In Prague, A Tree of Many Colors

When the Czech student Jan Palach set fire to himself to protest the Soviet invasion of his country, I wrote this poem in his honor. It was not until very recently that we had any details about his death in the West; I had never even seen his picture until this year. The square where he committed suicide is now named after him, and the Communist government fell in 1989 during "Palach Week," a period of protest and turmoil over which his spirit certainly presided. He was 21, a student of philosophy. My poem suffered from lack of details. In 1996, I learned about the students' resistance to the invaders and worked that into the poem; now, in 2011, I know more and can make this poem more of a narrative. And I have finally given a coherent voice to the real narrator of the poem: a linden tree in Prague.
This poem is Number 2 in my new edition of Anniversarius: The Book of Autumn, a 40-poem cycle soon to be published.
New note: I have just revised this poem again, adding more details about the Linden tree, which, it turns out, is the national emblem of Czechoslovakia (!): the Muse once again led me to the one and only tree that I could have used. I have also retitled the poem, "The Linden Tree in Prague."

for Jan Palach, Czech martyr,
who set himself on fire January 16, 1969
to protest the occupation of his country
Linden in Prague’s Museum Square:
I was born, I was sown
of mother and father trees in some forest.
I screamed as the sun troped me out of the earth,
grew slowly in the shadows of tall buildings.
thrust out my blossoms at the hope of spring,
Years passed; I grew protective rings
around me. Exhorted into summer by sun
and the bacchanal of squirrels, I owe each year
millions of leaf-deaths and resurrections.
The solemn students and professors
stride by with dour looks, eyes locked
into the mysteries of Marx and Engels.

I must pretend to stand up straight.
I must not follow the mocking sun
     and its false revolutions.
I must wait for the ultimate paradise,
world’s daylight redistributed for all.
I tremble as angry gardeners trim
the arrogant beard-branchlets
that fringe my still-adolescent trunk.
I am all passion and impracticality.
My heart-shaped leaves are on my sleeves
as I greedily drink sunlight, give shade
to those below in blossom-fall, exude the scent
that maddens lovers to Unter der Linde mania,
then paint myself in hues of gold and brown,
shedding my currency in one great shrug
as summer ebbs to frost-dawn.
Behaving well, it seems,
is not in my nature, despite those lectures
on dialectics I hear each afternoon
from the open lecture hall’s window.

Much passes beneath my shadow:
across the square, crowds press
to bourgeois marriages and funerals —
the upright grooms go in,
the silver-handled caskets come out,
the church, the state, the people
move on in soot and sorrow, day to day.
On one side, Marx and Engels;
on the other, tradition, and just beyond
my line of sight that monument to Huss,
the great religious martyr. Conflict
divides us like the great Moldau.

We have lived through Kings and Empires,
bad governments and good. Everyone seemed
to think it was getting better last year.
But something has changed now:
Why do these people whisper always?
Why do so many avert their eyes from me?
Why does neighbor spy on his neighbor,
reporting every oddity to the men in black?
Why do I hear the rumble of thunder?
Why does the symphony break off
in the middle of rehearsing Smetana?
Why have the women gone to the cellars?
The earth shakes. Soldiers and tanks everywhere!
The streets are full of Russians and Poles,
Hungarians, Bulgarians, East Germans —
all of East Europe has come to crush us!
Men with fur hats speak swollen, Slavic words.

Death is here. The smell of blood is here.
My roots touch the entrails of the hastily buried.
Anger is everywhere. I hold my leaves,
make camouflage for lovers, conspirators.

Students rip down the street signs
and hide them in my upper boughs —
     the invaders drive in circles
     and cannot find their destinations.
I open my bark for secret messages,
encourage pigeons to carry the word
of where is safe, and who is betrayed.
I guess I am guilty of anti-people
tendencies — who would have thought?

Here comes that student, Jan Palach,
he’s all of twenty-one, dark-haired,
a delicate face meant for poetry,
though worn by the study
of too much philosophy, too young.
He is the ardent one, the solitary dreamer.
And more: he intends to do something.
He and some others have made a vow,
a terrible pact. He will go first.
He is not Jan Huss,
     burned by his fellow citizens
          over the flavor of God:
he is just Jan Palach from Všetaty,
and he will burn in the world’s eyes
because of Philosophy
     (Plato’s tanks crushed
          the Age of Reason).

I am his unindicted ally.
The winter ground is covered still
with the dried leaves of my autumn,
some damp, some dry and worn
    to little more than vein lines.
He scoops them up; he stuffs his coat with them,
fills his cap, book bag and pockets,
fuel and kindling for his mission.
He is the icon of our unhappiness:
he will open like a triptych of gold
into a flame to embarrass the sun.
He opens the can of gasoline,
and before anyone can stop him,
he explodes into a fireball,
a flaring marionette; he whirls three times
then falls into a curled ball
of incendiary horror.

Earth gives him no resting place.
     As mourners gather
in ominous groupings,
the men in black dig Palach up,
cremate his already-half-cremated frame
and send the urn off to his mother.
There, in Všetaty, no one is allowed
to give him another burial.
No graveyard dares take the ashes
     for half a decade.
In Prague, Palach’s first grave
Is repossessed. The state deposits there
the corpse of a nameless old woman.
On your way now, nothing to see —
just some old cleaning lady’s grave.
No Martyrs in this cemetery —
I’ll see your papers please.

Twenty years on, a crowd will gather
for something called “Jan Palach Week,”
a pretext to take to the streets again,
and one day later,
     the Communist government falls.

Your ashes, Jan Palach, will return in Prague.
I will be beyond returning, for long ago
an angry axe man removed all trees,
to the despair of poets and squirrels,
the better to conduct surveillance
of all the law-abiding citizens.

There, on the spot of his immolation,
a bronze marker, half cross,
     both Catholic and Slav,
lifts out of mosaic’d pavement.
My last root is hidden beneath it,
as leaf by dry leaf, and ash by ash,
my ghost is a receptacle for tears, and memory.
I was there, around and within him.
I, too, exploded for Liberty.

 — October 1969, New York, revised 1986,
rewritten 1996; rewritten 2011


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