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For Jan Palach, a Name Drawn by Lot, on the Anniversary of His Death the Third Day after Attempted Self-Immolation in Protest of Communist Occupation of Czechoslovakia, January 19, 1969

by Stanley Plumly


I taught in your building once,
the one renamed for you
by the professors of philosophy,
a beautiful four-square block
of a building built to last centuries,
facing west into the hills backing
the great Vltava.

  Afternoons
in class, looking across the river
through the wall-high windows,
I could see the thousand-year-old
crown of the Castle glittering,
and at night, standing on the Charles,
celestial above the city.

    From here,
in the old ghetto, at the new century,
it looked benign, like a blessing
on your house and the half-dozen
synagogues and dozen blocks
of dwellings brought back to life
after your cold war imitation

of the bonze priests in Vietnam,
who chose fighting fire with fire.
You almost died, then did, writing,
between life and death, that
I do not want anyone to imitate me.
The Soviets ignored you, though
they were mortal too in twenty years.

If I’d written your name with the poets
on the board, someone whose job it was
would’ve come along and erased it,
which is why pink marble and a plaque
were mounted at the entrance
of the building, whose former name
now no one can remember.

    The námêsti,
the square that bears your name,
bore the names of soldiers
of the young Red Army—until nineteen
eighty-nine, the year no one had to die,
not God nor Kafka, for whom the fire
to warm the icy world
was words.

 

Stanley Plumly is a professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant. His book Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me will be published by Ecco Press in December 2001. (2001)


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