“From dust you come and shall return”
wrought in Hebrew above the gate.
Beside the small museum and records house,
I ask two gravediggers taking coffee
if there is buried here an Orten, Jiri,
the poet who died young in forty-one.
They point to some place back outside
and map the passage in the dirt.
Past resting Kafka, past families that led
in the Resistance, past a broken iron railing,
I find the sloped slab between two
black markers. Ivy creeps about the epitaph:
Touch if you desire,
and you will feel
the immeasurable horror
and immeasurable joy.
At 22, in search of rationed cigarettes
in war-time Prague, lost in thinking of the others
lost, struck down and dragged by an ambulance,
dying days later an unattended death—
Orten, did you know of Gray or Keats
when you wrote for your Bohemians?
I came here not to think of death and youth
but because I’m haunted by the words
and syntax of your lines. As though, I swear,
I’m watching bones take flesh, bodies
writhe and dance, death becoming
the valley of your slavnost, the celebration
where there is no gate, long walk, or crossing
over to keep out so much vivid life.
Forgive my trespass; forgive me for
translating the hard truth on your stone.
It’s not reproach or peace that draws me,
but the granite’s sweet cold flatness in this heat,
the clutter of pebbles that mark this unforgotten
grave, its difficult-to-read closeness to the