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

Jesus “is here in Lima, or wherever you are living, in the routine of your daily life and work.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2018
People and cheered Pope Francis everywhere he went on this last day of his visit.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2018
A boy presents a hat to Pope Francis upon his arrival at the international airport in Trujillo, Peru, Jan. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Just as the apostles faced the storm on the sea, you had to face the brunt of ‘El Niño costero.’”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass at the Maquehue Airport near Temuco, Chile, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Pope Francis’ statements...were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse,” Cardinal O’Malley said in a statement released Jan. 20.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 20, 2018