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.
Jiří Orten belonged to a generation of poets who took Czech verse in a more inward direction. He did not shrink from his own subjectivity, from what he knew. “A Small Elegy” inscribes a sacred feeling, a tenderness so deep it feels almost otherworldly, a tenderness that seems always endangered, always threatened by a relentless worldliness, by temporality, by the march of history. It also inscribes the premonition of a death that was indeed coming for him. Orten died in a bizarre accident in Prague in the summer of 1941. One moment he was stepping off the curb to buy cigarettes from a local kiosk, the next he was hit and being dragged along the street by a speeding German car. He was refused admission to a nearby hospital because he was Jewish. Another admitted him, but it was too late. He died a few days later. He was only twenty-two years old. “A Small Elegy” seems to me a deeply unflinching poem. It is nearly unbearable. When I read it in the middle of the night, my impulse is to wake up everyone around me, everyone I love, before it is too late.