A Small Elegy

Monday, September 05, 2011


This piece by Czech poet Jiri Orten is one of the most emotional poems I've read:

My friends have left. Far away, my darling is asleep.
Outside, it's as dark as pitch.
I'm saying words to myself, words that are white
in the lamplight and when I'm half-asleep I begin
to think about my mother. Autumnal recollection.
Really, under the cover of winter, it's as if I know
everything---even what my mother is doing now.
She's at home in the kitchen. She has a small child's stove
toward which the wooden rocking horse can trot,
she has a small child's stove, the sort nobody uses today, but
she basks in its heat. Mother. My diminutive mom.
She sits quietly, hands folded, and thinks about
my father, who died years ago.
And then she is skinning fruit for me. I am
in the room. Sitting right next to her. You've got to see us,
God, you bully, who took so much. How
dark it is outside! What was I going to say?
Oh, yes, now I remember. Because
of all those hours I slept soundly, through calm
nights, because of all those loved ones who are deep
in dreams---Now, when everything's running short,
I can't stand being here by myself. The lamplight's too strong.
I am sowing grain on the headland.
I will not live long.


The white words against the darkness, the recollection of a mother--herself living in the past, the false hope of sowing grain and the abruptness and finality of the closing line build up a sense of despair and isolation that's simply overwhelming.

I never had a wooden rocking horse.  I'm writing this on a sunny afternoon, with so many possibilities before me.  Yet, Orten's words bring me to the end of the road, where everything precious has been lost.  Like a madman who rages at nothing, I don't know what was lost--only that it was precious.

Eerily enough... according to Wikipedia, Orten died at age 22 after being struck by an ambulance and refused treatment at a hospital for being Jewish.


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