Born in 1901, outside Prague, Jaroslav Seifert began writing poetry at an early age and in 1918 he published his first collection of poems. As a young man, Seifert joined the new Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and became the editor of several communist newspapers and magazines. To supplement his income he translated French literature into Czech. In 1929, along with six other important writers, he signed a manifesto against Bolshevik tendencies in the new Czechoslovakian Communist Party, causing him to be expelled from the party. During the war, he became an editor of a newspaper, and then a trade-union publication. Seifert was awarded state prizes for his poetry three times, and in 1967, was named the country’s National Artist. He served as chairman of the Czech Writer’s Union in 1969-1970. He died in 1986.
Excerpt from The Plague Column
The many roundels and songs I wrote!
There was a war all over the world
and all over the world
And yet I whispered into jeweled 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 color 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 par vertebral 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 pentothal began to flow
into my veins
and all went black before me.
There was 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:
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
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