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Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “The Rain” (from Selected Poems, 1968) is about a brother lost to a war wound (I’ll skip the original, which is in Polish— but my brother wouldn’t):

When my older brother

came back from the war

he had on his forehead a little silver star

and under the star

an abyss

a splinter of shrapnel

hit him at Verdun

or perhaps at Grünwald

(he’d forgotten the details)

he used to talk much

in many langauges

but he liked most of all

the language of history

until losing his breath

he commanded his dead pals to run

Roland Kowalski Hannibal

he shouted

that this was the last crusade

that Carthage soon would fall

and then sobbing confessed

that Napoleon did not like him

we looked at him

getting paler and paler

abandoned by his senses

he turned slowly into a monument

into musical shells of ears

entered a stone forest

and the skin of his face

was secured

with the blind dry

buttons of eyes

nothing was left him

but touch

what stories

he told with his hands

in the right he had romances

in the left soldier’s memories

they took my brother

and carried him out of town

he returns every fall

slim and very quiet

he does not want to come in

he knocks at the window for me

we walk together in the streets

and he recites to me

improbable tales

touching my face

with blind fingers of rain.

A moment of respect for the sere genius of Mr Herbert, please.

Let’s just parse the literal and figurative elements of this poem, if we can. Something happens to the speaker’s brother over the course of the poem— he gets worse, loses his senses, and all he can do is touch. I read it literally until the brother’s return every fall. I think the older brother gets carried away for good, or dies, but every fall it rains— the “slim and very quiet” rain “knocks at the window for me”— and that is the figurative return of the older brother. Then the speaker goes for a walk by himself, and the feeling of the rain on his face reminds him of the touch of his brother’s hands.

That makes some sense, right? But the last two lines invite us to revise again:

touching my face

with blind fingers of rain

These lines make me think: maybe the annual return is not of the rain outside, but of the speaker’s tears, which return every fall for some reason (an anniversary?). His tears prompt the speaker to get up, leave his house, walk through the streets, and think about his absent brother. The tears, and maybe the rain, streaming down his face remind him of his absent brother’s story-telling hands.

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