A CHAPLET OF SAGE

for Frantisek Hrub°n

Noon was approaching and the quiet
was cut by the buzzing of flies
as though with a diamond.
We were lying in the grass by the S▀zava,
drinking Chablis
chilled in a forest spring.

Once at Konopiste Castle
I was allowed to view
an ancient dagger on display.
Only in the wound did a secret sprig
release a triple blade.
Poems are sometimes like that.
Not many of them perhaps
but it is difficult to extract them from the wound.

A poet often is like a lover.
He easily forgets
his one-time whispered promise of gentleness
and the most fragile gracefulness
he treats with brutal gesture.

He has the right to rape.
Under the banner of beauty
or that of terror.
Or under the banner of both.
Indeed it is his mission.

Events themselves hand him
a ready pen
that with its tip he may indelibly tattoo
his message.
Not on the skin of the breast
but straight into the muscle
which throbs with blood.
But rose and heart are not just love,
nor a ship a voyage or adventure,
nor a knife murder,
nor an anchor fidelity unto death.

These foolish symbols lie.
Life has long outgrown them.
Reality is totally different
and a lot worse still.

And so the poet drunk with life
should spew out all bitterness,
anger and despair
rather than let his song become a tinkling bell
on a sheep’s neck.

When we had drunk our fill
and rose from the flattened grass,
a bunch of naked children on the bank
hopped into the river below us.
And one of the young girls,
the one who on her straw-blonde hair
wore a chaplet of wet sage,
climbed up on a large rock
to stretch out on its sun-warmed surface.

I was taken aback:
                      Good Lord,
she’s no longer a child!

 


LOST PARADISE

The Old Jewish Cemetery
is one great bouquet of grey stone
on which time has trodden.
I was drifting among the graves,
thinking of my mother.
She used to read the Bible.

The letters in two columns
welled up before her eyes
like blood from a wound.
The lamp guttered and smoked
and Mother put on her glasses.
At times she had to blow it out
and with her hairpin straighten
the glowing wick.

But when she closed her tired eyes
she dreamed of Paradise
before God had garrisoned it
with armed cherubim.
Often she fell asleep and the Book
slipped from her lap.

I was still young
when I discovered in the Old Testament
those fascinating verses about love
and eagerly searched for
the passages on incest.
Then I did not yet suspect
how much tenderness is hidden in the names
of Old Testament women.

Adah is Ornament and Orpah
is a Hind,
Naamah is the Sweetness
and Nikol is the Little Brook.

Abigail is the Fount of Delight.
But if I recall how helplessly I watched
as they dragged off the Jews,
even the crying children,
I still shudder with horror
and a chill runs down my spine.

Jemima is the Dove and Tamar
the Palm Tree.
Tirzah is Grace
and Zilpah a Dewdrop.
My God, how beautiful this is.

We were living in hell
yet no one dared to strike a weapon
from the murderers’ hands.
As if within our hearts we did not have
a spark of humanity!

The name Jecholiah means
The Lord is Mighty.
And yet their frowning God
gazed over the barbed wire
and did not move a finger --

Delilah is the Delicate, Rachel
the Ewe Lamb,
Deborah the Bee
and Esther the Bright Star.

I’d just returned from the cemetery
when the June evening, with its scents,
rested on the windows.
But from the silent distance now and then
came thunder of a future war.
There is no time without murder.

I almost forgot:
Rhoda is the Rose.
And this flower perhaps is the only thing
that’s left us on earth
from the Paradise that was.

JAROSLAV SEIFERT
tr. from the Czech by
EWALD OSERS

here.JPG (4208 bytes)

 


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