01 May 2010

Some Czech Saints

1. Jan Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge

What was it she confessed to you that day,
about which it was ‘best to remain silent’?
Whatever it was, because your tongue would not,
theirs wagged
till (rumour lending weight to expedience)
in a thunderous rage the diminutive king
- and husband, don’t forget -
had you tipped off the bridge
into the Vltava
In whose flood, Rasputin, he saw you surely drowned.

But from which, rather, so it goes, you suddenly
heaved, crowned
with those all-important stars: five of them,
five - the sake of suffering Christ!

The incident's recorded on the plaque below,
which now all those who have belief,
or those professing none at all, come here to rub
till it shines in bas-relief like Kelly’s gold.

What are they praying for? safe passage? a safe birth?
or, more prosaically, that they’ll come back
one day and brighten you again by rubbing out,
closing their eyes and wishing on a star
before the camera-shutter tips them into laughter?

If they knew now what you knew then,
perhaps they’d pray instead for silence,
pray that your tongue remain fast locked behind its grille,
and that what they got up to last night
in their cheap rented apartment somewhere in the city
won’t come out.

(All those who want the truth of this should ask the dog,
watching, like Auden’s ploughman, the riotous plunge
Itself now polished to the same high gloss,
as if it, too, had been at the confession
and heard, in doggy silence, every tear.)


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2. Cyril and Methodius on Resslova Street

Dropping at night into the silent valley,
they brought to these lands their choice Slavonic texts,
their rituals, their icons, and that special ‘r’
which, like the name of God, cannot be spoken.

Barefoot they ranged the hills of pagan Slavia,
forerunners making straight the way
for saintly Wenceslas,
little thinking they
were clearing the ground for war,
preparing, in God’s name, the fields of blood,
that window opening on the rocky ground below,
countless swords drawn on the Bridge at dawn,
the countless heads on pikes, eyes staring,
like carp, for centuries to come.

Outside, their church is wedding-cake faience,
something out of Utz’s finest hoard
but downstairs, when the halogens fade, we see only
the dark horror of Agamemnon’s tomb,
the scrabblings in the rock
where you methodically clawed your way to the sewers,
the one-way street to death, a mere few feet from freedom,
parachutists
who dropped, that night, into the still Czech air.


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3. Wenceslas in Blaník

i.m. J.D. Zelenka, ob. 23 Dec 1745

On the descent to Ruzyně, you spot
the crown of Říp emerging from the clouds
and once again recall old father Čech
and how he climbed the hill and claimed the land;
and, as the seatbelt light flicks on again
and tarmac races up to meet the plane,
it seems as if the voices of the tribe
are whispering through the intercom:

‘Zelenka’s dead in Dresden, and the palm
and olive withered when he went away.’

It’s January, and the trees are bare
in Louňovice. Through prismatic air,
another hill, seen this time from below:
Blaník’s dark tumulus, still standing there
inanimate and waiting for the day
that’s yet to come, when its embattled sides
should split, and glitt’ring arms come spilling forth.
But voices like dry leaves persist:

‘Zelenka’s dead in Dresden, and the palm
and olive withered when he went away.’

The air is stiff with cold. We pass the hill
beneath which, so they say, the world-tree lives,
its roots kept moist by generations’ tears;
locked in its branches lie those sleeping knights
waiting for Wenceslas, their chalk-white hands
gripping at halberds, and still primed to strike.
But earth has stopped their ears, and underground
they cannot hope to hear the strain:

‘Zelenka’s dead in Dresden, and the palm
and olive withered when he went away.’

Heroes of 45, of 68 and 69;
This prophecy shall Merlin make, for I live before his time.