Rhapsody on Czech Themes

James Merrill

For Allan Gurganus

A mauve madness has overrun Moravia –
“Mauve” used loosely to include lavender,
Fuchsia and puce and pansy-violet,
But even the oxymoron of strict mauve
Is everywhere. Those posted notices,
Purple on mauve – five or six crudely-printed
Words in Czech, like losing draws in Scrabble –
What do they spell? and whom to ask? Meanwhile,
Mauve workpants, mauve shopfronts, mauve sunglasses:
Accents vividly standing out against
The obvious ochers of the Hapsburg heritage.
Or is it an early symptom of one of those
Artistic movements (mauvement in this case)
Whose hyperactive brushwork swept the Flore?
Part of the Paris Mucha's mannequins
Hoped sleepy Prague would wake as – statues on bridges,
Art Nouveau … as if appearances
Were everything. But aren't they? and doesn't thought
– Lend me your clippers, ghastly these long nails –
Make provisions when the real thing fails?
Why else booth upon booth of marionettes? –
Our childhood intimates, known then as now
Chiefly by how they dress and do their hair.
Why else Princess and Troubadour, Hermit and Crone
(Whose joints are stiff, like mine)? Why else entangle
Ourselves for life in the Seven Deadly Strings
Or the Seven Adorable ones? – same difference.
Why else yet one more spruce facade upon
The same old miseries? The baby's vomit.
Grandfather's gunshot cough, his uniform
Faded, mildew-bemedaled. Ludmila’s fits
The neighbors set their clocks by. Joys no doubt
As well. We know, we know. (Why bring it up?
Because, as page after notebook page blackens
With these and other musings, a small voice warns:
“James, don't leave out the humanity!”)

A waking dream: I'm ten, I'm Dorothy
In one of the Oz books. Called on to set free
From their translation into bibelots
The members of a royal family.
Which of the chill cave-full will they be?
Three wrong guesses and the child that was
Becomes a nut dish of Depression glass.
(Of course the dream was telling me to set
Myself free – but from what half-humorous
Manipulative bondage I forget.)
On Dorothy's third try a purple budvase
Wakes back into a gurgling year-old princess.
So! purple was the clue, and those doomed selves
Childsplay from then on to disenchant.
As with the bloodless “Velvet Revolution,”
Its dawn till then unknown except in dream,
People now jubilantly woke – free, free!
How can you doubt the color of that velvet?

Far from the capital proliferates
A (what to call it?) terminal prettiness.
Houses of cards. A whole square, poker-faced,
Each frontal in broad sunset strung with gems,
Like MGM's generic frontier town.
In the antique shop, uncollectibles
Collecting dust. Gnawed cushions, carpet ends,
Postcards in savage, ego-driven script,
Dead woodcuts, loose beads, ossified crochet –
One's weakness for that terrible old stuff ….
But look who through a pendant of chipped crystal
Exuberantly sidles in – by turns
Furnace-red, fire-emerald, glory-blue:
It's Light! snapping his fingers to a beat
Our own eyes pick up, ardently repeat.
And here's a two-foot-high medicine chest,
Oak unpainted and unhinged. Try picturing it
Painted mauve, or a purple mercy-mild,
That would at the right touch grow tall and glow,
Its baby mirror door (the mottled face
Of an old man seems to peer from) opening
In expectation – ah but you're not at home,
Just your pure concentrated knowhow
Bottled in amethyst. Compounds, elixirs
Bringing us wisdom, youth, fertility …
In a word, change. Unstoppered as we gawk,
Those vials release through evening sun a swarm
Of whirring mothlike sprites, to do your bidding
Within the small gilt theater each of us
Reserves for rapture. Gravely they hold our gaze,
Then by imperceptible degrees
Into the afterglow of the scene played
Sink back.

                  Woodsmoke. Night falling. Black
As one of President Havel's comedies.
Not so much as a streetlight after ten
Shining in Telc. The town's young people
Head for homework, freed from the spell of a late
Mauv – clippers again, please [cuts the string] –
There, no more jokes - of a late movie.
Too dark to see the kids in their true colors –
Colors, those “deeds and sufferings of light”
That flood your book's great honeycomb – But whoa!
What's this live whiteness pulsing from below?
We've all but pitched into an underground
Cube of fluorescence eerie-dense as snow
Where one lone figure in white coveralls –
Grave-robber? master mechanic? have we names
For what he so candidly is and does and knows? –
Works night-shift magic. It's the school basement.
Upstairs all day the priests (in black) rehearse
A past, by termite zeal beneath our feet,
Made ever quainter and more obsolete,
What lies in store for that Old World depends
Soberingly on this dew-bright whiz and friends.
Tomorrow we'll be shown scenes from a play
They're working on (“It still needs work”) performed
By eight reactors huge on the horizon,
Titans letting off steam. Some latterday
… Not yet Chernobyl, not yet Auschwitz. We
Trust in the dreamwork, although who's to say
What the exact works are that make us free.

Remember (the inner wireless crackles on)
These people have known centuries of oppression –
Magyar, Hapsburg, Nazi, Soviet
(And now the Swiss are investing – blue skies ahead)
And come through with their liveliness intact.
Would Americans be capable of that?

You're asking me? Oh well, America …
[Deep sigh] Who hasn't OD'd on those Carl Sandburg
WPA frescoes-in-words. Wheat sheaves,
Civic street scenes, torsos brawny-bare …
State Art of just the sort then reaching us
From the Soviet Union. One small difference:
We had the freedom to make fun of it
And They did not. Freedom to trust all's well
Once we have made the other person smile
(As you've been doing, Reader, this whole while?).
Freedom when confronted to disarm
With openness. (Talking of other things
While stitching up my finger numb as wood,
The old blood swabbed away, “Of course,” said Susan,
“I'm telling you the truth, I’m from Nebraska!”)
Freedom to ignore our own spellbinders
While millions behind the Iron Curtain knew
By anguished heart voices the State had schooled
In irony, shades of meaning, stratagems
Worthless now that everybody's free
To trade threadbare Camus for Dynasty,
Freedom to justify bad deeds by pleading
Good intentions. To shoot down those who don't
Believe what you and I do. To oust from office
The gladhander we put there in the first place.
Freedom not to wave flags on May Day
And lose our visas as a consequence

– That last detail by way of nice Jan Rippl
Who runs the pension we've settled in.
His English is piquant, he doesn't – won't? –
Speak German. His teenage children want to shame him
Into a job “worthy of his education.”
Such jobs don't pay; he made more as a fireman …
Now, “free” to run the pension, he leads
A life that answers, sort of, to his needs.
Without TV as yet, his personal dial
Ranges from uphill Castle to The Trial
(A grim pub we avoid) downstreet. Then there's
His packed, glass-fronted bookcase below stairs
– Germaine Greer, Robert Ludlam, Wittgenstein –
To which I add a paperback of mine.
(Thank you. This dry, opinionated stretch
Has left us thirsty for the purpler patch.)

Eureka! Mr Rippl, stripping beds,
“Englishes” what those crude mauve posters say:
– A taunt “not printable” while the Red Army
Ran the show.
                         (Merciful god, those “reds”
One went to school with? Their brave attitudes
Over long nights of argument and smoke
Mixed with subliminal piano blues …
Result? This new, seductive shade.)
                                                              But hey,
It's our show now, as that blond kid asserts
In hoarse convulsions over his guitar.
All Prague agrees. The citywide street fair
Gathers momentum – bangles, jugglers, beer,
And yes, at every step along our way,
Another puppet government for all
Whom ideologies of Type enthrall:
Devil and Priest, Tycoon and Commissar,
Death himself, white bones on a black robe–
Pull the right strings, and look, you've make him dance!
Our crucial selves, they're all here for the having,
All but [ominous chords] – all but the Golem.
Rabbi Low's masterwork, the Golem, lurching
Unstrung, red-eyed through nightmare wails of grief,
Bent on the bonbon Child, wrapped in gold leaf.
(“Will you believe,” wrote Natalie reading this,
“We met the Golems at The House of the Dead?
She is enchanting, knows the whole world, spoke
Affectionately of you. He's something else,
Not – one hates to say it – a nice person.
No soul, I mean.”) Just that foul Being made
Of the resurrectionist's odd limbs and organs,
Abstracted from the graves of infidels.

Does the Rabbi rest in this Ghetto graveyard?
Among the markers handy to our path,
Unskewed enough for the next step,
Pause. Perform what the wisest, most
Compelling life at length comes down to:
The pious placement of a pebble
Upon the good man's golden, weather
Gimleted stone. The whispering of a wish
Some wraith of wry complaisance underground
Will try to grant.
                              Dear Heart, come, time to go.

Have we sufficiently seen? have we had our humanity?
Were our travels true, our words worthy
(As if one could say) of the unassuming
Reb Sholem of Belz, who in minor mode
Enjoined his juniors:
                                    Keep your nail-parings
for burning and never         talmidim fail to
add when the toy fire         fondly whistles
its color-carol        two willing chips of
seasoned wood         as witnesses

James Merrill (1926–1995) was one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century. He published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. He also wrote plays, novels, and a memoir.
Originally published:
October 1, 1995


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