The Plague Colemn

Jaroslav Seifert

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To the four corners of the earth they turn:
the four demobilized knights of the heavenly host.
And the four corners of the earth
are barred
behind four heavy locks.

Down the sunny path the ancient shadow
of the column staggers
from the hour of Shackles
to the hour of Dance.
From the hour of the Rose
to the hour of the Dragon’s Claw.
From the hour of Smiles
to the hour of Wrath.

From the hour of Hope
to the hour of Never,
whence it is just a short step
to the hour of Despair,
to Death’s turnstile.

Our lives run
like fingers over sandpaper,
days, weeks, years, centuries.
And there were times when we spent
long years in tears.
I still walk around the column
where so often I waited,
listening to the water gurgling
from apocalyptic mouths,
always astonished
at the water’s flirtatiousness
as it splintered on the basin’s surface
until the Column’s shadow fell across your face.

That was the hour of the Rose.

You there, young lad, do me a favour: climb
up on the fountain and read out to me
the words the four Evangelists are writing
on their stone pages.

The Evangelist Matthew is first.
And which of us from pure joy
can add to his life’s span
one cubit?

And what does Mark, the second, write?
Is a candle bought
to be put under a bushel
and not to be set on a candlestick?

And the Evangelist Luke?
The light of the body is in the eye.
But where many bodies are
thither will many eagles be gathered

And lastly, John, the favourite of the Lord,
what does he write?
He has his book shut on his lap.
Then open it, boy. If needs be
with your teeth.
I was christened on the edge of Olsany
in the plague chapel of Saint Roch.

When bubonic plague was raging in Prague
they laid the dead around the chapel.
Body upon body, in layers.
Their bones, over the years, grew into
rough-stacked pyres
which blazed
in the quicklime whirlwind of clay.

For a long time I would visit
these mournful places,
but I did not forsake the sweetness of life.

I felt happy in the warmth of human breath
and when I roamed among people
I tried to catch the perfume of women’s hair.

On the steps of the Olsany taverns
I used to crouch at night to hear
the coffin-bearers and grave-diggers
singing their rowdy songs.

But that was long ago
the taverns have fallen silent,
the grave-diggers in the end
buried each other.

When spring came within reach,
with feather and lute,
I’d walk around the lawn with the Japanese cherries
on the south side of the chapel
and, bewitched by their aging splendour,
think about girls
silently undressing at night.
I did not know their names
but one of them,
when sleep would not come,
tapped softly on my window.

And who was it that wrote
those poems on my pillow?

Sometimes I would stand by the wooden bell tower.
The bell was tolled
whenever they lifted up a corpse in the chapel.
It too is silent now.

I gazed on the neo-classical statuary
in the Mal Strana cemetery.
The statues were still grieving over their dead
from whom they’d had to part.
Leaving, they walked slowly
with the smile of their ancient beauty.

And there were among them not only women
but also soldiers with helmets, and armed
unless I’m mistaken.

I haven’t been here for a long time.

Don’t let them dupe you
that the plague’s at an end:
I’ve seen too many coffins hauled
through this dark gateway,
which is not the only one.

The plague still rages and it seems that the doctors
are giving different names to the disease
to avoid a panic.
Yet it is still the same old death
and nothing else,
and it is so contagious
no one alive can escape it.

Whenever I have looked out of my window,
emaciated horses have been drawing that ill-boding cart
with a gaunt coffin.
Only, those bells aren’t tolled so often now,
crosses no longer painted on front doors,
juniper twigs no longer burnt for fumigation.

In the Julian Fields
we’d sometimes lie at nightfall,
as Brno was sinking into the darkness,
and in the branches of the Svitava
the frogs began their plaint.

Once a young gipsy sat down beside us.
Her blouse was half unbuttoned
and she read our hands.
To Halas she said:
You won’t live to be fifty.
To Artus Chernfk:
You’ll live till just after that.
I didn’t want her to tell my fortune,
I was afraid.

She seized my hand
and angrily exclaimed:
You’ll live a long time!
It sounded like a threat.

The many rondels and songs I wrote!
There was a war all over the world
and all over the world
was grief.
And yet I whispered into jewelled ears
verses of love.
It makes me feel ashamed.
But no, not really.
A wreath of sonnets I laid upon
the curves of your lap as you fell asleep.
It was more beautiful than the laurel wreaths
of speedway winners.

But suddenly we met
at the steps of the fountain,
we each went somewhere else, at another time
and by another path.

For a long time I felt
I kept seeing your legs,
sometimes I even heard your laughter
but it wasn’t you.
And finally I even saw your eyes.
But only once.

My skin thrice dabbed with a swab
soaked in iodine
was golden brown,
the colour of the skin of dancing girls
in Indian temples.
I stared fixedly at the ceiling
to see them better
and the flower-decked procession
moved round the temple.

One of them, the one in the middle
with the blackest eyes,
smiled at me.
what foolishness is racing through my head
as I lie on the operating table
with drugs in my blood.

And now they’ve lit the lamp above me,
the surgeon brings his scalpel down
and firmly makes a long incision.
Because I came round quickly
I firmly closed my eyes again.
Even so I caught a glimpse
of female eyes above a sterile mask
just long enough for me to smile.
Hallo, beautiful eyes.

By now they had ligatures around my blood vessels
and hooks opening up my wounds
to let the surgeon separate
the paravertebral muscles
and expose the spines and arches.
I uttered a soft moan.

I was lying on my side,
my hands tied at the wrists
but with my palms free:
these a nurse was holding in her lap
up by my head.
I firmly gripped her thigh
and fiercely pressed it to me
as a diver clutches a slim amphora
streaking up to the surface.

Just then the pentothol began to flow
into my veins
and all went black before me.
There was a darkness as at the end of the world
and I remember no more.

Dear nurse, you got a few bruises.
I’m very sorry.
But in my mind I say:
A pity
I couldn’t bring this alluring booty
up with me from the darkness
into the light and
before my eyes.

The worst is over now,
I tell myself: I’m old.
The worst is yet to come:
I’m still alive.
If you really must know:
I have been happy.

Sometimes a whole day, sometimes whole hours,
sometimes just a few minutes.

All my life I have been faithful to love.
And if a woman’s hands are more than wings
what then are her legs?
How I enjoyed testing their strength.
That soft strength in their grip.
Let those knees then crush my head!

If I closed my eyes in this embrace
I would not be so drunk
and there wouldn’t be that feverish drumming
in my temples.
But why should I close them?

With open eyes
I have walked through this land.
It’s beautiful -- but you know that.
It has meant more to me perhaps than all my loves,
and her embrace has lasted all my life.
When I was hungry
I fed almost daily
on the words of her songs.

Those who have left
hastily fled to distant lands,
must realize it by now:
the world is terrible.
They do not love and are not loved.
We at least love.
So let her knees then crush
my head!

Here is an accurate catalogue of guided missiles.


Hush, city, I can’t make out the whispering of the weir.
And people go about, quite unsuspecting
that above their heads fly
fiery kisses
delivered by hand from window to window.

And so on

Until a hand at night pulls down a blind
and hides the target.

On the narrow horizon of home
between sewing box
and slippers with swansdown pompoms
her belly’s hot moon
is quickly waxing.

Already she counts the days of the lark
though the sparrows are still pecking poppyseed
behind frost-etched flowers.
In the wild-thyme nest
someone’s already winding up the spring
of the tiny heart
so it should go accurately
all life long.

What’s all this talk of grey hair
and wisdom?
When the bush of life burns down
experience is worthless.
Indeed it always is.

After the hailstorm of graves
the column was thrust up high
and four old poets
leaned back on it
to write on the books pages
their bestsellers.

The basin now is empty,
littered with cigarette stubs,
and the sun only hesitantly uncovers
the grief of the stones pushed aside.
A place perhaps for begging.

But to cast my life away just like that
for nothing at all -- that
I won’t do.

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