Great Ships

By Adam Zagajewski

Translated By Clare Cavanagh

This is a poem about the great ships that wandered

                   the oceans

And groaned sometimes in deep voices, grumbling about fog

                   and submerged peaks,

But usually they sliced the pages of tropical seas

                   in silence,

Divided by height, category, and class, just like our communities

                   and hotels.

Beneath the deck poor emigrants played cards, and no one


While on the highest deck Claudel gazed at Ysé and her hair


And toasts were raised to a safe trip, to coming


Toasts were raised, Alsatian wine and champagne

                   from France’s finest vineyards,

Some days were static, windless, when only the light seeped      


Days when nothing happened but the horizon, which traveled   

                   with the ship,

Days of emptiness and boredom, playing solitaire, repeating   

                   the latest news,

Who’d been seen with whom in a tropical night’s shade, embracing   

                   beneath a peach-colored moon.

But filthy stokers tirelessly tossed coal into open   

                   flaming mouths

And everything that is now already existed then, but

                  in condensed form.

Our days already existed and our hearts baked

                   in the blazing stove,

And the moment when I met you may also have existed,

                  and my mistrust

Brittle as a faience plate, and my faith, no less frail   

                  and capricious,

And my searches for the final answer, my   

                disappointments and discoveries.

Great ships: some sunk suddenly, arousing consciences   

                and fear,

Gaining deathless fame, becoming stars

                of special bulletins.

Others went peacefully, waned without a word in provincial   

                ports, in dockyards,

Beneath a coat of rust, a ruddy fur of rust, a slipcover of rust,

                and waited

For the final transformation, the last judgment of souls and


They wait as patiently as chess players in Luxembourg Garden

                nudging pieces a fraction of an inch or so.

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