by Miroslav Holub

Always just one demon in the attic.
Always just one death in the village. And the dogs
howling in that direction. And from the other end
the new-born child arrives, the only one
to fill the empty space in that wide air.

Likewise also cells infected by a virus
send out a signal all around them and defences
are mobilised so that no other virus
has any hope just then of taking root
or changing fate. This phenomenon
is known as interference.

And when a poet dies in the depth of night
a single black bird wakens in the thicket
and sings for all it is worth
while from the sky a black rain trickles down
like sperm or something,
the song is spattered and the choking bird
sings sitting on an empty rib-cage
in which an imaginary heart
awakes to its forever interfering
futility. And in the morning the sky is clear,
the bird is weary and the soil is fertilised.
The poet is no more.

In Klatovy Street, in Pilsen,
by the railway bridge, there was
a shop with quilted bedcovers.
In times when there’s a greater need
for a steel cover over our continent
business in quilted bedcovers
is slack. The shopkeeper was hard up.
Practical men when hard up usually
turn to art.
In his shopwindow, open to the interior
of his shop, its owner built
a gingerbread house of quilts
and every evening staged
a performance about a quilted
gingerbread house and a red-quilted
Little Red Riding Hood, while his wife
in this quilted masquerade was alternately
the wolf or the witch, and he himself
a padded-out Hansel,
or Gretel, Red Riding Hood or grandmother.
The sight of the two old people
crawling about in swollen billows
of textiles round the chubby cottage
was not unambiguous. It was a little like
the life of sea cucumbers in the mud
under a reef. Outside thundered
the approaching surf of war and they
conducted their quilted
pantomime outside time and action.

For a while children would stand outside but
soon they would go home. Nothing was sold.
But it was the only pantomime
at that time. The black bird sang
and rain poured into a rib-cage
wearing the Star of David.

But in the actors under those quilted covers
l'anima allegra must have just then awoken
and so, sweating and rapt, they acted
their undersea commedia dell’arte,
thinking there was a backstage until
a scene was finished, jerkily they moved
from shopwindow to gingerbread house and back,
with the exuberance of Columbines
stricken by polio, while the music
of fifes and drums did not reach them.

Or else they thought that such a deep
humiliation of the customary dignity of age
interfered with the steps of gentlemen
in leather coats and with
the departure of trains to human slaughterhouses.
It did.

The black bird sang and the ruined
sclerotic hearts leapt in their breasts,
and then one morning when they didn’t play
and had not even raised the blind -
the sky was clear, the soil was fertilised -
the quilted bedcovers were confiscated
for the eastern front and the actors
transferred to the backstage
of the world, called Bergen-Belsen.
No trace is left of the shop today:
it’s now a greengrocer’s with woody parsnips.

Always just one death in the village.
Always just one demon.
Great is the power of the theatre, even if
it always does get knocked down in the end
and flung backstage.

The dogs howl in that direction.
And the butterfly pursues the man
who stole the flowers.

When we did autopsies at the psychiatric
hospital in Bohnice, filled with the
urban exudations of relative futility,
the car would tip us out amidst the ward blocks
whose inmates waved from windows
with some kind of May Day pennants, and then
one went, hugely alone,
beyond a spinney to the solitary morgue, where
the naked bodies of ancient schizophrenics
awaited us, along with two live inmates; one of them
would pull the corpses up from underground
with a rope hoist and place them
upon the tables as a mother might an infant
for baptism, while the other was lurking, pen ready poised,
in a dark corner to write up
the Latin protocol, and he wrote faultlessly.
Neither of them uttered the slightest sound, only
the hoist shaft moaned...and the knife
drawn over skin and dermis made a sound
of satin tearing...and they were always
enormous and unprecedented pneumonias
and tumours big as dragons’ eggs,
it rained into the open thorax -
and in that roaring silence one had to
break the line of an angel’s fall
and dictate the logical verdict
on a long-sentenced demon...
and the schizophrenic’s pen in the corner
busily scraped across the paper
like an eager mouse.

We need no prompters
said the puppets haughtily.

The air of that anatomical theatre
was filled with interferon,
it was a great personal demonstration
against malignant growth, it was
a general amnesty for the walls, entropy
was abjured for the moment

because there are no bubbles at the bottom
to burst under the breeze.

The red balloon outside rose up
to an unsuspected sky, its chains
strained by the certainty that the nearer the inferno
the greater the paradise,
the nearer the prison cell
the greater the freedom.
Cantabit vacuus coran latrone viator.

And that is the weird essence of the theatre
that an actor stripped of everything mounts to
the very top of the conflagration
and everything else dies down, falls silent
like a long-hunted animal, its muscles
still twitching but with endorphines
and an infinite peace in the brain.

Yes, even a whale will sometimes leave the school,
hurl itself into shallow water and perish in the sun
like a levelled cathedral, with pushed-out penis,
and death is instantly buried
in a grain of sand
and the sea laughs.

Go ask the tree-stumps; in broken language
they preach about saplings. And in the jargon
of galactic white dwarfs the stars
of the main sequence shine forever.

In the non-Euclidean curved space,
which eludes understanding as much as
the interference of the theatre,
you ceaselessly hear the voices of children
from the primary school of death,
children from the puppet tragedies of the kitchen
and children from the junketings of war,
when skewering them on lances
with their wriggling little legs
provided spice like curry for the mercenaries,
voices of children eluding understanding -

But we’ve washed behind our ears,
we’ve stopped pulling the cat’s tail,
we’ve stopped shoving our fingers
into electric sockets -

What else is there left in the universe
of hominisation, slow as the decay of tritium,
than the doctrine of the growing sense of shame of demons:
since Aztec times high priests no longer
offer up sacrifice while dressed in the skin
of a freshly flayed prisoner.

We need no prompters, they said -

Once on St Nicholas’ Day, the man acting the Devil,
dead drunk, fell down some stairs and lay there,
and a child, experiencing that embarrassing
joy mere inches from terror,
ran out after the thump and called:

Mummy, come here, there’s a dead devil -

And so he was, even though the actor
picked himself up after another tot. Maybe the dogs howled,
but only by a black mistake.
In the sky shone the stars of the main sequence,
the bird was getting ready in the thicket,
the child shivered a little
from the chill of three million years,
in that wide air, but
they prompted him, poetically,

you’re only imagining all this,
look, the butterfly’s already
bringing the flowers back...and
there’s no other devil left...and
the nearer paradise...

He believed, and yet he didn’t.

Poems Before and After

Last updated March 31, 2023