by Zbigniew Herbert
This is a poem that turns and keeps turning. Who is this “older brother” returned from war? Which war? What kind of return? War’s aftermath, or really its unending presence, was an inevitable subject for Polish poets in the decades after 1945, and Zbigniew Herbert slyly begins “The Rain” by introducing one more returned soldier, a member of the family, an older brother decorated with a real and metaphorical silver star. But the star, the wound, is the poem’s first turning, an abyss we fall into, because it’s not even the recent war of shared memory that he’s returning from, but World War I, and not just that, he’s a survivor of the Napoleonic Wars, the fifteenth-century battle of Grünwald, the Crusades, Roland’s stand at Roncevaux, the Gallic Wars, the Roman siege of Carthage. All right, then, we seem to understand: it’s every man, it’s the universal soldier come back from every war in history, and probably the poem wouldn’t matter much if that were the end of it. But with stanza 6 we have to recognize that it’s an actual brother who returns, and while his fate keeps bleeding into the mythic, the larger than life—unwilling or unable to stay put as a war monument, he becomes a disturbance, a force of memory and story that has to be driven out of town—what gives the poem its power is the brother’s devastating physicality: his blind eyes, his hands, the ever-returning touch to the speaker’s face. He is not a symbol, he is a body, a companion, who survived and did not survive, and will not stay buried.
Dan Bellm is a poet and translator living in Berkeley, California. The most recent of his three books of poetry, Practice (Sixteen Rivers Press), won a 2009 California Book Award, and he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. He translates poetry and fiction from Spanish and French, and teaches literary translation in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. www.danbellm.com.