Poetry | March 01, 1985

In the background, a few shacks & overturned carts

And a gray sky holding the singular pallor of Lent.

And here the crowd of onlookers, though a few of them

Must be intimate with the victim,

Have been advised to keep their distance.

The young man walking alone in handcuffs that join

Each wrist in something that is not prayer, although

It is as urgent, wears

A brown tweed coat flecked with white, a white shirt

Open at the collar.

And beside him, the broad, curving tracks of a bus that

Passed earlier through the thawing mud . . . they seem

To lead him out of the photograph & toward

What I imagine is

The firing squad: a few distant cousins & neighbors

Assembled by order of the State—beside

The wall of a closed schoolhouse.

Two of the men uneasily holding rifles, a barber

And an unemployed postal clerk,

Are thinking of nothing except perhaps the first snowfall

Last year in the village, how it covered & simplified

Everything—the ruts in the road & the distant

Stubble in the fields—& of how they cannot be,

Now, any part of that. Still,

They understand well enough why

The man murdered the girl’s uncle with an axe,

Just as they know why his language,

Because it was not official & had to be translated

Into Czech at the trial, failed to convince

Anyone of its passion. And if

The red-faced uncle kept threatening the girl

Until she at last succumbed under a browning hedge, & if

The young man had to use three strokes with the axe

To finish the job—well, they shrug,

All he had, that day, was an axe.

And besides, the barber & the clerk suspect that this boy,

Whom they have known for half their lives,

Had really intended to kill the girl that evening—

Never the uncle.

In a lost culture of fortune tellers, unemployable

Horse traders, & a frank beauty the world

Will not allow,

It was the time of such things, it was late summer,

And it is time now, the two executioners agree,

That all of this ended. This is

Jarabina. 1963. And if

Koudelka tells us nothing else about this scene,

I think he is right, if only because

The young man walks outside time now, & is not

So much a murderer as he is, simply, a man

About to be executed by his neighbors .. .

And so it is important to all of them that he behave

With a certain tact & dignity as he walks

Of his own accord but with shoulders hunched,

Up to the wall of the empty schoolhouse;

And, turning his head

First to one side, then to the other,

He lets them slip the blindfold over his eyes

And secure it with an old gentleness

They have shared

Since birth. And perhaps at this moment

All three of them remember slipping light scarves,

Fashioned into halters,

Over the muzzles of horses, & the quickness of horses.

And if the boy has forgiven them in advance

By such a slight gesture, this turning of his head,

It is because he knows, as they do, too,

Not only that terror is a state

Of complete understanding, but also that

In a few years, this whole village, with its cockeyed

Shacks, tea leaves, promiscuity between cousins,

Idle horse thieves, & pale lilacs used

To cure the insane,

Will be gone—bulldozed away so that the land

Will lie black & fallow & without history.

And nothing will be planted there, or buried,

As the same flocks of sparrows

Will go on gathering, each spring, in the high dark

Of these trees.

Still, it is impossible not to see

That the young man has washed & combed his hair

For this last day on earth; it is impossible

Not to see how one of the policemen has turned back

To the crowd as if to prevent

Any mother or sister from rushing forward—

Although neither one, if she is here, seems

About to move. And in the background,

You can see that a few of the houses are entirely white,

Like a snowfall persisting into spring,

Or into oblivion, though this

May be the fault of the photograph or its development

Under such circumstances .. .

And now even the children in the crowd, who have gathered

To watch all this, appear to be growing bored

With the procedures & the waiting.

I suppose that the young man’s face,

Without looking up, spoke silently to Koudelka as he passed,

Just as it speaks now, to me, from this photograph.

Now that there is nothing either of us can do for him.

His hair is clean & washed, & his coat is buttoned.

Except for his handcuffs, he looks as if

He is beginning a long journey, or going out,

For the first time, into the world .. .

He must have thought he could get away with this,

Or else he must have thought he loved her.

It is too late to inquire.

It is mid-afternoon & twenty years too late,

And even the language he used to explain it all

Is dying a little more, each moment, as I write this—

And as I begin to realize that

This ancient, still blossoming English

Will also begin to die, someday, to crack & collapse

Under its own weight—

Though that will not happen for years & years,

And long after the barber & the clerk

Have lowered their rifles & turned away to vomit

For what seems like a long time, & then,

Because there is nothing else for them to do,

They will walk home together, talking softly in a language

That has never been written down.

If you look closely at the two of them

Sweating in their black wool suits,

You can see how even their daily behavior,

The way they avoid the subject,

Has become an art:

One talks of his daughter, who is learning to dance.

The other mentions his mother, who died, last year—

When the orchards were simple with their fruit,

And ripe—of an undiagnosed illness.

And if the lots they pass are empty because the horses

Were shipped off years ago to Warsaw

For the meat on their backs?

And if there is no hope for this,

Or any poetry?

On their lips the quick syllables of their

Language fly & darken into a few, last

Delicious phrases, arpeggios

Even though they are talking of ordinary life

As they pass the smells of cooking

Which rise in smoke from the poorest of houses

And even from stoves carried outdoors & burning,

As fuel, the cheap paneling of shacks

Which the government gave them.

Until it seems that all they are

Rises in smoke,

As it always has,

And as it will continue to do in this place

For a few more years.

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