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Poems from ‘The Lesser Histories’.


Translated by Justin Quinn.


Grey waves that yawl and tack
about the sky, these float,
these pigeons coming back
to darkness in the dovecote.

Life’s brief, and we are raced
and briskly roiled about,
all of us in the rest,
a gift for them, held out,

a flurry of wings and names
in gold wood fire, which seems
a fete in window frames

only, from far away –
distant songs, distant dreams,
far off a pigeon grey.

—March 5, 1978

Жизнъ ведъ тоже толъко миг,
Толъко растворенъе
Нас самих во всех других
Как бы им в даренъе.
– Boris Pasternak

Encyclopedia Entry.

The past’s a tin-can filled with ash.
The past’s a sleeping bag with fleas.
For friends who felt the lash and backlash,
on whom they’ve thrown away the keys.

The past’s great towns seen from a train,
no piggin poked with many mickles.
The past is smog, vats of grey brine
we swim through like a shoal of pickles.

It’s crabs strung into necklace art,
a room where samba instrumentals
set undertakers dancing, a mart
where lullabies are swapped for lentils.

Hide-and-Seek we played with it,
but it played with us Counting Out.

—April 7, 1978

Tabloid Reader.

‘Beat stepson so hard in a fight
though he kept crying: “Mommy! Mommy!”’
‘A widow, healthy, and still fit,
would like to – die? – with car and hobby.’

‘…the key was hooked and then pulled smartly
beneath the door…’ ‘…steaks grilled, beers cold
and all laid on, till officers called…
broke up the good-for-nothings’ party.’

‘…despite the watch a girl by far
at hatcheck at the Rio Bar…’
‘Uncle Trumbald back from rehab –

a false alarm, he’s feeling fab!’
‘After the Gala Travesties
brought in toward morning without testes!’

for Josef Brukner

—May 28, 1983

Ungallant Conversation.

‘No, I don’t know him… A son? A friend?’
Oh leave… ‘an admirer… penned
some poems?’ …Blind test and this gallant
was found as you, listless, attend
the rise of fresh, aspiring talent…

‘My mom told me you knew each other…’
Hmm, knew… Five years I slept with her.

‘…thing is, they’re good, for all their faults,
if you avoid Fellini schmaltz…’
‘Yep, carp will always lay their roe
even in acid.’ The schmo

then cries: ‘Calls for a beer, I’d say!
But after you…’ I couldn’t put it more
precisely: my prick passed through that way
before, not after you came out. Before.

—May 30, 1983

Jan Zábrana (1931–1984) was a Czech poet, exiled from his own life by Communism, who published three collections in his lifetime and was best known as a translator from English and Russian; much of his own work, including his substantial diaries, appeared posthumously. However, during some of Europe’s most difficult years, he wrote The Lesser Histories, sixty-four sonnets that range through themes of age, sex, and political repression – a radiant testament to his times. Published in Czech in the ill-fated year of 1968, they subsequently fell into neglect. This, his first collection in English, has been translated by Justin Quinn and is published by Karolinum/University of Chicago Press.

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