Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

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A weekly poem, read by the author.
June 26 1997 3:30 AM

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

(posted Wednesday, June 25)

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To hear Robert Pinsky read "Waiting for the Barbarians," click here.

In this cunning, amusing poem, with its punch line that never wears out, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy penetrates deep into the nature of political life. The atmosphere of civic pride and civic hypocrisy, the mingled air of awe and contempt toward governmental institutions, rings not the bell of cliché but many eerie tintinnabulations: the gongs and chimes of public life, the distinct sounds of what we say, what we know we mean and what we don't know we mean.

--Robert Pinsky

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

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   The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

   Because the barbarians are coming today.
   What's the point of senators making laws now?
   Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

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   Because the barbarians are coming today
   and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
   He's even got a scroll to give him,
   loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying their elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

   Because the barbarians are coming today
   and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

   Because the barbarians are coming today
   and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

   Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
   And some of our men just in from the border say
   There are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without the barbarians?
These people were a kind of solution.