Report from a besieged city (Melbourne)

Today 12 February, Melbourne and all the citizens of Victoria have been thrown, with eleven hours notice, again into a futile, fickle lockdown that is not founded in evidence of effectiveness.

The reason? Five people who have tested positive and are assumed to have acquired the traces of the virus locally when over 24 000 test results have been received in the last 24 hours. That is a positive test rate of 0.02 per cent. Not two per cent, but one-hundredth of that.

We are locked down again. The run on the supermarkets is on again. People’s weddings, funerals, parties, friendly visits have been stopped. People have been plunged again into despair. Again, the challenge is to remain sane.

To that purpose, I take down from my shelf Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems 1956-1998, and turn directly to the great poem from 1982, “Report from a Besieged City. ” Written and published in Poland under the martial law of General Jaruzelski, two years after the formation of Solidarność and seven years prior to the collapse of the regime, this great poem is a statement of the resistance through writing in truth.

It begins:

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others—

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record—I don’t know for whom—the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don’t know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December perhaps yesterday at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

zbigniew herbert report from a besieged city

Simple humble service of the muses is a path of hope. As critics at Words without borders say, this poetry of witness is the home of incorrigible hope.

“When monsters devour each other, or turn on your own country to swallow it, too, fear, depression, and a sense of futility become daily goblins in the national psyche. But for the individual, the act of writing a poem—almost without regard to its content—is the most mandarin gesture of defiance. In the case of a poem like this one, it’s more: an incendiary option, and the greatest affirmation Herbert could make—perhaps that’s why Miłosz called poetry “a home for incorrigible hope.” Moreover, “poetry of witness” by definition presupposes taking a participatory and resistant role in events. It is at least an assertion of independence, and more fundamentally, of motion. Nothing is more hopeless than torpor.”

Herbert’s poem concludes:

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all—the face of betrayal

and only our dreams have not been humiliated

zbigniew herbert, reprot from a besieged city

I will write on. Melbourne and Victoria will outlast this siege. Poetry will defeat the besiegers. Our dreams will not be humiliated. General Jaruzelski was overthrown.

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