – Napoleon, steam and electricity,
deadly remedies for curable diseases,
the foolish apocalypse of St. John,
the false paradise on earth of Jean-Jacques . . .
Silently, we observe their pawns on the board
– but shifted three squares on.
Everything they foresaw has happened quite differently,
or a little differently – which is the same thing.
The most fervent stare trustingly into our eyes;
by their reckoning, they’ll see perfection there.