„The people I should be going to are poets and writers. One of our big failings in the field of bashara is that we have been fighting feelings with facts. And when a fact comes up against a feeling, the feeling almost always wins“ — Michael B. Oren

I need only add one letter to the name of the esteemed Israeli official and ex-envoy to US Oren to arrive at the subject of my story: ORTEN. I find the story of the young poet Jiří Orten very moving. Inspired by Michael Oren’s words, I feel obliged to share this story with the wider community of TOI readers in the hope that the beautiful soul of this gifted young poet can speak to all who today live their own authentic lives while long searching for the truth and God within us.

Jiří Orten was a Czech Jew who was mortally wounded 75 years ago after being hit by a German ambulance in Prague on his twenty-second birthday in the Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, dying two days later. Although it would have required him to live for little less than another six years to greet the establishment of the Jewish State, he fought the kind of fight we are still fighting today, each of us individually and our two nations on a collective level. Jiří Orten’s poetry secured his place as one of the most influential young poets of the last century, in Czechoslovakia if not globally, winning his fight for hearts and minds, showing us how to proceed and to prevail too.

What follows is one poem and one diary entry by Jiří Orten. Now it is going to get emotional, so get a grip on your feelings before continuing to read.

Because thy rage against me, and thy tumult, is come up

into mine ears, therefore will I put my hook in thy nose,

and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the

way by which thou camest.                         Isaiah, 37, 29

There isn´t just any sort of way, there is only one way! Should I explain? Should I explain what I want to say; what do I want to say? I will try: if (in order to deal with the admissibility right from the beginning), if they will let me. I want to live. Who is laughing? I do not know anything else, I haven´t learned anything else. If I believe in God, if I believe in myself, if I believe in the host, if I believe in death, if I believe in justice, if I believe in poetry, if I believe in nothing, I’m still alive. This is life.  (15.12.1939)

This is life when heading out to solitude or becoming an apostle, this is life if I commit suicide, if I renounce everything, everything, faith, hope, love; this is life helping others or receiving help, this is life to suffer or to be happy, this is life being cold, or warm, either feeling good or ill, to be in friendship or anxious for them, working or standing idle, dying or being born, all this is life. For even death is life as birth is life. (15.12.1939)

O my stern Lord, quick tempered God of dread,

to you belong praise, stopped for a pause

in which I trudged with a painful tread,

skirmishing ages along with the universe.

What comes after life I don’t know. I haven’t learned it, but I can’t look at it other than as a living being. I live, because I know all of this. If I didn’t know I would still live. I am. It’s not so simple. Why I say that? I said: there isn´t just any sort of way, there aren´t many ways, there is only one way! If you know it, you are my brothers. I fear for you. I fear even more that no one, no other human being will ever be able to approach the circle of my journey. They can touch several points of it, perhaps intersecting it and pushing from inside it, but encompassing it? What do we know about impenetrability? What do we know about the area of our own circle, us, the worshipers of curves? My journey. It’s not about ownership, it’s destiny. (15.12.1939)

Perhaps no void, perhaps only the deep immersion

which can move women from their distress

through the night of death, with the air a tumult of tension,

to stand freer before the cruelty of the wicked.

 

on the sacred mountain, where goes the fox,

forsaken as only a tree may be,

and read foretellings of beloved scrolls,

in which such light, such calm, tranquility.

…, the sun sets and outside it’s getting dark and darker. I think about all the people who have ever smiled at me. How many there are. Oh, there have been a lot of them and yet too few. I think of the word nature which is so just. I think of the joy of giving joy. I think about my brother. I think of love. I think of feeling secure, which is the greatest thing to have in this world. (20.4.1940 in the evening)

You are shot with cloud, with vapour wrapped,

So as heaven wouldn’t hear me bawl;

Loaded with shot am I it would seem in your ongoing night

where I cannot sleep that you could call.

 

I listen for ages, you are quiet as a mute,

I listen through tears, but hear not at all,

Follow with kisses through vista and leafy avenue,

through fears, disquiet, objects, quietude and all.

 

I’m that land of darkness which tasted your wrath,

and overwhelmed by evil couldn’t see,

In that land of darkness your whip flogged to death,

which lost springs of milk for its children.

My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted inn thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly. Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help. Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise theeYe that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel. For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard. My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him. The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever. All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the LORD’s: and he is the governor among the nations. All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.  (Psalm 22 incompletely written in the diary, 30.4.1940, in italics is the text intentionally left out by the poet)

I’m that land of darkness, you gave it grit,

you gave it blasted slopes, death and mire,

you gave it the eye of the day but no lid to give

 it dark. And mothers conceived.

 

And mothers conceived and sweetly laden

went gathering fruits, gathered with Autumn,

went feeling in the ground the desire of women

for endless beginnings in the light of their youth.

 

And light was not. The light, my Lord, snuffed,

the sunlight burnt by frost, an almighty switch.

And it chilled all, and their bodies shaked

with vast sobs, great tears within.

… and to forget the little anxieties I have my head full of. Man lives. To do what? God! It seems to me now that if I were not forced to wait for anything better and freer today, it would be long gone this unkempt life, it would be over and I would have listened to my more disengaged, braver voice. But it’s a must, I have to wait. Is it possible that after, (and I hardly believe in this after) just disappointment would come again? (4.5.1940)

Your turned away face, your averted gaze,

laughed over them and their robbery’s just desserts,

revenging them lightly with the name

of lost baby sons, which time and the day after reap.

 

But I am that land, naked spine for your scourging;

I am mother of the enlightened and believe in your light,

and you took them from me, took them for flowering

pasture, yes pasture. A blooming graveyard!

What behind me, is behind me!

In front of me there are wet roofs and a dying day. Intensely shuttered. For, behold, these words for the first time in the Striped Book, behold, in Europe men murder each other! War, death, war, death. At this moment, they die haplessly, unconsciously, or deliriously, bodies dressed in some sort of uniform. What are you shooting at, fools? You shoot at yourselves. Did you want that? Yes, that’s what you wanted. How unspeakable. The world, this faded jester, has the younger ones working for him.

Tell me, what else I can I not imagine! (14.5.1940)

I am that land of darkness, your lover, your daughter,

you despoiled my womb, my garden, my forest,

my fiery wine you poured to the lake,

and glittering angels who aspired to heaven

 

and wearied on their way, Lord you didn’t want them

to behold you, vain was their flight,

they were angels, citizens of heaven,

and I the land of darkness, and I must bleed.

 

And bleed in silence and cry tears of sin,

and curse, ah, I know, and my head hurts,

your mercy dies away with your whip,

when night approached, they covered me with it.

The world of a former poet, this is something I would never want to live with. It is the constant renewal of scents, words, and overtaken melodies. If we add growing lazy, a tendency to repetition, and simply old age, the image of something desperately lost, washed out and irrevocably away will be created. Books become antiquated, memories too and the fame of youth especially. Grant me, God, to live to mature age, but not like autumn leaves! Also, grant me never to have to twist what is straight and straighten what is twisted or rounded. (27.5.1940)

Oh what rambles, what wanderings!

A crying shame measured in pain.

Flakes of freedom dissolve in an ocean of ill. And I am the land of darkness, I am yours, I am a believer.

I’d like so much to make some of my loved ones happy! After the scourge of God stops striking our backs – and if we are still alive …            It is getting dark. Last night, I nodded off over many glasses alongside many people; what will be left of it? That which I took from and which always presses me? Contentment doesn’t suit me. I do not fit in; I do not fit in contentment, though it was caring. I have lived at a time with great dusk looming ahead of the world, let no one  forget it when they meet me one day. (2.6.1940 evening)  

I pray through the night, I pray to the past,

I pray through the sparks which kindle the fire

once, at least one time, until through the straits,

until orchestral wrath is played out.`

 

until anger subsides, your anger Lord,

until you are loving, till you recognise

that I endure for you, no other kingdom,

 I will die for you even in heaven.

 At this very moment I could die so calmly and without acknowledging it’s a rare moment; the ultimate mental fatigue, the desire fulfilled for a moment, making a full stop. And I make it at least  now; I can’t, I can’t go on  with anything …: my closest friends leave me in the moment of the heaviest depression; loneliness thus deepens, embitters and alienates. (9.6.1940 evening) 

The bugle of winter sounds. It calls the lost

sparkles on the window, on the plain, in snow,

the sparkles of heavy words in unfinished works,

lowered over the chasm of a story.

 

The bugle of spring sounds with trembling voice,

unsure how to siren, not knowing to call out,

numbed, at the neck of the nest is a drift,

as in every such time which is too young.

 … it can happen that when man comes across  a brother, he will not accept him because he doesn’t know him. And that’s more tragic than all the hatred of the world put together (21.6.1940 in the afternoon) 

The bugle of summer sounds, uncertain summer,

which flies with women and falls behind forest,

like them it dreams but in dreams never arrives,

waiting so long it becomes custom.

 

The bugle of autumn. For whom does it call

O, for me, I knew, that by day and night

it tempted my old fear of the spinning wheel

after death in the gut, after worms in the fruit.

I’m entangled in goodwill. If only I could be rude! I’m ridiculously lyrical. Then, I want to write, I can’t. One blow after another. I open the Bible. There it is. Job. But he is small, pitifully small. Late. Soon. Suddenly. Completely. But what? These questions! Sometimes they are an escape. “I only see your heels now.” These are Achilles heels, you know? Otherwise, I would stand abreast! “You must not smoke when your throat hurts.” I light up a cigarette. Of whom  did they say they were utterly forbidden? About a girl? About a poet? About a pub? About love? Nice holidays. Forbidden ones. Preparations. A familiar winged word, though it doesn’t fly, it bites. I sob in the morning. I want Vera. It feels unfair nobody hears me. . And then it’s out again: “If I were you, I would write a poem instantly, earning 200 crowns.” Then write poems. They still rhyme. “And where do you get the rhythm?” From coffins! From the song I like so much. I will write something in The Striped Book. A little. I’m afraid of cruel words. I will grasp any consolation  at hand, even  if it was a burning roof, and even then if it gave me  a black hole instead of my palm, and if it gave me  a searing regret and a missed kiss instead of my heart! (14.7.1940) 

With what to call, what to desire with, to have you near,

Near my tears and woes, you who are not mine?

I call you through blizzards, in bitter, hard winter,

I call you with a meadow´s voice, sleep, wait, hibernate!

Vera, Vera, Vera! I went for my guardian angel, for the one whom for so long had not guarded me. He has blue tiny wings and his hands clasped. He looks a little silly; nevertheless I still want to ask him for something. To fly to her, to my Faraway, and bring her to me for a moment! I know you have small wings, but you possibly could do it for me. I’m so afraid I will never see her again! (19.7.1940 afternoon)  

Blizzard voids from the truest lines:

the earth, the palm, the peace. Did life have to give me this?

Lo, the runaway cart loosed by treason

gallops faithfully on as loyalty may.

The pot boiled over. It’s time to become a man. Look at time, the leaves are rusting on it, the eternity of your death is rusting on it. The first day. It was a year ago. In the Blue Book. I came back from a cinema. I don’t know what was on. I entertained the thought that this was the first day, and that there wouldn’t be more than thirty of them. And there were three hundred and sixty-five days and none without a night. Now I’m entertaining the boiled over pot and that now it’s time, and I know it. And I knew it. She wrote me a letter, writing that it wasn’t love that I gave her. I want to try begging, begging God to oversee my attempt; I want to try the impossible: not writing to that address for a few days. It’s no tactic of mine. It’s a need, I’m doing nothing but repeat myself, my words to her  the same;  as if I’ve been sending her the same letter a hundred times. Oh God! The wheel is broken. I recall all the light and dark moments of my life to me in this August, long since the harshest month of all months, the closest to the very end. (1.8.1940, three hours in the morning)  

O my stern Lord, quick tempered God of dread,

to you belong praise, stopped for a pause

in which I trudged with a painful tread,

skirmishing ages along with the universe. 

It is indeed a miracle that such a day will eventually end. It did not want to cease torturing, but it had to give place over to it’s equally malicious comrade tomorrow. God, I do not want to blame you for me being infirm. They are legions of little devils, your loyal helpers, your apprentices who are already over their master, because the master lost interest and chilled. And so I try to overcome the world and the devil, it is difficult, something to grab at, a thought, a hope for hope, a very distant day, because it is far away, horns made blunt. I’ll catch up some day next April and I think it’s going to be sunny and full of joyous excitement and bring what I’m waiting for, what I’m longing for, what I’m living for now. I grab at the thoughts of my brother that he lives and I will see him, tell him how hard I embrace him. I am trapped, trapped, but as if I repelled all the fine matter: the thought, the hope of hope, and the distant day do not come to me, and the legions of the little devils carry away their own. (24.11.1940 evening)  

I am that land of darkness, I am darkness, I am the darkness of the earth,

I wait for you to bloom loves from cruelties,

I wait and tremble, after all, for if the light in me

is also in pain, it is in you, in you too.

 

Jiří Orten, To Oto: Lamentations of Jeremiah (New Year 1941)

Literature:

  • Jiří Orten: Žíhaná kniha, Český spisovatel Praha 1993 (The Striped Book Diary; translated from the Czech language into the English language by the author of this blog)
  • Jiří Orten: the poem Jeremiah’s tears, New Year 1941

Acknowledgements: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Edward Thomas and Milada Chudíčková of Prague who translated Orten’s poem Jeremiah’s tears used in this article. Without them this magnificent poem would never find its way to the TOI readers.

 – the second part of this blog about Jiří Orten to follow soon –