Apotheosis of the Dance

*

1. Beethoven in Halflight

The real story of Beethoven’s death
Turns out to be mistaken. Neither date
Nor year nor even century jives: Beethoven
Died just a few days ago, in the twentieth
Century.
………….Trudging through the wet snow
In Lwów, dressed in a hooded greatcoat
And heavy boots. It was the second half of
December. According to the zodiac.
The shot rang out just as the car passed him
Slowly along the street, and B. fell
On his stomach. Soon after the police discovered
A pistol near his body; it smelled fresh.
The wound was in his temple.
……………………………………………..But suddenly it was
Unclear: was this a suicide, or was it
Murder?
………….Somewhat later to the inquest there was added
A document, suggesting tendencies
Suicidal. But the dates didn’t sync; B.
Would have had to have been one hundred and fifty years old.
The car was ascertained to belong to the
Mafia.
………….When the ambulance arrived and
The medics lifted B. onto the stretcher,
B.’s breathing was quite regular, although
The doctor pronounced Beethoven
Dead. And B. was heavy. They just couldn’t
Lift the stretcher. Then the medics started
To dance a pantomime that represented
A corpse borne on a stretcher; the cops too
Began to dance as did a handful of passers-by
(One of the cops pantomimed suicide,
Another: murder, until they came to
Blows). And then the dwarves arrived
Dressed up as dates beginning with the year
1827 and so forth, until quite recently: a conga-line.
The stars detached themselves from
Sagittarius and started to throw sparks until
The shadows frolicked. Beethoven breathed on calmly
In syncopatic rhythm, with harmonic delays.

*
2. Stalin at the Crossroads

The sentimental poet Dzhugashvili adopted
The nom-de-plume Stalin, and for this
Reason: that, having taken part
In one of the first Crusades, he fell
Into the hands of Saracens for a short while,
And as a P.O.W. was employed
In the tempering of damascene. Severely burned
In a job-related accident, he was let go
As being now incapable of any honest work.
Now, fascinated by the production process, he
Took his new name from the end-product and
Began writing sentimental verse. Declaiming them
At country fairs in the south of England. He
Was a vagrant.
………………………Or even a tramp, a bum; he didn’t
Quite know what he was doing, the simple fellow.
He wandered from hamlet to hamlet at night, even in
The dead of winter. One cold night, when the thermometer
Showed minus twenty on the Réaumur scale,
One crisply starry night, some famished wolves
Pounced upon him at a crossroads. He had nothing
With which to defend himself. At first he tried
To hide behind a signpost–skimpy redoubt–
And so he extracted his rhymes from his breast pocket
And, in the shining moonlight, began his melodious lay.
The wolves just couldn’t take it; they softened at once
And started dancing: crouching, skipping, turning
Somersaults and pirouettes beneath the silver stars.
Then Stalin’s manuscripts began as well to turn
Silver; they lengthened, narrowed and stiffened,
Becoming somehow damascene steel. Stalin
Began to dance himself, prancing and squatting,
Fencing and slashing apart the frolicking
Wolves, till all were cut to ribbons.
………………………………………………Then he went
Off on his way again. On the next morning,
The local satrap’s bully-boys passed that crossroads
And found beneath the signpost the beheaded
Bodies of three local village girls. Nevermore
Did Stalin show his face in those parts, and from that night dates
The disappearance of sentimental verse from the south of England.

*
3. Knights at an Assumption

The idiot, the splendid idiot, danced alone. Always.
And all he did was dance, at high noon. He’d run up
To the market in his run-down car, serpentining between
The booths and the counters (upsetting nothing), on his way
To the center of the square, where he emerged
From his car and clambered up on the roof. That’s where he’d dance.
………….The local knights had it out for the idiot, for a long while, but
They were no prizes either. One high noon
They set out in their armor-and-hoof clatter
For the market; dancing atop their horses’ asses, they
Knocked over booth and counter till the apples whirled
In eddies and the chickens fluttered squawking
From their broken cages. The wingless merchants
Waved their upper limbs about. The idiot, at that moment,
Was dancing on his roof. And so the knights
Fell on the car and raised it aloft at swords’-point,
Just like that. The knights then flung the idiot heavenward,
But he never stopped dancing; up he rose, higher and
Higher, ever more alone. The merchants ran off and
Only the knights remained, bearing aloft the run-down
Car at swords’-point.
……………………………………Not far from the sun there sparkled
The shining halo of the idiot; the sun danced,
And the sun and the idiot were one and the same. Six
Knights were turned to stone and the car too
Fossilized.

*
4. Plato at the Keyboard

The music critics of the Southern Hemisphere
Were generally to a man on this: the repertoire of Plato
Was thin and unvaried. Two, three
Composers from the later eighteenth century,
And finger exercises by Hanon and Mertcke, which
He played as encores, with exceptional fluidity.
Plato’s performances began with two sonatas
By Mozart in C, after which which he presented some
Lesser lights, and finally an encore, no matter
If the audience called for one, or not.
………………………………………………………….And yet
One critic, a foreigner in these parts, who
Showed up suddenly, no one knew whence,
Took a different tack: he didn’t
Attend any concerts; he stole onto the verandah
Of Plato’s house and spied on him, eaves-
Dropping when the pianist was at practice. At first
No note met his ear. This was because Plato
Bent down so low over the keyboard, that his beard
Covered it entirely, and his fingers danced about
In the whiskers rather than over the ivories, eliciting
No tone. One might have thought that these were
Finger exercises. Then Plato swept his beard
Away from the keyboard, and played Mozart. A sonata.
As if it were an appetizer. After dinner
He drank himself drunk.
…………………………………..Thus potted, he played in order:
Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky,
Schönberg. He didn’t revisit the eighteenth
Century, but when he drank some more
His fingers danced again between gray beard and keyboard,
So that now there was a tone, and now there wasn’t.
The foreign critic wrote up these goings-on
In a brochure emitted in The Year of Our Lord
1584 (Kraków: Łazarz Andrysowicz).

*
5. Dante Apprenticed

Dante Alighieri was apprenticed for a few years
At the Hangman and Torturer’s Academy in Biecz,
Near Kraków: an institution which at this time (the sixteenth century)
Enjoyed a universal prestige. Its various institutes
Were well-organized and staffed with talented dons.
The Institute of Torture (otherwise: Enhanced
Interrogation) included the Chairs of: Limb Elongation,
Searing with Irons, Separation by Pincers, Water
Boarding (Witch-Dunking), and so forth. The Institute of Qualified
Execution included Chairs of: Drawing and Quartering,
Breaking on the Wheel, Impalement, and the Iron
Maiden. There were likewise exercises in
Blinding by Various Methods, Severing of Tongues, and
Amputation. The Institute of Non-Qualified
Execution was more modest: a Chair of Asphyxiation by Hanging,
A Chair of Cremation at the Stake,
A Chair of Decapitation (by Sword and Battle-Axe),
Also known as the Crucial Curriculum. There was
Also the Elevated Crucial, otherwise known as
Crucifixion, but that program was made up of
Theoretical speculation merely.
………………………………………………To the Academy’s great credit,
There were also lectures in Anatomy and Physiology, as well as
The Effects of Poison (but this was not widely advertised,
Bordering as it did upon the morally ambiguous study of Alchemy).
The laboratories and instrumentaria were outfitted
Excellently.
………………………There were no Faculties instructing students in
Firearms, electricity or gasses; one could not, of course,
Foresee the future.
………………………Now, Dante Alighieri
Turned out to be a rather dull student at Biecz,
Especially in theoretical subjects; but he was also
Slow in his practical exercises. He was sloppy, for example,
In Decapitation, for he didn’t
Understand the structure of the cervical vertebrae;
And in Searing and Scalding, he would apply his irons to regions
Insufficiently sensitive (for he couldn’t comprehend
The connectivity of the nervous system). So, what was to be painless
(Decapitation) was torture at his hands, and what was to be painful
(Searing and Scalding) was, on the contrary,
Ineffective. And the truth never saw the
Light of day. He was bad at Drawing,
Only semi-literate, and garnered below-average marks in
Composition.
………………………One day, during an exercise in Witch
Dunking, he seized the hand of the practice witch
And instead of dunking her, he took her in his arms at the riverside
At high noon, and began to dance a bolero, a dance
Hitherto unknown in these parts, singing, but off-key.
………………………………………………………………………………….The astonishment
Of the Deans of Torment was so great, that no one noticed
How Dante, dancing away up-river all the while, disappeared
From their view. APBs were sent out; too late, even though
Dante was still dancing up-river, although that river led to no higher ground.

*
6. Can-can

So they gathered them all together, lined them up
And set them up in
Pairs. This was most likely in the Libyan desert with its natural
Stone amphitheater. Music was playing, from
Somewhere; the organizers were resplendent in police
Uniforms, betruncheoned.
……………………………………………..And suddenly it all
Began. Josef Dzhugashvili was prima ballerina and even
Prima donna: his slender gams punctured
Moment by moment the precise point pierced by
The toe of his split sole satin slippers
In the burning skies; he intoned the soprano part beneath the rustling
Of his taffeta skirt. His partner was William Shakespeare
(The tailor who sewed the tutu he was wearing) and now he
(Shakespeare) tried to trip up the prima ballerina
But he (Stalin) reacted with nimble
Pirouettes, which pirouettes of Stalin later became
Legendary among policemen.
………………………………………………To the left frolicked
Plato, missing the beat a bit, and collecting some truncheon swipes
………………………………………………………….for his troubles;
He was paired with Katherina Von Anhalt-
Zerbst, a sculptress from the Polished Stone
Age, big-boned, in a poorly cut skirt, but
Graceful and with a fine sense of rhythm all the same.
To the right was Beethoven, free-styling, scissor-kicking
In a flutter of tulle; syncopating, befouling the steps
Of his partner, Augeus’ stable hand. Dante
Danced with six times six hangmen, gam-
Bolling to a white heat, frenzied in flap-
Ping lace; later on, the cops declared that the
Hangmen steamed with the most erotic energy.
Dante danced clumsily, getting in everybody’s way.
…………………………………………………………………….The splendid idiot
Appeared when everyone else was being led off
Stage together, handcuffed, to dungeons cut in the living rock,
Forever. The idiot danced no can-can,
Dressed in a frock-coat, black and im-
Maculate; no one witnessed his tricks: and
He juggled six times six
Swords, wrested away some time ago from the knights who had
Had it in for him, but where they were now no one knew,
Although the drumming of horses’ hooves filled the air,
Horses drumming down a can-can rhythm from heaven,
Can-can, can-can, can-can.

(Berlin, Spring 1973)

Bios

Witold Wirpsza

Witold Wirpsza (1918-1985) was a Polish poet and translator of German literature. He also studied piano at the conservatory in Warsaw. He served in the Polish Army during the September campaign following Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which set off the Second World War in Europe. Taken prisoner, he was a P.O.W. in Germany until his camp was liberated by the Red Army, after which he took part in the Battle of Berlin as a soldier in the Polish troops organized by the Soviets. He was a member of the Polish Communist Party (PZPR), but left its ranks following the student protests of March 1968. He left Poland in the same year, eventually settling in West Berlin and becoming a German citizen. He produced nearly twenty-five volumes of poetry in Polish and German; twenty of them appearing during his lifetime, and four published posthumously. Apoteoza tańca (“Apotheosis of the Dance”) from which this cycle was taken, was brought out in the year of his death.

Charles S. Kraszewski

Charles S. Kraszewski was born in 1962. Poet, translator, and literary historian, his most recent books are Diet of Nails (poems, 2014), Beast (poems, 2013) Rossetti's Armadillo (collected verse translations and essays, 2013) Irresolute Heresiarch: Catholicism, Gnosticism and Paganism in the Poetry of Czesław Miłosz (2012) and On the Eternal Happiness of the Saints (2012), a translation of St. Robert Bellarmine's De Aeterna Felicitate Sanctorum. He was recently awarded the 2013 Prize for the Propagation of Polish Literature and Culture by the Union of Polish Writers Abroad (London). He also frequently publishes in the Polish quarterly Odra, primarily on the Anglo-American Modernists. Recently, his verse translations into Polish of Eliot's Choruses from The Rock appeared there. Excerpts from his translation of Tedi López Mills' Death on Rúa Augusta and the full text of his translation of Stanisław Barańczak's Artificial Respiration have appeared in earlier issues of InTranslation.

Apotheosis of the Dance (1985). English translation copyright (c) Charles S. Kraszewski, 2014.