Week 272: The Seventh Angel, by Zbigniew Herbert

We last met Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in week 124 with his offbeat, practically-minded take on ‘Hamlet’; here he turns his attention to angels and neatly undermines the glamour of sanctity in much the same way as he undermined the glamour of the tragic hero.

The Seventh Angel

The seventh angel
is completely different
even his name is different
Shemkel

he is no Gabriel
the aureate
upholder of the throne
and baldachin

and he’s no Raphael
tuner of choirs

and he’s also no
Azrael
planet-driver
surveyor of infinity
perfect exponent of theoretical physics

Shemkel
is black and nervous
and has been fined many times
for illegal import of sinners

between the abyss
and the heavens
without a rest his feet go pit-a-pat

his sense of dignity is non-existent
and they only keep him in the squad
out of consideration for the number seven
but he is not like the others

not like the hetman of the hosts
Michael
all scales and feathery plumes

nor like Azrafael
interior decorator of the universe
warden of its luxuriant vegetation
his wings shimmering like two oak trees

not even like
Dedrael
apologist and cabalist

Shemkel Shemkel
– the angels complain
why are you not perfect

the byzantine artists
when they paint all seven
reproduce Shemkel
just like the rest

because they suppose
they might lapse into heresy
if they were to portray him
just as he is
black nervous
in his old threadbare nimbus

Zbigniew Herbert (tr. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

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