Notes on Vitezslav Nezval’s "Defenestration"

for Elizabeth Wolcott

Defenestration
Vitezslav Nezval (translation Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak)

The angelus bells were booming like cannons
& the sun that blew out the church’s windows
flooded the cathedral on the castle hill
where in the midst of hell its altars sizzled
& it was only in Saint Wenceslas’ chapel
that the dusk’s blue tremolo was bubbling forth
held aloft by the terminal rays of sunlight
& I was now aware of night’s arrival
when the evening star eternal light
dispelled a red sky to melt in the welkin

I was on the flight of stairs that led to the castle
while the medieval windows crashed like talismans
& I beheld a huge ship looming up thru the dark
& knew it was Prague

The neon lights were leaping from tower to tower
like blond monkeys clambering over its masts
cuneiform of perfume shops that drifts off in the night
a fountain spouting high above the river
while trolleys snuff the lights on the people’s carousel

Here was a city of laughter and highjinks
on whose star watch eternity old mother pearl
kicked up her heels over the aeons
with only a necklace & a line of mirrors
a caryatid as mysterious as ever
unsusceptible to the telescopes of the royal wise men
in spite of all the misleading signals
that doled out the future of newborn babes
old blowfly eternity
there at the queen bee’s wild funeral banquet
whelping her swarm

Here was a city of clatter and highjinks
with fireworks lighting the night
& the swart ship bombarded by corsairs
from all over Europe
who were pummeling Hradcany’s towers
that ancient & unyielding mast

The music of the relay races
passed prostitutes on to the men walking by
as if on command
& clashed with the angelus driving off illness
a barrage of gases from under the sewers escaping
the police long scattered the guards of the castle asleep

I looked up startled to the windows of the parliament
& saw

a shadow
throwing shapes of things into the moat masked
chimeras

Oh you my old eternity
steep nothing sleeping in the labyrinth of mirrors
specter you who took away my sleep forever
stumbling thru my life in terror walking on a tightrope
oh death deceitful phantom
you I waited for forever you unseen
by any of the blissful dead dog-tired like these
windhounds
all you old religions royal bastards
of eternity & death
I want to push you off masked scarecrows
throw myself behind you
shadow that completes this old defenestration

Notes:

1. He stands and watches eternity move.

He is by the window of a castle upon a hill. The castle is next to a cathedral. The bells of the Cathedral announce the Annunciation: it is time to pray and commemorate the light that initiated Creation, the light that was the Word Incarnate.

Yet the only peaceful image in the first stanza is the red sky melting into the “eternal light” of the evening star, the “eternal light” of night. Peace is only above us. From booming sounds we move to violent sun (“blew out:” what direction is that moving?). The cathedral is in the “midst of hell” and is “sizzling.”

Only in the chapel where the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man meet can one see something like order: a “tremolo” is a nearly out-of-control vibrato, but as it is held aloft by a fading sunlight, a terrible piety has found a place, if only for a moment.

2 -3. Prague has decided to sail from the medieval order. The ship of state looms large in the darkness, as if it needed no otherworldly protection.

It does not sail without style. Neon lights that resemble bright climbing monkeys bring us back to Babel. The ship itself is a powerful scent, a water beyond the waters below, and even the light from everyone’s enjoyment seems so pitiful, contrasted with the motion of it all.

4-6. And now eternity is back again, and is still tied to the stars, the night. But something is different this time out. She’s a lovely, frivolous party girl – yes, she’s a caryatid, a pillar holding something up.

But what is she supporting? She misleads the wise, and the future of newborn babies we know to be doomed. She’s not the sort of girl that settles down, not like bees that labor for the honey that is certain. Her “progeny” are flies – filth and waste are the conditions for their lives.

The decline has been sounded in the image, but actual cannons fired by those who would steal are mentioned.

The music of the city’s life now only accompanies men picking up prostitutes. The music of the bells is an ever-vigilant prayer, struggling to keep disease at bay. But those bells ring alone: the ground is erupting in protest, law and security are gone.

7-9. And our narrator, from the castle, is looking at parliament finally. A shadowy figure throws unknown things into the moat. “Chimeras” is the only clue we have to the import of those things.

Once, knowledge was treasured. For something to be treasured, it needed to be possessed, kept in the heart. To know was to comprehend the Ideal Form of something: we knew what Justice, and before that, the Divine Form were once.

Now those ideals seem monstrous, grotesque. The imagination is thrown away. But by a shadow?

The sky used to mirror the light. But then eternity decided to glance at herself for a moment, and the world is no longer immersed, is no longer asleep. Rather, she and the world are divorced, and the world is all too active.

Our speaker cannot sleep in these conditions. It is as if he is walking through his own life on a tightrope. It is as if she is walking through his life on a tightrope. Eternity may be divorced from actuality, but that does not mean interaction is lacking. There is some sort of chase, and one party is clearly wearing out.

Religions are blamed for giving eternity a form, a deceitful form that scares the unknowing away. They try to hide death, but in pushing eternity, make the specter of death that much more monstrous.

Our speaker concludes with wanting to join eternity simply, which is now the shadow destroying the images of the past. We have to wonder whether he thinks he will join in the idol smashing, or whether he is eager to be thrown out the window with the images. This “old defenestration” tells us that such harrowing is periodic; everything comes to an end. And where the speaker is standing now is most certainly at an end.

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