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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Selected Poems
by Jan Vladislav, translation by Madelaine Hron
Jan Vladislav (born 1923) is one of the leading figures of the Charta 77, the Czech dissident movement during the totalitarian communist period in Czechoslovakia. Best known as a political and intellectual essayist, Jan Vladislav is also a reputed translator (of such varied works as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Dante, Rilke, Michaux, Machado, Eliot) but also, as manifested in these poems, he also proves to be a captivating poet.

Selection from Sentences I


Nothing moved here
not even a sob.
Nothing was heard here
not even a leaf.
Nothing alighted here
not even a tree.
Nothing cracked here
not even a bird.

But the water of time,
that drowns the hollows of eyes,
that fills the stem of desire,
and flushes the bile of love,
that water has stilled.

So as to draw up a handful,
so as to draw up tears,
so as to wash

the body for burial.


With the fist
instead of the throat
you cannot speak,
let alone beautifully.

With the heart
instead of the fist
you cannot grab,
you cannot grasp.

And so
you shuffle around,
you shove around
this red hot iron
they gave you
without asking.

So many lives
such a crying shame
that you can't live them all.

So many lives,
that you choke,
that you can't
live even this one.

Regret holds you back,
From glimpsing in that window
where, by lamplight,
an other's fate
strips naked.

Each of these muscles,
each fold on this frame,
is a mark of glory,
a trace of your finger,
drenched in the dark.

A switch suffices
to return it all there.

So many lives possible,
and each drawn
in such detail--
what a crying shame.

Each of these muscles,
each fold on this frame,
is a mark of glory,
and for only an instant,
full of wonder,
full of love,
of regret, you take pause,

everything returns
to the drizzling dark.

With the fist instead of the throat
you cannot scream,
let alone --


Selection from Sentences II


Now you know
how it goes,
now you know:

you strip naked,
but you needn't,
they'll strip us all, anyhow;

you lie down as if to sleep,
but you needn't,
they'll lay us all, anyhow;

you pick up the phone,
but you needn't,
they'll all hear it, anyhow.

Now you know
how it goes,
now you know what
you've been doing
year by year, day by day:

"I thought I am learning to live,
and yet,
I am learning to die."

You strip naked,
you lie down as if to sleep,
you cast your mask
that, in three days, will be rot.

(Little Requiem)

Selection from Sicilian Fragments II


Instead of it all,
some grains of sand,
some light-years
and the source at Chaos' depths--
again you return to it;
always do you return to it;
never did you leave it;
only your eyes had emerged
in the sunlight drowned;
drifting in the distance on the stream
arms crossed
in the flow of flows--
again you return to it,
never did you leave it
only your eyes perceived
that arm fluttering amidst the dunes--

Only the source at Chaos' depths,
some grains of sand
instead of it all.

Nothing but a door
which you name--


Hesitating foot
in search of a threshold.

Hesitating hand
in search of a key.

Hesitating head,
which knows of a rock,
which, by a single step,
topples into void.

Already you are there
already you wobble
here and there

here and there
already you sink

some grains of sand
some light-years

away from the source of Chaos' depths.


What the blind do not see,
what the deaf do not hear,
courses through all being,
through dozens of openings,
millions of pores,
temples, bones -
with sand which waits within you
and, already, grinds lightly
at the slightest touch.

What the blind do not see,
what the deaf do not hear,
permeates everything,
drifting in it, floating in it,
finding shelter in it;
in it, the path above
and below is the same.

Instead of it all
some grains of sand

some light-years
and the source, Her,

whence the path up above
and below is the same.

Selections from Wind In The Trees

The Tree's Memory

Tired of the grafts,
that in his youth
the growers had forced on him,
the trunk of the old cherry tree
suddenly remembered
the scorching suns,
the floods of waters,
the tempests, breezes,
wild beasts
and birds of passage
of limitless expanses,
from where he came.
And in his untameable desire
of everything he let
sleep for so long,
he burst through the bark
beyond all grafts
by his own growth.

"Sucker!" cry the growers
and they hack down the new shoot
at its very root,
even before
it could flower and bear
a single fruit,
bitter and crimson
in the blood of love.


Research has proven
that even a wingless aphid
develops wings in the autumn
and, borne by the wind,
it infallibly returns
to the tree of its ancestors,
to its wedding games,
after which, it dies.
But the eggs which it has laid,
endure, without blemish,
even in the colds of Siberia.

Research on bullfinches
has likewise proven
that their song
has a gamut of dialects
by which each brood
safely recognizes
its close
and distant relatives.
But a bullfinch brought up
in absolute isolation
never learns to sing.

Where is, oh soul,
the tree of your ancestors,
that, in autumn,
you do not grow wings?
Who brought you up, oh heart,
that you sing so poorly?

The Seasons of the Year

What have you done to me?
Just yesterday
you, in your child hand
stained by the milk
of the first dandelions,
carried birdlings
fallen out of their nest,
and you did not want to believe
that there is also death.

What have you done to me?
Just yesterday
you pressed yourself for the first time
with a stifled groan,
with lacerating giddiness,
your whole body
to that other body,
and you were sure
that already, you know everything.

What have you done to me?
Today you stand
like a tree in December:
its beautiful head
torn ruthlessly by the wind,
legs grown over
by the ivy of old veins
and still, you do not want to believe,
that it is time.

What have you done to me?

The Wind in the Trees

A few trees still
defend their colours,
green, yellow, crimson,
and caput mortuum,
the drying blood of their wounds.
Others have already given it up,
and they are but brooms,
impaled in their path
by furious witches.
All night, you heard
their sabbath behind the window
and their naked bodies
did not cease tormenting you
until the bleary morn;
illusions of that which was
but isn't;
that which could have been,
but wasn't.

Selections from Six Dry Needles for Jíri John


Cold muzzles of beasts
of which is left but bone,
blackened sketches of trees
against the night's unknown,
the rasping call of love
from smouldering woods and fields,
a sky of squawking gulls,
above the tractor driver, there,
on the very horizon of the world,
this all stands still
awaiting your eye.


Never will you leave this sphere.
Never will you sate this hunger
of the scorched retina of the senses
on which burns, uncertainly,
the searing flame of the soul.
Before you find that house,
whose window once beckoned in the mist,
it will have extinguished its smouldering wick.
And so always blindly will you draw,
with that finger by darkness burned;
and all that you will give of
is your victory, your song,
some sounds which, by chance,
will mingle your dust with the dust of stars.

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