A Poetic Guidebook to Prague

by Shaindel Beers

From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology
Edited by Stephan Delbos
Litteraria Pragensia Books
2011

 

From a Terrace in Prague is an ambitious literary undertaking. Stephan Delbos, Culture Editor for The Prague Post, gathered 120 poems from 16 languages written between 1888 and 2010 that focus on Prague or events that took place there. The result is a poetic guidebook to one of the world’s most beautiful and culturally rich cities, complete with a thorough introduction on the history of Prague poetry, author photographs and biographies, extensive notes on each poem (many of which include photographs of landmarks), translator biographies, and a detailed map showing every landmark mentioned in the book.

The book is organized sequentially, and divided into the following sections: Local Voices (1888-1911), From “Zone” to War Zone (1912-1939), Intruders & Exiles (1940-1959), The Frozen Thaw (1960-1969), Enforced Normal (1970-1989), and Iron Curtain, Velvet Rope (1990-2010). The chronological arrangement provides a complete historical narrative, the likes of which one wouldn’t expect from a poetry anthology. The pre-World War I poems are idyllic, such as Karel Hlavácek’s “Evening at Liben Cemetery” which begins with a pastoral scene:

A wedge of sunlight tipped on a bouquet,
every grave drowned in the brilliance,
a dark shadow cast by a row of crosses
climbed the low wall to a field of wheat.

and ends just as beautifully:

Stars above the earth now emanating peace,
the wheatfield breathing in its sleep;
just flashes from a vortex of clouds in the distance
—heat lightning—out of the silence …

The second section, “From ‘Zone’ to War Zone” is dominated by Marina Tsvetaeva’s twenty-one page long, “Poem of the End,” which chronicles the poet’s last walk with her lover before their forced break-up by the poet’s husband. The walk begins near the National Theater and Café Slavia, and continues south along the Vltava River. When the couple reaches a railway bridge, the bridge becomes a part of the poem:

A bridge.
Ha—ppy destination
Of lovers without hope:
Bridge—you are passion:
A convention: an unbroken between.

From this point on, the bridge appears as a dash in the middle of words, “ca—rrying,” “li—ke,” “do—wn,” showing that the break-up has caused the speaker to feel broken and to long for some bridge between her and her lover.

As they continue their walk, the city is described to the reader through the lens of their break-up:

…—Our café!
Our island, our chapel,
Where in the mornings we—

Lowlives! Transitory couple!—
Celebrated out matins.

Because of the detailed map and poem notes, readers can trace the exact route of Tsvetaeva and Rodzevich’s final walk. Although I’ll admit this may not be an activity that would occur to most travelers, tracing the routes and visiting the landmarks of many of these poems makes the connection between the present poet-traveler and the original poet as tangible as possible. I’ll admit when I’ve visited places where great poets lived and wrote, it was a thrill to know I was walking where my poetic idols walked—including, I’ll admit, geeky freak-outs in front of the homes of several Romantic and Victorian writers during my visits to the British Isles.

The next section, “Intruders & Exiles” is incredibly diverse, containing poems from Scottish poet, Edwin Muir; Mongolian poet, Byambin Rinchen; Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda; and Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, as well as others.

The remaining sections of the book make up for an impressive overview of the tumultuous Czech history, including events such as the 1945 accidental bombing of Prague by American Air Force planes intending to bomb Dresden and the 1968 suicides of students Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc who self-immolated in protest of the Soviet invasion, as well as the more recent and differently tragic death of a rhinoceros at the Prague Zoo during the 2002 flood.

The book concludes with the sense of a city still in the process of defining itself. The poems in the final section struggle with such questions as, What is the difference between tourists and ex-patriots? and W here does Prague go from here?

The final poem in the collection, “The Love-Life of Objects,” by Marcela Sulak explores Prague through the works of Czech photographer, Josef Sudek, and summarizes the book’s intent in a fitting way:

These are the objects light has groomed
in Josef Sudek’s famously photographed studio:
a rain that wipes its fingerprints from the windowpane,
a tree that twists from earth to sky, unable to decide,
a plate of peaches freighted with the taste that never leaves
his mouth. Like other Czechs before him, he has confessed
to loving the secret life of objects.
Prague is full of them.
That’s why the streets are bent and small,
their ascent so steep. . .

The great strength of this anthology is its single focus of opening up Prague and the poetry of Prague to the reader. Delbos makes brave editorial choices to that end, not shying away from long poems such as the aforementioned Tsvetaeva poem or Roque Dalton’s masterpiece “Tavern,” whose five narrators relate to the reader the “barroom talk” of the pub U Fleku for seventeen pages. He also doesn’t eschew poems written by collaborators or visual poems, such as those by Jirí Kolár, which are collages made from Czech newspapers and texts.

From a Terrace in Prague is an indispensable gift for anyone traveling to Central Europe or to any lover of Central European history or literature. Many writers dream of taking part in the Prague Summer Program, and delving into Delbos’s anthology is the perfect first step.

 

Shaindel Beers is Contrary’s Poetry Editor.