Czeslaw Niemen‘s 1970 setting of Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod, a text written in 1851 by the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821 – 1883), is also the first collaboration in what would become a long-standing series, as Niemen returned to Norwid’s work many times in the years following the release of this recording. Although Norwid himself is now regarded as among Poland’s most important nineteenth century poets in his own lifetime he was largely neglected and lived a life of poverty and rootlessness, living for periods in London, Paris and New York, while never winning much financial stability or recognition: it’s said that at one point, he was reduced to living in a churchyard’s crypt. In fact, the date of Niemen’s arrangement is significant, as it was only in 1968 that the first complete edition of Norwid’s poetry appeared in Poland, so his achievement of public and literary eminence coincides chronologically with Niemen’s time rather than his own, though he had achieved a certain cult status among younger Polish writers in the early 20th century. The funeral rhapsody takes as its subject the Polish military leader Józef Zachariasz Bem, an important figure during the Napoleonic Wars who died in 1850, making Norwid’s elegy an immediate historical response to his passing. The version here follows Niemen in sticking to Norwid’s text, so amounts to a direct attempt to translate the poem itself. Some liberties have been taken but as far as I can I’ve tried to keep within the patterns of imagery and approximate form of Norwid’s original, though for purposes of comparison a more literal English text can be read here. The song can be listened to here, accompanied by footage from a Polish TV performance dating from the first release of Enigmatic, the 1970 Niemen LP on which his Norwid setting takes up the first side.
Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod (Funeral Rhapsody in Memory of General Bem)
(after Cyprian Norwid/Czeslaw Niemen, 1970)
“An oath was given to my father and I have kept it…”
Where is the shadow going with his broken hands,
sparks flying out from his knees and spurs?
His laurel sword gleams, his green candles cry wax,
falcons and horses beat the rhythms of a dance
as streaming pennants crack whips among clouds.
There are troop encampments moving across the skies,
trumpet calls blown among flags and signs,
tents pitched in the shade of day’s lowered wings.
Did spears pierce dragons, lizards and birds?
Do thoughts sharpen to spear-points among these stars?
A woman mourns, collects her tears in a conch shell cup.
She lifts a scented sheaf that bursts on the wind,
seeks directions from grave-posts on a familiar road.
The rest go wild, smash clay pots on the ground.
In this clay’s destruction is a mournful human noise.
Boys beat their blunt axes in dark rhythms on the sky,
hammer bright brass shields on anvils of light.
A vast banner is spreading its cloth above fires
whose smoke plumes bend, resembling a bow or spear
in a blue haze tense as a tightrope’s steel wire.
We’ll press on, drown in the rock of a gorge, climb out,
pass under moonlit cloud and trembling stars
towards a lake in darkness, an impassable chasm.
The chanting stops, breaks out again in waves.
We spear-thrust your horse into an open grave.
We’ll watch for cast shadows by treacherous roads
where paths seem lost between fallen boughs,
knowing no human convoy will ever truly pass.
We’ll drive our procession on, through sleeping towns,
beat urns at gates, brighten axe-blades on whistling stones.
We’ll hammer until we’ve smashed these granite walls
like the winter log-piles that feed our fires –
chant translucent stars from night’s brink,
feel the startled jump in our ribs as hearts awake.
We’ll go on, gathering lichens from nations’ eyes…