I have decided to do some translations every once in a while of some famous Czech poems to which I cannot find a decent English translation anywhere on the internet. I feel incredibly lucky for knowing both English and Czech languages to such a degree, that I can enjoy the finest writing from both of these cultures. But even if you don't know Czech, you still deserve to have a chance to read some of the best poems ever written in this language, wherever you're from. Just like the poets who wrote them deserve to be heard. The first entry is my personal favorite, one of nine brilliant elegies written by a poet who died at 24 years of age - Jiří Ohrenstein was his real name, Jiří Orten his artistic pseudonym.
The Seventh Elegy - Jiří Orten
I write to you, Karina, knowing not if you‘re alive,
wondering whether where you dwell any desires do still thrive,
whether your perilous time is already past and gone.
Are you dead? Then please beg your gravestone,
to lighten. My lady, beg the roses‘ bloom in its heyday
to end. Beg the decay,
to read you a note of the state of disrepair to which I have succumbed.
Death holds its tongue against verse. And in it, it‘s forward that I come
so young, so painfully young and barely maturing,
that in my youth, in my prime, I resemble a king
of a faded domain. You knew only too well why
our angels lack too many wings to ever fly,
how we never laugh or cry but in blood and gore.
I have found my fall. Let me explain the why and wherefore.
Once upon the heaven (I speak of Divinity)
the crimson sky struck, gashing all clarity
which then bled and went away and set.
Perhaps a vision, wherein I dreamt
of mom and dad, our home, my two brothers and me,
perhaps a vision, wherein a man can see
himself, treading water under a millstone soon,
perhaps a vision, a mirror of the moon,
but it should have seized when I couldn’t wake up,
it shouldn’t have burned me with cold that wouldn’t stop!
A fall of God. And what fall it’s been! Then a boy is alone,
absent great power which is kind, removing each obstruction
by making distance and height to near and low set
and closing gates to hell by the smell of a violet,
then a boy is alone and awakening goes ahead
to seek the truth of evils. A place he’d never think he’ll get at.
What time refuses to, it doesn’t heal. Time is a quack.
Unce upon a woman, lovable front to back,
the fall seemed not to fall at all. I speak of Narcissa.
Everything soared. And always ever closer
happiness spoke to us. Only it could say
the words that can never be swept away,
the mother tongue, the dearest way to speak
of the look, the touch, of feeling close, a kiss on the cheek,
in the bed where lovers are sumptuously and safely bound,
it was the language that doesn’t need to use a single sound.
What did she want, reflected in a mirror,
snap-freezing all touched by her perfect exterior?
Like Narcissus, her shadow, she craved nothingness,
to see herself completely soulless and bodiless
in a see-through looking-glass; she would only hear words
of beauty in hardness, harder than diamonds,
she longed to know of herself in others‘ dreams.
She wasn’t a stream. She wallowed in streams!
Oh, whence does that spring, which washes us away?
Whose waking nights joined mine to stay
and grew until of all the space I was bereft?
I have found my fall. I have found it when I wept!
My tears were falling, falling into slough,
falling for the living realm of grief, regret and woe,
falling brazenly, Karina, I write to you,
beg the gravestone I wash as rain would do,
I feel like rain, showering your grave,
I feel like a cry, absent time or shape,
I write to you, Karina, knowing not if you’re alive,
wondering whether where you dwell any desires do yet thrive,
whether your perilous time is already past and gone.
I know one little girl. She’s a kiss being called upon,
still hiding in the mouth, in no hurry to be done,
stretching in a baby sun,
not burning, quenching thirst: in her bosom drowse one might.
She’s as young as earth. As a breath she’s light,
as early leaves, as a dawning day, as happiness.
I do know good times too. But where those would take me, I can only guess.
You knew that, Karina? Do you really know?
I know how great women can be: the mother’s woe
over her sad son who may have said his final goodbye.
I know my land. I know having fun without the faintest reason why.
I know commitment, yes, I do, though at the moment it eludes me.
I do know also sudden breaks from hopelessness and agony –
but it’s not enough to know, and it’s not enough to be driven,
it’s not enough to know the crime, if it cannot be forgiven.
Death holds its tongue against verse, why, of that I still dream.
What storm is it silent against? What terrible scream?
What will we understand there? What not even there will get severed?
What even there dies? What even there falls forever?
I never wanted, I never wanted to say what said has been,
forgive Narcissa, forgive the world of sin,
light a candle; there; and prey for the soil,
so that December’s freeze doesn’t cause it much turmoil,
so that March gives it enough to nourish every flower,
so that night is its colours flying atop a tower,
waving into the light of stars entering their reign,
so that the lovers praise it for their pain.
So young, so painfully young and maturing ever more,
I never laugh or cry but in blood and gore,
and abandoned by God as well as casting God aside,
I write to you, Karina, knowing not if I’m alive...