Trees of the Years

What’s it like to grow, trees of the years?
From start to finish, I understood
you can only be watered by tears,
and are made of wood
so flame burns you with ease,
so even a half-blind eye sees
you are burning, trees,
trees of many years.

In you, the beasts could hide,
in you was the happiness denied
to me by the merciless lion tamer. In you
went everything I had. From you
comes spring water, from you
comes morning which dawns, in you
the sun goes down to dust
trees, years, full of rust!

If I could look a little longer at least,
could look straight up at the heavens and stare,
watching the clouds as they turn red.
Let a feast begin, and at that feast
let my liberty hand me wine.
Don’t let that thing tear apart my bed,
that thing I wanted so to repair
with these twenty-two years of mine!

— Jiří Orten
August 8, 1941
(Trans. Lyn Coffin and Leda Pugh)

Jiří Orten.Public Domain

Jiří Orten.
Public Domain

Forbidden by anti-Jewish laws to publish his poetry, Czech poet Jiří Orten tried to publish his poems under a pseudonym in the early years of World War II. In 1940, the Nazi authorities tracked the false names back to him and prevented his work from circulating in public. On August 31, 1941, he was hit by a car but was refused medical treatment because he was Jewish. He died few days later at the age of 22. Trees of the Years is thought to be Orten’s final poem.

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