Tomas Venclova - COMMENTARY

Above all, though it’s hard, love language -
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,

in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s shaft is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death;

this language, almost collapsed, littered with sound
and fury. That’s it, love language -
banished to earth beside US,
though carrying with it the primordial Word,

as if conceived in that other universe.
It was given so that we might be different from clay,
the palm, the thrush, perhaps even from angels,
so that by naming, we should grasp objects clearly.

Those who attempt to return to that untouchable realm,
to purify their language, must understand
that failure will be their lot. Because perception
up there recedes as quickly as one approaches -

and insight is equal to loss: what is formed
is as quickly effaced. And don’t trespass
into another’s heaven (there are many). To reach
any heaven is to erase your footprints and discard the key.

They say you are only a tool. Dictated to by
a force you can’t face head-on or you’ll go blind.

That’s not entirely true. Gropingly, you’ll climb Jacob’s ladder
in a dream, exceeding your strength, unprotected by a net,

until, above, someone greets you (or perhaps doesn’t). Still,
sometimes, casting you aside, he might transpose a word
or two, change a vowel, tighten syntax, shift a degree.
This happens rarely, but it does happen -

then you’ll be the one who ‘saw that it was good’ -
because letters float across the page like sludge on a river,
and suddenly bushes, an embankment, a city come into view.
And it doesn’t matter who reads this (if anyone ever).