Posts filed under ‘Czech’

The Song of the Nightingale

Jaroslav Seifert


I am a hunter of sounds and a collector
of tape recordings.
I listen to huntsmen sounding their mort
on very short waves.
Let me show you my collection.

The nightingale’s song. It is fairly well known,
but this nightingale
is a kinsman of those to whom Neruda was listening
when he turned the heads of Prague’s young beauties.
Added to the recording is the amplified sound
of a bursting bud
as the rose petals begin to unfold.

And here are a few gloomy recordings:
A person’s death-rattle.
The recording is absolutely authentic.
The creaking of the hearse and the rhythm
of the horses’ hooves on the paving stones.
Then the solemn fanfares from the National Theatre
at Josef Hora‘s funeral.

All these I acquired by swapping.
But the tape
‘Frozen earth on my mother’s coffin’
is my own recording.

Then follow Chevalier and Mistinguette,
the charming Josephine Baker
with a cluster of ostrich feathers.
Among the younger ones the graceful Greco and Mathieu
with their new recordings.

And finally you shall hear the passionate whispering
of two unknown lovers.
Yes, the words are difficult to make out,
you only hear the sighs.
And then the sudden silence
ended by another –
the moment
when tired lips are glued
to tired lips.

It is a restful moment,
not a kiss.

Yes, you may be right:
the silence after love-making
resembles death.

[translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers]

The first time I read this poem I knew we needed to feature it on Poi-tre, if only for the thrill of having a recording of a poem about recordings. Besides, we didn’t have any Seifert on the site .

You know how we’re always talking about how this or that poem vividly conjures a scene or an image? Seifert here goes one better, switching from the visual to the aural, but managing to describe sounds that conjure up their own images, their own scenes. What you experience, as you read this poem, is thus a double effect, words evoking sounds and those sounds in turn, evoking scenes. In characteristic Seifert style the prosaic rubs shoulders with the lyrical here, so that the official fanfare of Hora’s funeral is followed by the (inaudible?) sound of earth on his mother’s coffin, which in turn gives way to Chevalier. And all of that is conveyed with conversational immediacy, Seifert’s narrator a pitch-perfect impersonation of the proud collector, so that reading this poem it really feels like you’re engaged in a conversation and listen more attentively to the sounds Seifert is describing as a consequence. I particularly love the sleight of hand of the last three lines, by which Seifert makes you the originator of this comparison of the two silences, holding himself back in reluctant and provisional agreement.


P.S.: While we’re talking about Seifert, see also his Nobel Prize Lecture on the role of lyricism and pathos in poetry.

February 3, 2008 at 4:25 am Leave a comment