from The Absolute Gravedigger

Vítězslav Nezval

A Man Composing a Self-Portrait out of Objects

A man composing a self-portrait out of objects
And sits
His coarse skeleton a chair
With moveable legs
A chair accustomed to mechanically measuring paces
Down unforeseen paths
These paths are bold brushstrokes
That intensify
His incomplete self-portrait
And lead
Alongside things
He is part of
In the morning he strolls through a deep sleep
Reluctant to wake
Dwell the robust women of his deepest thoughts
They surrender to him
With hips resting against the footboard
As he thinks
In the form of these incarnate bodies
That take on
Familiar faces

His obsession
Is stairs
And sometimes takes the form
Of a sloping wall
Or a bowler hat
A fur coat
Is thrown over the back of a plump armchair

He enjoys strolling through the city
Most at the close of afternoon
Staring at the ground
Staring ahead
He imagines encountering a few of his nocturnal thoughts
He wants to greet them
To place in their hands the blossom of dusk
He turns after them
As if a stubborn reminder
His incomplete self-portrait awaits
The tiniest detail
Without which the whole thing is dead

Now his ear is bugging him
A cricket
Sitting in the laundry room droning
The incomprehensible tune
Of a partially deaf eardrum
A great horizontal partial deafness
Composes the poignant flagging sounds of field work
The shepherd’s bell chimes on the horizon
The blades of a windmill are the cricket

One day he fixed his gaze on a false window
In a lovely secluded villa
On the coast
Of a country with a name forever terrifying
A funeral processed from the villa
On the black coffin a white stork cowering
An ugly runt mule hitched to the hand-cart
Carrying off the dead body
He will never know whose last respects they were
But from that moment
He searched eagerly
For a hat in the shape of a small coffin
Finding one later
In a junk shop window
Sometimes he places it upon his head
To doff it reverently
To fifteen-year-old girls selling watermelons
Who thank him kindly for this gesture and are saddened
They approach him
And take him by the hand
To express their condolences with a quick kiss

Another time on a dusky day
In a street of rain
He bowed his head over a dingy windowsill
His head
A cactus
Covered in spines
Of agonizing thoughts
The more quickly evening came the more certain
He would never find the peace
Of a well-lathed duck egg
The last potato beetle flew from his head
In the form of a seven-spotted tear
A tear jabbed by seven stingers

One time
At the dentist’s
Two millstones
Were found in his mouth
Grinding the glass eye
Of his cannibal desires
He dared not move his mole-shaped
And cringed in fear
Incapable of saying yes or no
When the anesthesia wore off
He glimpsed his head
In ten windows across the street
A cloud of quails
That settled on the platform of the stagecoach
He was leaving in
Curiously dismantled
Like a bed being transported

In those days
A bundle of Havana cigars
By a plain tight high collar
With large points
Formed his throat
Instead of a necktie he would fasten
A tamed swallow
That kept its nest in a perfumery
Where all summer he stored
His typewriter

On his breast
Covered by a linoleum shirt-front
Inlaid with Swiss watches
Slumbered the flaxen head
Of a siren
Whose mythological tail was attached
To his abdomen
And who
At times dreamlike
Raised up like a snake
For his lips
Covered in cellophane

There were days
Of premature aging
So his hair
Like white wood shavings
And fell
Under the merciless impact of the plane
Of great self-torment
That never for a moment ceased grinding
His bump-covered scalp
And grated
The head of cabbage stuffed with pain
Until finally the fingers of slumber
Pushed away that terrible hairbrush

He also suffered from
Troubling mental states
During which he changed
Into two rams
Treacherously butting head against head
And striving
To destroy his every joy

For a while he believed
He was a horse
Condemned by his offspring
To gallop
And crash headfirst into walls
Transform them into tunnels
And flee through them
Past bedrooms
Where people indulged
In blissful sleep

He also took to
A very intricate clock
Assembling from its gears
A seahorse
That could represent him before a tribunal
Where he would be tried
By five uniformed men from the funeral home
For his pathological absent-mindedness

Today he is cured of these corporeal phantasmagorias
Slightly bowed
Or slightly deviant
Is screwed on straight
He is aging
And getting younger
And hardly going gray
A priest walked by the window
It began to rain
And a nuthouse is hurtling down the street
Disguised as a big moving van
Cigars with charming labels
Are better
Than graveside candles
Lightning combing the hair
Of a country girl
Seems to be a necessary evil
That can be confronted
Is almost always
A fatal convulsive coincidence
A gargantuan art
That must be studied
One’s whole life
Its opposites are phantasmagorias
Gourmet mackerel
Irritating anemic and noble dropsical creatures
That defy with billiard misgivings
The experience of love
Which is the negation of the phantasmagoric
By the very fact
That one has to assume the phantasmagoric
As one assumes
Naked women in cages
Suspended in air shafts
And blackboards
In strawberry groves
Because without these naked women wrapped in wire
It is not possible
In the rain
Which has a malignant effect on neurasthenia
For men
To throw themselves in the street
Into women’s arms
The same way that without blackboards
In strawberry groves
It is not possible
For a woman
Feeling an immense need for love
To lift
In the window of a restaurant
Her legs
Into the air
Nor for the man composing a self-portrait out of objects
To fall madly in love
At first sight
With the woman
Who came out
Of the wine bar
Into the courtyard
Where he met her
Purely by chance
And so suddenly
He had to take her hand
And passionately kiss her

translated from the Czech by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická