Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004)
The purest of nations on earth when it’s judged by a flash of lightning,
But thoughtless and sly in everyday toil.
Pitiless to its widows and orphans, pitiless to its old people,
Stealing a crust of bread from a child’s hand.
Ready to offer their lives to draw Heaven’s wrath on their foes,
Smiting their enemy with the screams of orphans and women.
Entrusting power to men with the eyes of traders in gold,
Elevating men with the conscience of brothel-keepers.
The best of its sons remain unknown,
They appear once only, to die on the barricades.
Bitter tears of that people cut a song off in the middle,
And when the song dies away, noisy voices tell jokes.
A shadow stands in a corner, pointing to his heart,
Outside a dog howls to the invisible planet.
Great nation, invincible nation, ironic nation.
They know how to distinguish truth and yet to keep silent.
They camp on marketplaces, conversing in wisecracks,
They deal in old door handles stolen from ruins.
A nation in crumpled caps, carrying all they own,
They go west and south searching for a place to live.
It has no cities, no monuments, no painting or sculpture,
Only the word passed from mouth to mouth and prophecy of poets.
A man of that nation, standing by his son’s cradle,
Repeats words of hope, always, till now, in vain.
Milosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.