Jaroslav Seifert

Place of Pilgrimage

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After a long journey we awoke
in the cathedral’s cloisters, where men slept
on the bare floor.
There were no buses in those days,
only trams and the train,
and on a pilgrimage one went on foot.

We were awakened by bells. They boomed
from square-set towers.
Under their clangour trembled not only the church
but the dew on the stalks
as though somewhere quite close above our heads
elephants were trampling on the clouds
in a morning dance.

A few yards from us the women were dressing.
Thus did I catch a glimpse
for only a second or two
of the nakedness of female bodies
as hands raised skirts above heads.

But at that moment someone clamped
his hand upon my mouth
so that I could not even let out my breath.
And I groped for the wall.

A moment later all were kneeling
before the golden reliquary
hailing each other with their songs.
I sang with them.
But I was hailing something different,
yes and a thousand times,
gripped by first knowledge.
The singing quickly bore my head away
out of the church.
In the Bible the Evangelist Luke
writes in his gospel,
Chapter One, Verse Twenty-six
the following:

And the winged messenger flew in by the window
into the virgin’s chamber
softly as the barn-owl flies by night,
and hovered in the air before the maiden
a foot above the ground,
imperceptibly beating his wings.
He spoke in Hebrew about David’s throne.

She dropped her eyes in surprise
and whispered: Amen
and her nut-brown hair
fell from her forehead onto her prie-dieu.

Now I know how at that fateful moment
women act
to whom an angel has announced nothing.

They first shriek with delight,
then they sob
and mercilessly dig their nails
into man’s flesh.
And as they close their womb
and tense their muscles
a heart in tumult hurls wild words
up to their lips.

I was beginning to get ready for life
and headed wherever
the world was most exciting.
I well recall the rattle of rosaries
at fairground stalls
like rain on a tin roof,
and the girls, as they strolled among the stalls,
nervously clutching their scarves,
liberally cast their sparkling eyes
in all directions,
and their lips launched on the empty air
the flavour of kisses to come.

Life is a hard and agonizing flight
of migratory birds
to regions where you are alone.
And whence there’s no return.
And all that you have left behind,
the pain, the sorrows, all your disappointments
seem easier to bear
than is this loneliness,
where there is no consolation
to bring a little comfort to
your tear-stained soul.

What use to me are those sweet sultanas!
Good thing that at the rifle booth I won
a bright-red paper rose!
I kept it a long time
and still it smelled of carbide.

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Jaroslav Seifert