If you're at your wits' end concerning love
try falling in love again —
say, with the Queen of England.
Her features are on every postage stamp
of that ancient kingdom.
But if you were to ask her
for a date in Hyde Park
you can bet that
you'd wait in vain.
If you've any sense at all
you'll wisely tell yourself:
Why of course, I know:
it's raining in Hyde Park today.
When he was in England
my son bought me in London's Piccadilly
an elegant umbrella.
I now have above my head
my own small sky
which may be black
but in its tensioned wire spokes
God's mercy may be flowing like
an electric current.
I open my umbrella even when it's not raining,
as a canopy
over the volume of Shakespeare's sonnets
I carry with me in my pocket.
But there are moments when I am frightened
even by the sparkling bouquet of the universe.
Outstripping its beauty
it threatens us with its infinity
and that is all too similar
to the sleep of death.
It also threatens us with the void and frostiness
of its thousands of stars
which at night delude us
with their gleam.
The one we have named Venus
is downright terrifying.
Its rocks are still on the boil
and like gigantic waves
mountains are rising up
and burning sulphur falls.
We always ask where hell is.
It is there!
But what use is a fragile umbrella
against the universe?
Besides, I don't even carry it.
I have enough of a job
to walk along
clinging close to the ground
as a nocturnal moth in daytime
to the coarse bark of a tree.
All my life I have sought the paradise
that used to be here,
whose traces I have found
only on women's lips
and in the curves of their skin
when it is warm with love.
All my life I have longed
At last I've discovered the door
that leads to it.
It is death.
Now that I'm old
some charming woman's face
will sometimes waft between my lashes
and her smile will stir my blood.
Shyly I turn my head
and remember the Queen of England,
whose features are on every postage stamp
of that ancient kingdom.
God save the Queen!
Oh yes, I know quite well:
it's raining in Hyde Park today.
"An Umbrella from Piccadilly" from The Poetry of Jaroslav
Translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers
Edited by George Gibian
Copyright © 1998 by Ewald Osers and George Gibian
Used by permission of Catbird Press
All rights reserved
Falling out of Love
One does not have to think long when looking for connections between Czech Republic and Great Britain. The humour is just as dry, the architecture just as whimsical, and because of their strategically advantageous geographic positions, both their histories are overflowing with just as peculiar tales of passionate rulers, slightly insane commanders, and great battles. There are differences as well. As a country and as a nation, Czech Republic could learn a lot from Britain. About gender equality, about gay marriage, and a lot about patience. Britain has always been a leading example. Not just for us, but for other European countries as well. An ideal to look up to.
‘An Umbrella from Piccadilly’ is a great example of such viewpoint amplified by the dwindling spirit during the communist era. The poem was written two years after Jaroslav Seifert’s signing of Charter 77, which forever bound him to the communist resistance and officially confirmed his status as an “inconvenient person”. This led to the banning of his books in the entire Eastern bloc. Just those two years were enough to weigh the poet’s heart down with bitterness, darkness, spiritual fatigue: ‘All my life I have longed / for freedom. / At last I’ve discovered the door / that leads to it. / It is death.’ There is, however, a dash of hope in these verses. A tiny sliver of light weaving itself throughout the poem like a golden thread.
‘An Umbrella from Piccadilly’ is neither an old man’s desperate plea nor an urban love poem; it is both. Seifert isn’t just in love with the Queen of England, the words of Shakespeare, or the faint smell of ozone just before it rains in Hyde Park. He is besotted with what they seem to suggest: freedom. A place to live. A possibility. All of this concentrated into something as mundane as a simple black umbrella. ‘I now have above my head / my own small sky’. It is almost with child-like wide-eyed giddiness that he describes carrying that simple black umbrella in the streets of Prague. Not unlike secretly listening to Radio Free Europe in the attic of a prefab, opening that simple black umbrella against acid rains of 1980s Czechoslovakia must have felt like an act of true rebellion. A grasp for liberty. ‘. . .in its tensioned wire spokes / God's mercy may be flowing like / an electric current.’
For countless Jewish families during the war and for many people in the Eastern bloc during Normalization, Britain has always been a symbol of freedom. A place to go. An older sister that would hold our hand and enjoyed having it squeezed in return. The connecting piece in a puzzle of the world. A safe sky, so to speak.
It’s 14 March 1938 and the first ever Kindertransport is leaving Prague with twenty Jewish children on board waiting to meet their adoptive British families. It’s 1945 and Tom Stoppard’s Czech Jewish mother marries a British officer and moves the family to England, allowing him to blossom into the accomplished writer we know today. It’s 1968 and the Prague Spring is in full swing, finally allowing people to spend holidays in Western Germany, France, Great Britain... Seifert’s son is possibly one of these people. It’s 21 August 1968 and the Warsaw Pact army invades Czechoslovakia, effectively trapping everyone on either side of the Iron Curtain. Many family members are unable to return home for another two decades, finding asylum in places like Great Britain: ‘We always ask where hell is. / It is there!’
It’s 2004 and Czech Republic joins the European Union. Finally, it becomes a legitimate part of the family. Seifert had been dead for eighteen years by then, but had he been alive, he would have been delighted by how easy it became to access that long-lost free sky, to feel the Hyde Park rain on his skin, to stand in the shadow of Globe, or even see the Queen with his own eyes. We became able to move freely across the continent, free to work, to research, to study, to love. We were connected.
No country is perfect, but it has become quite clear that without standing by each other, there is not much chance for freedom or sanctuary (and no, they are not mutually exclusive). It’s 2016 and the world is falling apart, slowly, one country by one – we might not even notice if we do not pay proper attention. By leaving the EU and allowing the universe to think that we do not stick together, Britain has essentially snatched Seifert’s umbrella from his hand and left him bare under the void. Naked. Shivering. Alone. ‘. . .clinging close to the ground / as a nocturnal moth in daytime / to the coarse bark of a tree.’ Guess we are all bound to get wet now.
Seifert’s poem appears with permission from Catbird Press.