At the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague

“From dust you come and shall return”
wrought in Hebrew above the gate.
Beside the small museum and records house,
I ask two gravediggers taking coffee

if there is buried here an Orten, Jiri,
the poet who died young in forty-one.
They point to some place back outside
and map the passage in the dirt.

Advertisement

Past resting Kafka, past families that led
in the Resistance, past a broken iron railing,
I find the sloped slab between two
black markers. Ivy creeps about the epitaph:

Touch if you desire,
and you will feel
the immeasurable horror
and immeasurable joy.

At 22, in search of rationed cigarettes
in war-time Prague, lost in thinking of the others
lost, struck down and dragged by an ambulance,
dying days later an unattended death—

Orten, did you know of Gray or Keats
when you wrote for your Bohemians?
I came here not to think of death and youth
but because I’m haunted by the words

and syntax of your lines. As though, I swear,
I’m watching bones take flesh, bodies
writhe and dance, death becoming
the valley of your slavnost, the celebration

where there is no gate, long walk, or crossing
over to keep out so much vivid life.
Forgive my trespass; forgive me for
translating the hard truth on your stone.

It’s not reproach or peace that draws me,
but the granite’s sweet cold flatness in this heat,
the clutter of pebbles that mark this unforgotten
grave, its difficult-to-read closeness to the
ground.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.

On this week's episode, we talk with Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, Cyrus Habib.
Olga SeguraMay 25, 2018