Věra Nosková: Bereme, co je (We’ll Take What’s Offered)
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
A diminutive soldier is sitting at a nearby table in the Bílý vlk hotel cafeteria. Just a few moments ago his colleague left him, so now, small and stocky, with an intelligent but disinterested face, he is staring into the void, while turning a glass with the remains of his beer in a stubby-fingered hand. As we sip our pungent wine, Irenka, Monča and I are amusing ourselves with ideas of what we’d do with particular males around us. When the little soldier’s turn came round, Irenka thoughtfully rocked in her chair, which screeched under the weight of this fertility goddess, though she was intimately familiar with the sound and paid it no attention. She pouted like Brigitte Bardot:
“He’s weeny, but he does look quite strong. He could move the luggage and rearrange the furniture in my boudoir. He looks quite clever too. Maybe he can play chess… But he hasn’t grown to be a lover. I’d be afraid to squash him while I’m asleep.“
Doe-eyed Monča smiled appreciatively. She liked our self-deprecating jokes, but was resigned to the fact that she had no talent for them herself. She carefully maintained her impressive bun with sharpish movements from behind, scorning the commonly used dry roll as bun filler, but filling the bun hollow with her own hair taken from her brush every evening after grooming. She saved her hair for months on end, until she had made it into voluminous hair bandera. I saw something similar years later among the curiosities at the Faculty of Medicine Institute of Anatomy in Plzeň. It originally filled the stomach of a mentally ill woman from nearby Dobřany, who for years compulsively ate her hair. Even thirty years later this exhibit brought the pragmatic Monča back to mind.
Rapid banter on the usability of particular male individuals alternated with passionate debate which I provoked when I suggested we set up a theatre of poetry. The proposal was disparaged, derided and scorned. Its naiveté actually annoyed my friends. They were superficial bimbos without any imagination, I told them silently. And now I was looking at the little soldier with increasing interest, because I’d had an idea.
“Don’t be alarmed, ladies, but I’m going over to sit with him for a while,” I said slowly, moving hesitantly and carefully, like a constrictor following its prey, towards the next table. Ten minutes later I was back, warmed and lit up pink with suppressed joy.
“Done it!” I exulted. “Looks promising.”
“Good heavens,” Irenka sighed.
Monča burst out in a brief laugh, while holding the structure of her bun.
They sat me in a chair opposite the writing table, behind which the garrison Commander was sitting. I presented my project.
“Good, good, I understand you. Just explain to me why you want to perform this with the soldiers! Not that I’m against it, quite the reverse! But…”
“I shall be honest. Nobody wants anything else.”
“And I shall be honest too, Miss. High command is always on at us to get some cultural activity going, so that the lads here don’t get stunted just lounging around the pubs and all that in their spare time. You understand. And generally speaking, this is a requirement of the times, you know, or you don’t actually know yet, but you will do…a requirement of the times…” the Commander’s thinking came to a halt and for a while he stared out of the window, from which he could see the cheerless barracks courtyard beyond the flying bees.
“Okay and as I said, I’ll be honest,” he collected himself and again spoke in a strong, decisive voice. “So the truth is that we have not yet managed to get anything going properly, I mean anything of a high standard, you understand, and we could have made it an army artistic competition, for example. So I am grateful to you for this offer of collaboration. Lots of the lads will join in for sure, because there are associated concessions and leave…I am only concerned that as leader of this recitation circle…”
“Theatre of poetry,” I corrected him.
“…theatre of poetry you will be able to keep them under control. Forgive me, but Lord knows if you’re at least eighteen years of age and the lads are all fired up, quite shameful really,” he apologized for the young soldiers, and sensuous thoughts made his cheeks burn. “So if anything happens then do complain to me. I shall give them a good talking to. In any case I shall warn them in advance, okay? Agreed? The commander rubbed his gnarled hands and called the duty officer to accompany the young lady leading the recitation circle, excuse me, the theatre of poetry, to the gates. Before I got to the gates, three reciters had reported to me their interest in cultural activities. Oldřich, the solidier who was the contact from the pub, in civilian life a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Prague, had now managed to inform the entire barracks.
“Gentlemen, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to test you first,” I told them quite mercilessly.
As I moved away from the gate, the gentlemen stared in anguish at my buttock muscles, working alluringly, it would appear, rhythmically stretching the left and right sections of the taut trouser material, giving out hissing sounds and relieving themselves with little yelps: Man, I’d like to… Man, do you think she might…? Why on Earth has she come? Man, she might be a nymphomaniac. That would be a godsend for the garrison! Man, what’s a nymphomaniac?
For a while I hung around the village green at the bus stop. I sat on a bench and fixed my unseeing gaze on the geese pecking away at the low grass. So I would get to recite Ferlinghetti after all! I would have my theatre of poetry, even if my classmates just shook their heads uncomprehendingly. Monča asked who would let themselves be bossed around by a schoolgirl? Little soldiers are used to being bossed around, I tell myself with a smile. Of course, I shall be a kind-hearted commander. I broke off from my mild exhuberance and looked at the timetable. There was no point waiting two hours for the bus. I could walk the five kilometres in an hour.
In the spartan military garrison mess room in the middle of south Bohemia, American beatnik poetry can be heard. After two months the lads have almost understood what I want from them: a civil, virile, natural performance. It is obvious to me that the army theatre of poetry called Funfair will not survive in the reciters’ heads beyond their demobilization. Fanda is a robust Hanák from a village near Olomouc, an agricultural mechanic, Oldřich a seasoned Chinese restaurant waiter in Prague, melancholic Milan from Písek cobbles together Šrámek-style verse and the motley crew is completed by an Americanophile from Plzeň, whose mother called him Samuel, so she could call him Sam, as he was the offspring of her short liaison with an American soldier-liberator. Sam is now 21 years old. He tried to study, but they expelled him from college as his enthusiasm for all things American and in parallel his declared hatred for all things Russian were barefaced and disruptive. Sam had little self-control. All his life he was upset by the fact that his mother had not managed to persuade the American to take her back home with him.
Ferlinghetti’s poetry appealed to my charges. During the recitation they do not think about their military oaths or membership of the Warsaw Pact army, addressing the portrait of President Novotný, their supreme commander with derision:
Oh, the world is a marvellous place to be born
If you’re not too bothered
By a couple of heads that are going soft
In high places.
They are getting better and better. Although none of them will ever achieve the powerful delivery of a Miki, not to mention the charismatic Kovářík, I am not actually thinking that high. Now in their free time they are reading October in the Railroad Earth by Jack Kerouac. Every time Commander Lipenský nods amicably and I clownishly salute him. He takes it well. He is keen to see some interesting cultural activity taking off and the lads carrying books under their arms around the barracks like some kind of scholars. Everything has worked out marvellously, the euphoria is stable and even rising slightly, so now the crash should be here. Under the law of sinusoids, the trouble and bother should have started up, or at least some sobering-up. But nothing of the kind has happened! Instead the anticipated invitation has arrived for the army cultural interest group activities competition.
“And if you win,” the Commander smiled encouragingly as he passed me the invitation, “you’ll be able to take your poetry programme around the garrisons. And then why not start up various civil ceremonial events in the town? On International Women’s Day for example, Or who knows…? Trade Union Movement plenary sessions, Socialist Work Brigade badge-presentation ceremonies or Czechoslovak Union of Youth events!” he reeled off the abbreviations, while I was roaring with laughter inside, but then again I felt a little sorry for him. He had no idea what kind of western poison his charges were absorbing. He still had a vague impression from school that poetry was something harmless that dealt with flowers, butterflies and love, indulged in by young romantics, who would grow out of it in time.
Back in 1883 an extensive mental hospital complex was built in the small town of Dobřany. The name of the town, half of which was made up of this particular institution, came to be a household by-word for a “bin” for the mentally ill. “He should be in Dobřany” was an everyday expression as relatively far away as Strakonice. So now I was in Dobřany. Not as a loony, but as a participant in an army creativity contest, which had its parallels that I did not as yet know about.
I looked out at the deluge of uniforms beneath the stage and slowly realized that I had taken a wrong turning for my theatre of poetry. The point of the production somehow eluded me. Which of these lads onstage would ask me to recite poems? What did I have in common with an army that defended commie accomplishments, as well as – I suddenly recalled – barbed-wired and mined frontiers? I felt like abandoning the speech-making, perhaps finishing mid-sentence and simply walking out. Turning on my heels and heading backstage, down the stairs into the hallway and out of the building straight to the railway station. Of course, I forced myself to stay and recite the words as convincingly as if I had written them myself. Except I hadn’t written them myself, alas, and I was ashamed to flaunt other people’s images and ideas. Time slowed down and the minutes slipped past one after the other like rooftiles from a collapsing house. My infaturation with this poetry had left me, it had exhausted itself with excessive repetition and polishing; it had also been blown away by a particular eccentric image: namely, I saw myself from outside through the eyes of my mocking sprite, standing in tight trousers and a seductive sweater, in a veil of long hair on the stage in front of five soldiers, while under the podium the gold braid flashes of the panel of officers and some three hundred other soldiers sit in the hall and watch…A single girl and hundreds of young male bodies, hundreds of hungry male eyes and brains, which produce the appropriate sexual hormones in response to the sight, so that many prefer to fold their legs, Mr Dawkins, because their selfish gene, the swine, would love to replicate like nobody’s business. They probably don’t even perceive the meaning of the words that the young beauty releases into the space above their heads, but they are imagining her. Those three hundred males are embracing her in their minds, each in his own way. An irate frustration is steaming from the audience, as it is unlikely any conjoining of bodies will actually happen. Good heavens, why can’t I choose the best and most handsome, like some medieval queen and… Besides none of them would probably have anything against that if… Except things like that aren’t done because… Ah, but they are done!
The situation is tastelessly overwrought and has no way out. The air is fraught with suppressed ire on heat: many of them are saying to themselves that the bitch enjoys titillating males, and they would rather like to bend me over the nearest banister without any further ado. I see through the eyes of these young men that I am only a woman, whatever I might want to recite, and it strikes me all the harder that the poetry I am reciting is distinctly male. I have intruded into their world, where I come across as fitful, comical and alien. I should have stayed under the bedclothes with my love and recitations of poetry. Only I thought… God knows what I thought! But then I slap on the poetry for this green-uniformed crowd about an inconceivable world where everybody says and publishes whatever they want, unwatched by the rheumy eyes of a paranoid party, where there is fabulous freedom, an excess of everything and their poor are better off than the average citizen here. The fact that beatniks find fault in the land of unlimited opportunity, that they deride it and pour scorn on that funky American civilization? Their freedom to say this and to actually make a name for themselves from it made America even greater. We try to project feelings from our gloomy reality onto beatnik anger, scorn and contempt, but then our rock bottom is a fair way further down than theirs.
Before the poetry programme is over, I have done with public recitations, theatres of poetry and even beatniks, who I am fed up with, like everything we have to keep repeating. With extreme revulsion I yelled out the last verse: Birds are falling headlong from heaven while still pecking hot sperm. Three hundred young men and here I am with my virginity borne too long, me, a walking erotic grenade, preaching to them about sperm! Was this really called for?
Following the break, the brass instruments gleamed onstage and the Dixieland started up. This improved my mood. During the afternoon five bands came on and the stage was always full. It livened up even more when the first big-beat band appeared. I was almost singing out loud with the last band, as its repertoire was made up mostly of Semafor songs. The master of ceremonies announced an hour-long break before the winners were declared, and the soldiers straggled off into the hallway to queue for beer and have a cigarette, so the stage was now almost deserted. I was sorry the music was over. I turned to a bass player and asked him if I could sing along with them before they packed up their instruments.
“How about it, boys? Shall we do one more? Just for ourselves and for the young lady here to say good-bye to three days of freedom…?”
Why do folk fall out of love? Why are they so fickle? Those who wager all on love, Can find themselves in a pickle, I started up. It was good that my voice echoed deep and full. My enjoyment of singing triggered off previously by the Captain Jaroš and Věnceslav Kníže Ensemble had some impetus and guess what happened? The last soldiers pushing their way out of the hall came back, while others arrived with half a litre or a cigarette in their hands, and some sat down again. The hall filled up, and as soon as the song came to an end applause broke out. Sure I’ll do another number, since a girl from the cast is getting the chance to sing a solo! This time I chose the rather provocative: Love is just letters and those letters form a word…However, the enthusiastic applause was now interrupted by the organizers, who were protesting and referring to the promise not to cause complications, when look here, they’re smoking and bringing drinks into the hall – that wasn’t in the agreement…
I walked down into the audience among the animated faces. The barrier had fallen, I was no longer a young madam giving herself airs with all that versifying. The lads were now smiling at me and gesturing that it was fine. The singer was close to people’s hearts, that was clear. Above their heads some civilian was gesticulating. He elbowed his way through to me:
Listen, Rittstein or something is the name, music editor at Plzeň Radio: I’d like to try recording something with you, but it will have to be in the studio with a local band. I have a feeling we could make something out of it. You have a nice deep alto and you’re not shy… Call me, right? And he began to rummage wildly through his pockets: But I don’t have a business card, that’s for sure. If I could just find a piece of paper! Damn it! Just when you’re most in a hurry! Listen, I know your Yankie Sam. I’ll be with him before you leave, so I’ll send contact details to you through him, okay?
The base player interrupted him, suggesting that they could give me a lift home.
All the way home in the army minibus the jazz guitar twanged and wailed, and they were singing themselves hoarse just as I got out in front of my house. I waved to them and stood stiff in indecision on the pavement. I should have waited a while till I came down from the euphoria. Carefully, I looked around. A couple of gratified neighbours were leaning out of their windows, as was my mother, staring with those burning eyes of hers. What was I to tell her? But everything was clear to her anyway. The embers of joy and exciting experiences were smouldering sullenly. The law of life’s sinusoids had again kicked in. I had fallen below the mark, and things would get worse.
Things did get worse at home and school. My versifying meant I had neglected to cram more portions of mathematics and physics into my poor head, and my ignorance of the material covered over the last two months was abysmal. Twenty years later I will still be dreaming of standing in front of the blackboard, poor, contemptible, resentful and helplessly angry. Yesterday I read Camus and the day before Flaubert. I’m full of these stories, I half live in books and I write defiant poetry… But here and now I am treated as stupid, while I know the awfully clever teacher, who apart from mathematics, which she teaches quite mechanically without a spark of life, is only interested in knitting and unravelling sweaters, has a face devastated by distaste for the sad figure that I cut. Of course, I had to defend myself against urgent appeals to leave the grammar school. For this my mother thought up a fiendish solution: I was to join the Čezeta motor scooter factory as a worker.
It employed some ten thousand proletarians, who converged on it from the surrounding villages. The halls were smeared in faded dirt like some great unwashed vagus smelling of metal and oil. The iron stairways, crates of spare parts, roar of the machines, chaps in greasy overalls, the crude, lewd jokes that spiced up the work. And my bloodied hands during those two summer temp jobs that dad got me into.
Tighten a nut, set the sharp-edged steel drill, turn on the machine. Metal cuts into metal with a screech. The drill goes through the nut and hits the washer. I quickly place it in the warmth and set it back, so it can go through another nut. The hairline cuts on my palms are increasing and damaging my skin. At the end of the shift I have bloody, aching hands. In the evening I’ll bathe them in a permanganate solution, so they can withstand the next shift. There’s no point in wearing gloves. They gave me rag ones, but after an hour of work they were cut to ribbons. The skin of my palms will handle it better.
I’d like to burst out crying in a corner somewhere, but I won’t let myself feel self-pity like that! After all I am used to simply enduring injustices, fear and disgust and waiting till they pass. They are always limited in time anyway. My scarred hands will heal. It is just that feeling of not belonging, of needless pain and humiliation that will come back to me in my dreams, along with the stench of iron and oil, for the rest of my life. The lads around me would not do work like this. They’d resist and call the union boss to say workers were being injured. But a temp student from grammar school will put up with it. Let the bookworm learn what it means to properly graft. And how. It’s probably useful to experience and understand placing myself in a gloomy and wretched position. That is my way of signalling to those around me my low self-esteem and my willingness to suffer and endure. And then circumstances and people will get more difficult. The world helps those who are fighting their way upwards. And if the people who determine the standards in the musty communities of villages, small towns, working teams and schools cannot tolerate something, then one is just called an arrogant nobody. Clearly that is my case. I am just an arrogant nobody, mutely and proudly suffering, may the devil take me.
The stooped foreman, lobed like a monitor lizard, comes darting around the machine, eyes needle-like beneath the brim of his greasy cap. He bends my ear:
“Hey, stay after the shift. I’ll give you a lesson. As it is you’re a first-timer. Hey, I’ll put in a crown or two extra for you. Somebody has to initiate you, right? We’ll head up to my office and…” he makes a gesture as if cutting up a log.
The factory is a place where the Begetter would like to see me, so as to take me down a peg or two, to make me stop all the airs and graces with the bloody poems, as she likes to repeat after grandmother. But for now I have escaped the factory. I was saved by my Czech teacher, who spoke nicely about me at a teachers’ meeting, resolutely rejecting the maths teacher’s insistence that I’m an idiot.
It was only a month later that I could head off for my little soldiers. The braided duty officer’s pale eyes bulged:
“Oh right, them? That batch are back in civvies. And Commander Lipecký? He’s been redeployed.“
It is astonishing how people can be so neglectful, I thought, when the duty officer assured me that no Sam had left a message or even an address for Plzeň Radio. No, not even for himself. For some time I played with the idea of tracking down the radio man on the telephone: could you please give me this guy whose name and appearance I’ve forgotten, but a month ago he was at Dobřany…? But then I put the entire affair with the theatre of poetry and the singing behind me. Only Ferlinghetti was left to me. He came back to me again. Before I fell asleep I recited his poetry like a prayer.
…while in the reachless seascape spaces
between the blown white shrouds
stand out the bright steamers
to kingdom come…