Poems to Czechoslovakia



It’s full and spacious,
this land at the edge.  Only one grief:
the Czechs have no—sea.
The Czechs became—the sea—

Tears: your salt isn’t needed!
We’re well-stocked for years!
Three hundred years of captivity,
twenty years of freedom.[2]

Not without duties, that bird—
God’s, human’s.
Twenty years of greatness,
twenty years of adverbs.

Everyone—as in a peaceful field,
one people.
Three hundred years of captivity,
twenty years of freedom—

Everything. Fire and houses—
Everything. Games, science—
Everything. Work—any kind—
as long as there were hands.

On the field and at school—
look—what young shoots!
Three hundred years of captivity,
twenty years of freedom.

Mark it well, guests
of the Czechs, all together:
What was sown—the whole handful.
What was built—all with honor.

Two decades
(and barely that!)
like anywhere in the world
thought and sang.

Gray from pain,
the Vltava River[3] moans:
—Three hundred years of captivity,
twenty years of freedom.

On an eagle’s rocks,
like an eagle perched—
What happened to you,
my land, my Czech paradise?

Mountains—broken away,
…Three hundred years of captivity,
twenty years of freedom.

In villages—happiness was woven,
red, blue, motley.[4]
What happened to you,
Czech double-tailed lion?[5]

The fox overcame
the forest guardian!
Three hundred years of captivity,
twenty years of freedom!

Listen to every tree,
forest, and listen to the Vltava!
Lion rhymes with anger,
well, and Vltava—with glory.

Only for an hour—not more—
all your adversity!
After the night of captivity,
the white day of freedom!

(November 12, 1938)

[1] In September 1938, in what is now regarded as a failed attempt to appease Hitler, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy signed the Munich Pact, annexing part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. No representatives from Czechoslovakia were invited to attend the conference.

[2] “Three hundred years of captivity” refers to the three hundred years (1620-1918) during which Czechoslovakia was under Austro-Hungarian rule, before the independent republic of Czechoslovakia was established in 1918.

[3] The Vltava is the longest river in the Czech Republic; it runs along the Bohemian Forest and through Prague.

[4] The flag of Czechoslovakia (and now of the Czech Republic), banned by the Nazis in 1939, contains two horizontal stripes of red and white, with a blue isosceles triangle on the hoist side.

[5] The “double-tailed lion” is a symbol of Bohemia and Czechoslovakia.



Mountains—tour the fields!
Black woods,
valleys look in water,
mountains—in heaven.

This land at the edge, most free
and generous of all.
These mountains—the homeland
of my son.[6]

Valleys—deer pasture,
don’t startle the animals—
the sleepy roofs of huts,
and in the woods—not a gun—

no matter how far you go,
however many—miles.
These valleys—the homeland
of my son.

There I raised my son,
and there flowed—water?
Days? Or geese,
a white flock?

…Blackcurrants celebrate
Christmas in summer.
These huts—the birthplace
of my son.

It was birth
into the world—birth to paradise.
God, having made Bohemia,
said: “A nice land!

All natural gifts,
all—to one!
More generous than the homeland—
of My Son!”

Czech underground:
married streams and ores!
God, having made Bohemia,
said, “Good work!”

Everyone was—humble
but not one
was not at home in the homeland
of my son.

They’re damned—who took
that humble paradise,
with hares and fallow deer,
with pheasant feathers…

Damned—who sold it,
they’ll never be forgiven!—
Century-old homeland,
everyone—without a country!

My land, my land, sold
all alive, with animals,
with gardens,
with formations of rock,

with the whole people,
in the field, without shelter,
My homeland!

Moravia! Bohemia!
Don’t lie there as layers!
God gave both—
and will give again!

In an oath—hand raised,
all your sons—
to die for the homeland,
everyone—without a country!

(Between November 12 and 19, 1938)

[6] Tsvetaeva, her husband, and their daughter lived in Czechoslovakia during the first years of their exile from the Soviet Union, and Tsvetaeva’s son was born there in February 1925.



There on the map—the place:
You look—blood in the face!
Godmother beaten in the flour
in every village.

Divided—by a pole axe,
a boundary pole.
There on the body of the world,
ulcer—everything partakes!

From the porch—to the stately
mountains—to the eagles’
nests—in thousands of square
irretrievable miles—

**************Laid to rest—
the Czech: buried alive.
In the heart of the people,
this wound: who we let die!

Only from this land, called
brotherly—rain from these eyes!
Fat, celebrating swindler!
You nicely managed this.

Fat Judas—give yourself honors!
We—in whom the heart—exists:
There’s a place on the map
that’s blank: our honor.

(November 19-22, 1938)




In the Sudeten mountains, the Czech forest
at the border, an officer with 20-weary-
soldiers, leaving the soldiers in the forest, you-
went out to the road and began to shoot
suitable Germans.  The end of this
is unknown.
(from the September 1938 newspapers)

Czech grove—
forest of forests.
The year—nineteen hundred

The day and month?—The peaks echo:
—The day the Germans came among the Czechs!

The forest—ruddy,
The day—blue-gray.
Twenty soldiers,
one officer.

Unflinching and round-faced
he guards the border.

My forest, around,
my undergrowth, around,
my home, around,
mine—this home.

I won’t hand over this forest,
I won’t hand over this home,
I won’t hand over this land,
I won’t hand over an inch!

Deciduous dark.
Heart fright:
If the Prussians move?
If the heart knocks?

My forest, farewell!
My century, farewell!
My land, farewell!
Mine—this land!

Let the whole land go
to the enemy’s feet!
won’t hand over a stone!

Footfall of boots.
—Germans!—the leaves.
Roar of the glands.
—Germans!—the woods.

the mountains and caves.
The soldiers thrown

From the grove—a living
Colossus—with a revolver!

Shots crash.
The whole forest—burst open!
The forest—rippling!

While the bullets fly into German whips—
the forest applauds him!

Maple, pine,
pine needles, leaves,
all one continuous
thicket of forest—

the good news,

that saved—
Czech honor!

So—the country
wasn’t handed over,
So—despite everything
there was—war!

Vivat, my land!
—Take that, Herr!
…Twenty soldiers,
one officer.

(October 1938-April 17, 1939)




Can it be that centuries
scourge mold,
homeland light forming
underneath boots?

Look at those mountains!
In these mountains—
the best found:

Wanderer, look
with your eyes and soul:
look at those mountains!
Inscribe in your heart
every hollow:


[7] The symbols < > in the Russian text of the poem suggest that this section was provisionally included in the sequence. Unlike the other sections in “September,” which include dates of composition in (or beginning in) 1938, this poem is dated only “1939,” suggesting that it may have been completed at the time that the poems in “March” were written.

[8] Radium was discovered in Bohemia. At the time this poem was written, the damaging effects of radium were not known, and within the poem radium becomes a symbol of Czech identity, light, and strength emerging from the land itself. As Tsvetaeva wrote to Anna Tesková, a Czech friend, “Madame Curie, who discovered radium, the mother of the present day, was herself born in a depressed, darkened country, [but] this did not hinder her from illuminating the whole world—and perhaps it forced her [to do so]” (quoted in Christopher Lemelin’s “Homeland and Exile in Marina Tsvetaeva’s Poems to Bohemia,” Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2010).




In days of old the Sandman sang
in all the villages-villages:
—Sleep, baby! You won’t be given
to that angry Tatar-dog!

Black night, lunar night—
across the Thuringian hills:[10]
—Sleep, German! You won’t be given
to the bandy-legged Hun!

These days—throughout Bohemia,
yes, in all its corners:
—Sleep, Bohemian! You won’t be given
to that German, Mr. Hitler!

(March 28, 1939)

[9] On March 15, 1939, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, bringing it under Nazi occupation.

[10] The Thuringian Forest is a mountain range in central Germany, in the region of Thuringia, which was invaded by the Huns in 450.




Flown to the city of Václav—[11]
so fire devours the grass…

Played with a Bohemian edge!
so ashes fill up the buildings,

so the blizzard sweeps away milestones…
From Eden—say, the Czechs!

What’s left? — Ashes.
—So the Plague makes the cemetery laugh!

Flown to the city of Václav
—so fire devours the grass—

announced—the deadline for us:
so water rises to the windows.

So ashes fill up the buildings…
over bridges and over squares,

the double-tailed lion crying, crying…
—So the Plague makes the cemetery laugh!

Flown to the city of Václav
—so fire devours the grass—

strangled, without a shudder—
so ashes fill up the buildings:

—Living souls, answer!
Prague became—Pompeii, but quieter…

In vain we search for—a step, a sound…
—So the Plague makes the cemetery laugh!

(March 29-30, 1939)

[11] This may refer to Czech violinist and conductor Václav Talich, who was the conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in Prague from 1919-1941 and was considered responsible for raising the Philharmonic to the level of a leading international orchestra. In early June 1939, after the Nazi invasion, Talich led the Czech Philharmonic in a dramatic performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast, or My Country, in symbolic protest of the invasion.




In the Bohemian cities,
what mutters the drum?
—Handed over—handed over—handed over,
land—without glory, land—without fight.
Foreheads—gray with ashes,

In the Bohemian cities—
or maybe that’s not a drum—
(The murmur of mountains?  The whisper of stones?)
and in the hearts of the humble Czechs—
a moan—
like thunder:
where is

In the dead cities,
the drum announces:
—Lies! Lies! Lies,
bred in Hradčany Castle![12]
In a window of ice—as in a frame,
(Boom! Boom! Boom!)—

(March 30, 1939)

[12] The district of Prague surrounding the Prague Castle is called the Hradčany. On March 15, 1939, following the Nazi Invasion, Hitler spent the night in Prague Castle; a photograph from March 16 shows him looking out of the castle through a window on an upper story, as though framed by the window for the crowd and press photographers below.




O, rosiest virgin
among the green hills—

The astral soul
pocketed half the cards!
Those fairy tales—from old times, dimmed,
the day—the tanks arrived.

Before the Czech peasant woman—
you don’t lower your eyes,
as you roll on your tanks
through her rye, her hopes?

Before the huge grief
of this small country,
what is it you feel, German,
Germany’s sons??

O mania! O mummy
of greatness!
You’ll burn,
you make!

With the embrace of a constrictor
the athlete will end you!
To your health, Moravia!
Slovakia, slovak!

In the crystal underground,
having retreated—prepare the blow:

(April 9-10, 1939)



Atlas—that pack of cards:[13]
reshuffled, in a luster!
Congratulates—every March:
—with land, with a share, with the new!

They’re serious, March dues:
the Earth—mountain ranges—
well, and the card player!
Well, and the gambling table!

Hands full of trump cards:
dressed in their insignia,
headless kings,

—Me and my bones, me and my fat!
So play—tigers!
The whole world will remember
the games of March.

In their trump cards—the game
with the European map.
(To Hradčany Hill—[14]
yes, Tarpeian Rock!)[15]

The evil hasn’t found
bullets: hasn’t found the blow of Prague.
Prague—like that! Vienna—like that!

What will be cast—Czech rain,
Prague offense.
—Remember, remember, remember, dux—[16]
the Ides of March![17]

(April 22, 1939)

[13] The word karta can mean both “playing card” and “map.”

[14] Prague Castle, or Hradčany castle, is located on a hill in Prague on a bank of the Vltava River.

[15] Tarpeian Rock: a cliff overlooking the Roman Forum in Ancient Rome, used as an execution site.

[16] Dux: a military commander stationed in a province of the later Roman Empire.

[17] The Ides of March, or March 15, is known as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar; it also corresponds to the date (March 15, 1939) of the Nazi invasion of Prague.




The Czechs came up to the Germans and spat.
(See March 1939 newspaper.)

They took—quickly and took—hugely:
took the mountain and took the subsoil,
took the coal and took the steel,
and what lead we had, and crystal.

They took the sugar and took the clover,
took the West and took the North,
took the beehive and the haystack,
took the South from us, and the East.

Karlovy Vary[18]—they took, and the Tatras[19]—they took,
they took close by and took distances,
but—more painful than our paradise on earth!—
they took our struggle—for our homeland.

They took the bullet and took the gun,
took ore and took friendship…
But as long as there’s spit in our mouths—
the whole country is armed!

(May 9, 1939)

[18] Karlovy Vary is a town in western Bohemia famous for its hot springs.

[19] The Tatra Mountains, or Tatras, are a mountain range on the border between Slovakia and Poland.




Did you see how it was cut? Felled—
fallen!—behind the oak—another oak.
Just killed—risen!
It doesn’t die—the forest.

Just as dead wood
is green—a moment later!—
(Moss—that green coat!)
He doesn’t die—the Czech.

(May 9, 1939)



Oh, tears in my eyes!
Crying with anger and love!
Oh, Czechoslovakia in tears!
Spain in blood![20]

Oh, Black Mountain,[21]
the whole world—eclipsed!
It’s time—it’s time—it’s time
to return to the creator his ticket.[22]

I refuse—to be.
In a Bedlam of nonhumans
I refuse—to live.
With wolves in the squares

I refuse—to howl.
With sharks on the plains
I refuse to float—
down—on the spinning current.

I have no need for any holes,
ears or prophetic eyes.
To your mad world,
there is one answer: refusal.

(March 15-May 9, 1939)

[20] Franco came to power in Spain in April 1939.

[21] Černá hora, or Black Mountain, is a peak in the Bohemian Forest near the border with Germany, and close to the source of the Vltava River.

[22] In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov tells Alyosha, “It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket” (to Heaven), after reflecting on suffering on earth, and especially the suffering of children.



Not demons—for the monk,
not grief—for the genius,
not the mountain avalanche of rock,
not the bank flooding—

not red fire in the forest,
not the hare—in the thicket,
not willows—in the storm,—
for the Führer—Furies!

(May 15, 1939)




And the bullet doesn’t claim them,
and neither does the song!
So I stand, open-mouthed:
—People! What a people!

People—such that the poet—
herald of all latitudes—
that the poet, open-mouthed,
stands up—such a people!

When no force could claim them,
nor gift of grace—
to starve such a people out?
To starve out—granite!

(They sit—stone and granite,
and keep the knowledge…
buried in your breast—it burns!
Garnet makes—a magnet.[23])

That the radium from this breast
could be pulled out and handed over: here!
In the middle of Europe—alive—
to bury such a people?

God! If you yourself—are such,
the people of my love,
don’t let them rest with the Saints—
with life revive them!

(May 20, 1939)

[23] Garnets are magnetic (to varying degrees) because of their concentrations of iron and manganese.  Found in Bohemia, the garnet, or Bohemian garnet, became a symbol of Czech and Bohemian identity during the Czech National Revival of the 18th and 19th centuries.



You will not die, people!
God keeps you!
Whose heart gave—garnet,
whose breast gave—granite.

Prosper, people—
strong, as a tablet,
fierce, as garnet,
pure, as crystal.

(Paris, May 21, 1939)



Be quiet, Bohemian! It’s all over!
Live, other countries!
On a ladder of living hearts,
the German enters the Hradčany.

(This fable doesn’t believe itself:
On steps as on heads.)
—Horse-Hun in the Lord’s temple!—
On the steps, as on skulls…


[24] The symbols < > indicate that this section and the one that follows it were provisionally included in the sequence; they appear in this order (with the conditional brackets) in the Russian text of the poem.



But most painful of all, oh, memorable,
more than garnet and crystal—
what wounds my heart most of all,

those roads—with big plum trees
and big steps—alongside
plums and cornfields…



Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva was one of the foremost Russian poets of the twentieth century. Born in 1892 to a family of wealth, she lived most of her adult life in poverty and exile following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow Famine. Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union in 1922, living in Berlin and what was then Czechoslovakia before moving to Paris in 1925. In 1939, she returned to the Soviet Union, where she died in 1941. Despite isolation, political disaster, and personal tragedy, Tsvetaeva wrote extensively throughout her lifetime, including short lyrics, long narrative poems, plays in verse, and literary criticism.

Margaree Little

Margaree Little is the author of Rest (Four Way Books, March 2018). She is the recipient of a 2013 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a 2016 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellowship, and a 2016-2018 Kenyon Review Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry ReviewNew England ReviewThe Missouri Review, and elsewhere, and her criticism in American Poetry Review and Kenyon Review Online. Her translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems have appeared in Asymptote. She currently lives in Tucson.

English translation copyright (c) Margaree Little, 2018.