Fearful of cruel word (part II) – Commemorating the poet J. Orten

“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 that is within us.

In my previous blog so was one poem and one diary entry by Jiří Orten, by the man who wouldn’t greet the next New Year with any of the magnificent poem. His earthly life would tragically be snuffed out on the first of September 1942, soon after the completion of August, “long since the harshest month of all months, the one closest to the very end”. His prayer “to live to mature age” would not be fulfilled. God didn’t hear it and why should he, when for the twenty-two year old man there was perhaps no thing left to live through more intensively and nothing new to be learned. Perhaps God might have said to himself, together with the young poet: “have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You are an unsightly wretch, not worthy of anything, a forever spotty, greasy and unhealthy face, a plucked, balding head beginning to bald, and only for those eyes would I give something. You have lost all that is of interest, all power; you are weak and a weakling. By being isolated, you have drawn others into your isolation, albeit not over much. You are writing verses – but this means so little today. You can’t converse, you’re ashamed of emotional affections, you praise badly, you are at home nowhere, you are a one dimensioned lover (and what’s more) with an ugly apartment, little money, of poor dress and conduct. Do you realize all this speaks against you?” Why should you live to mature age when you were born mature already? To paraphrase this man-God dialogue, wasn’t it you who decided to come back for a moment due to pity and sympathy for them? And thus with your fear that during this very mission you would not be able to “know your brothers”?

The poet subconsciously feels that not much time was allocated for accomplishing his mission. Hence, he is in a hurry working himself up into the color of a “wild radish”, determined with every next verse to go a little further. Hurrying, he ends up exhausted where he himself no longer knows how to proceed and from where anyway no continuation is possible. “The time has passed when I could think of voluntary death, that time has passed, because I have to wait for freedom, even if I am plucked and quite unkempt. I write the epitaph of my love, and save my silence for the future. I’m writing an epitaph simply because it’s just my world, my hope, my faith, to write, to write to the very end. “

By “writing to the very end”, Jiří is well aware of his roots, as perhaps are all of us, influenced by our upbringing. Therefore he is looking for the wisdom of his ancestors. While keeping his love for the amazing Book of Books, his relationship with biblical God seems to remain complicated and rather controversial. He is unwilling to simply cope with mortal imaginations of a cruel and vindictive divinity, from whom he is drifting unmistakably away through his “naked leaf-less faith”. Rather, and “despite everything”, his “hope of hope” clings to a merciful and loving God, his Alpha and Omega. Driven into a corner, betrayed and abandoned, and “at a time with great dusk looming ahead of the world”, his heart shivering from fear responds to this reality by searching avidly for a God who will not punish anyone, and whose love will not allow fear to approach any closer. Perhaps that is why he is “fearful of cruel words”, subconsciously conjuring up his entire work as one single prayer, one of the greatest, if not the greatest and purest prayers ever to be pronounced.

It is not possible to simply state or understand the significance of Orten’s work. Its value is inscribed in his many poems, in poems dealing with the very first as well as the very last matters of man, in poems about all things that may matter for any human being. While reading them, after a short while, one gets caught out, silently amazed that it somewhat ceases to be important what powerful words have been written in them. The poems speak to the subconscious, one human soul speaks directly to another, and the words appear to be small beacons illuminating the direction which the poet’s symphony is drawing us to. What the poet wanted to say is taking place behind a threshold where during prayer space and time are gone and communication becomes extra-sensual. The verses speak deeper than just simply a few well-chosen words of a beautiful mind, they extend deep into the human soul, like a spear reflexively stabbing the heart with self-destructive passion. Yes, even poems that can’t be read to their very end, as they encroach so deeply so that the whole inner man resists continuing with all his power; one has to stop reading, to begin breathing deeply, to bear the unbearable, which is not possible.

To bind and abuse Orten’s work for ideological purposes has never been dared. A person asking questions and constantly seeking God does not fit into the picture of ensured security and intermediated reconciliation with God; no institutional religion appears welcoming the poet with much enthusiasm. Perhaps he is too destructive and destabilizing for them, causing them to believe their way can no longer be secured. Apparently not being called to reach out to people with life transforming messages, the poet thus did not become and can hardly become another biblical prophet. For Jiří Orten all people are equal before God and the last thing he would wish would be to become an idol. His touching verses were not primarily aimed at others, they were written because they had to be written, no matter what. To bind and abuse the young poet is not possible due to his hyper-sensitivity, being too complicated, overly tragic, too controversial, too free, too pure, and much too universal. Freedom, and the inner purity he decided to pursue, is held firmly in his own hands, and perhaps he needed just a few more days to take full possession of what his moral compass convinces him of inside.

“I am a poet, I am a great poet, and one day the whole world will love me, I need to say this to myself, to pray in this way to my still unformed tomb, to my grave that I will not know anything about, literally nothing” – this is of course nothing but the poet’s irony, yet perhaps a proof that Jiří Orten wished his unpublished work to be preserved. He is aware of being a great Czech poet, and perhaps only because of this reason he does not have enough courage to destroy the work he created. The poet is unable to erase from the world any of his remarkable poems, “children” he introduced to the world with such great difficulty and pain. This concerns all of his poems; each contained in one his three several hundred page long diaries, with the last one his only remaining friend. With his departure the poet decided to lose control over what he had created. The significance of the young poet’s work then perhaps lies in the fact that his monumental work was preserved, that people can read it, that many may realize they were not (and are not)alone in their search for God within  us.

Our nations are too small to allow ourselves “to come across our brother and not knowing him, as this would be more tragic than all the hatred of the universe put together”.

Jiří Orten, To Oto: Jeremiah’s tears (New Year 1941)

 

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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!

 

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.

 

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 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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!

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

        

 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; the lines in the first paragraph (taken from the text Epitaf) are transformed from I to you form)
  • Jiří Orten: the poem Jeremiah’s tears, New Year 1941

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

 

 

About the Author
Ivan Zahrádka is a citizen of the Czech Republic. He was born and lives in central Bohemia. He graduated as a mathematician from the Charles University of Prague and soon devoted himself to teaching and scientific activities. However, he spent the greater part of his career as an investment management specialist working for a few domestic and foreign private financial institutions at home and abroad. He currently works in Prague as a civil servant in the area of the financial market regulation.
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