STRUGGLE WITH THE ANGEL

God knows who first thought up
that gloomy image
and spoke of the dead
as living shades
straying about amongst us.

And yet those shades are really here --
you can’t miss them.
Over the years I’ve gathered around me
a numerous cluster.
But it is I amidst them all
who is straying.

They’re dark
and their muteness keeps time
with my muteness
when the evening’s closing in
and I’m alone.
Now and again they stay my writing hand
when I’m not right,
and blow away an evil thought
that’s painful.

Some of them are so dim
and faded
I’m losing sight of them in the distance.
One of the shades, however, is rose-red
and weeps.
In every person’s life
there comes a moment
when everything suddenly goes black before his eyes
and he longs passionately to take in his hands
a smiling head.
His heart wants to be tied
to another heart,
even by deep stitches,
while his lips desire nothing more
than to touch down on the spots where
the midnight raven settled on Pallas Athene
when uninvited it flew in to visit
a melancholy poet.

It is called love.
All right,
perhaps that’s what it is!
But only rarely does it last for long,
let alone unto death
as in the case of swans.
Often loves succeed each other
like suits of cards in your hand.

Sometimes it’s just a tremor of delight,
more often long and bitter pain.
At other times all sighs and tears.
And sometimes even boredom.
That’s the saddest kind.

Some time in the past I saw a rose-red shade.
It stood by the entrance to a house
facing Prague’s railway station,
eternally swathed in smoke.

We used to sit there by the window.
I held her delicate hands
and talked of love.
I’m good at that!
She’s long been dead.
The red lights were winking
down by the track.

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the grey veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people’s wretched longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.

Now I know why it hurts so
to tear hand from hand,
lips from lips,
when the stitches tear
and the guard slams shut
the last carriage door.

Love’s an eternal struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.

JAROSLAV SEIFERT
tr. from the Czech by
EWALD OSERS

Translation 1998 Ewald Osers, Original 1921-1983 Jaroslav Seifert. Excerpted from THE POETRY OF JAROSLAV SIEFERT translated by Ewald Osers, edited by George Gibian (Catbird Press, 1998) by permission of the publisher.

 

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