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SEIFERT, Jaroslav

Lost Paradise

The Old Jewish Cemetery

is one great bouquet of grey stone

on which time has trodden.

I was drifting among the graves,

thinking of my mother.

She used to read the Bible.

The letters in two columns

welled up before her eyes

like blood from a wound.

The lamp guttered and smoked

and Mother put on her glasses.

At times she had to blow it out

and with her hairpin straighten

the glowing wick.

But when she closed her tired eyes

she dreamed of Paradise

before God had garrisoned it

with armed cherubim.

Often she fell asleep and the Book

slipped from her lap.

I was still young

when I discovered in the Old Testament

those fascinating verses about love

and eagerly searched for

the passages on incest.

Then I did not yet suspect

how much tenderness is hidden in the names

of Old Testament women.

Adah is Ornament and Orpah

is a Hind,

Naamah is the Sweetness

and Nikol is the Little Brook.

Abigail is the Fount of Delight.

But if I recall how helplessly I watched

as they dragged off the Jews,

even the crying children,

I still shudder with horror

and a chill runs down my spine.

Jemima is the Dove and Tamar

the Palm Tree.

Tirzah is Grace

and Zilpah a Dewdrop.

My God, how beautiful this is.

We were living in hell

yet no one dared to strike a weapon

from the murderers’ hands.

As if within our hearts we did not have

a spark of humanity!

The name Jecholiah means

The Lord is Mighty.

And yet their frowning God

gazed over the barbed wire

and did not move a finger —

Delilah is the Delicate, Rachel

the Ewe Lamb,

Deborah the Bee

and Esther the Bright Star.

I’d just returned from the cemetery

when the June evening, with its scents,

rested on the windows.

But from the silent distance now and then

came thunder of a future war.

There is no time without murder.

I almost forgot:

Rhoda is the Rose.

And this flower perhaps is the only thing

that’s left us on earth

from the Paradise that was.

translated by: Ewald Osers.


when she would talk about herself
my mother would say:
My life was sad and quiet,
I always walked on tip-toe.
But if I got a little angry
and stamped my foot
the cups, which had been my mother's,
would tinkle on the dresser
and make me laugh.

At the moment of my birth, so I am told,
a butterfly flew in by the window
and settled on my mother's bed,
but that same moment a dog howled in the yard.
My mother thought
it a bad omen.

My life of course has not been quite
as peaceful as hers.
But even when I gaze upon our present days
with wistfulness
as if at empty picture frames
and all I see is a dusty wall,
still it has been so beautiful.

There are many moments
I cannot forget,
moments like radiant flowers
in all possible colours and hues,
evenings filled with fragrance
like purple grapes
hidden in the leaves of darkness.

With passion I read poetry
and loved music
and blundered, ever surprised,
from beauty to beauty.
But when I first saw
the picture of a woman nude
I began to believe in miracles.

My life unrolled swiftly.
It was too short
for my vast longings,
which had no bounds.
Before I knew it
my life's end was drawing near.

Death soon will kick open my door
and enter.
With startled terror I'll catch my breath
and forget to breathe again.

May I not be denied the time
once more to kiss the hands
of the one who patiently and in step with me
walked on and on and on
and who loved most of all.

Translation : Ewald OSERS

Fragment of a Letter

All night rain lashed the windows.

I couldn't go to sleep.

So I switched on the light

and wrote a letter.

If love could fly,

as of course it can't,

and didn't so often stay close to the ground,

it would be delightful to be enveloped

in its breeze.

But like infuriated bees

jealous kisses swarm down upon

the sweetness of the female body

and an impatient hand grasps

whatever it can reach,

and desire does not flag.

Even death might be without terror

at the moment of exultation.

But who has ever calculated

how much love goes

into one pair of open arms!

Letters to women

I always sent by pigeon post.

My conscience is clear.

I never entrusted them to sparrowhawks

or goshawks.

Under my pen the verses dance no longer

and like a tear in the corner of an eye

the word hangs back.

And all my life, at its end,

is now only a fast journey on a train:

I'm standing by the window of the carriage

and day after day

speeds back into yesterday

to join the black mists of sorrow.

At times I helplessly catch hold

of the emergency brake.

Perhaps I shall once more catch sight

of a woman's smile,

trapped like a torn-off flower

on the lashes of her eyes.

Perhaps I may still be allowed

to send those eyes at least one kiss

before they're lost to me in the dark.

Perhaps once more I shall even see

a slender ankle

chiselled like a gem

out of warm tenderness,

so that I might once more

half choke with longing.

How much is there that man must leave behind

as the train inexorably approaches

Lethe Station

with its plantations of shimmering asphodels

amidst whose perfume everything is forgotten.

Including human love.

That is the final stop:

the train goes no further.

And now goodbye

To all those million verses in the world

I've added just a few.

They probably were no wiser than a cricket's chirrup.

I know. Forgive me.

I'm coming to the end.

They weren't even the first footmarks

in the lunar dust.

If at times they sparkled after all

it was not their light.

I loved this language.

And that which forces silent lips

to quiver

will make young lovers kiss

as they stroll through red-gilded fields

under a sunset

slower than in the tropics.

Poetry is with us from the start.

Like loving,

like hunger, like the plague, like war.

At times my verses were embarrassingly


But I make no excuse.

I believe that seeking beautiful words

is better

than killing and murdering.

Translated by Ewald Osers