Friday, June 29, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Poetry in Prague

Paul Deblinger
By Paul Deblinger

Our guest today is Paul Deblinger. He is an American writer who, in addition to poetry, also creates comedy and encaustic paintings. He has lived in the Czech Republic and has traveled widely in Europe.

One of the first things I learned on my adventure in Prague is that the word "ano" means yes. You have to listen very carefully--even though Czechs accent the first syllable, it still sounds like "no."

At first I wondered why everyone was so negative--I heard “no,” after “no” as the answer to the most obvious questions. Then, I learned what “ano“ meant. I had to listen carefully. This influenced my writing, my thinking and my daily life as an ex-pat. Listen, listen, think!

I arrived in Prague in June 2003, to take part in a four-week creative writing program sponsored by Western Michigan University. I was 51...and was one year removed from a minor heart attack that left me with severe much so...that after one year I could basically leave my home only for work. Panic attacks in grocery stores, farmers' markets, restaurants, had driven me back home.

Then I found myself scanning writer's web pages and ran across an ad for the Prague program. To make a long story short....somehow though the fog of anxiety I signed up for the Prague program, quit my job, and packed for a four-week stint away from my couch and my home.

Prague Castle. Photo by DC Pelka
Arriving in Prague, a city I had visited once before in 1991, I was assigned a room in a rather official-looking building (turns out it was Gestapo headquarters during WWII) that was now a dormitory for foreign students. It was a warren-like building with long halls that made you want to drop breadcrumbs to find your way back to your room. I often felt myself wandering in endless circles, passing the same door many times. Like my new-found expertise in listening, I needed to force myself to remember the most mundane details.

I was up early the first morning in Prague. I had arrived on a Friday and classes didn't start until Monday. In the early morning light, Prague looked handsome and inviting. As a hilly, river city Prague has unusual, wonderful urban light, light that has been twisted and turned down narrow streets for a thousand years, has bounced off facades of almost every imaginable type of architecture rolling across the many green parts of the city.

After just a few blocks I noticed something about my body: I could breathe. After my heart attack each breath seemed labored as if it was a signal for bad things to come. The mysterious weight of anxiety had removed itself from my chest and I felt as light and free as...well, I couldn't even remember.
Prague Jewish Quarter. Photo by Beth Green

I continued my walk through Prague, crossing the Vltava River, entering Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter. When I say old, I mean old--the Old-New Synagogue dates to the 12th century. The graves in the Old Jewish Cemetery are piled 12 deep and the grave of Rabbi Lowe, the 15th century mystic who gave the Jewish community its mythical superman, the Golem, is packed with folded-up prayers from moderns Jews asking for eternal favors.
On the wall of the Pinchas Synagogue are the inscribed names of Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. I scanned the wall for names, searching for Deblinger, the way I would search for my name in a phone book in a distant city. To my astonishment my name was on the wall: Yitchak (my Hebrew name) Deblinger from Prague, one of the 80,000 names crammed on the walls of the 600-year-old synagogue.

When I was a kid I imagined there was a me in every country of the world. I could sit for hours and daydream about the "me" in Ghana, France, Japan, Burma. Now I was confronted with a "me" who lived before me and had perished in a horrible way.

As the poetry seminars began I already had a plethora of things to write about....breathing this newly liberating Czech air, discovering “me” from a different era, the wonderful light in this old city. And to compound these visions, my teacher for the first two weeks, Barbara Cully, a writing professor from Arizona, introduced me to lyric poetry, specifically, the motets of the 20th century Italian poet Eugenio Montale:

You know this. I must lose you again and cannot

I am like an old wound every moment,

every cry re-opens, even the salt spray

rising from the piers darkening the Spring

at Sottoripa.

Montale had written the motets, short lyrical poems in a lover's voice addressing a mysterious love interest, in the 30s. They are replete with images from Dante, the Italian Renaissance and even the satiric barbs of T.S. Eliot.

By the time I had encountered Montale (and the lovely motets of Barbara Cully) I had noticed the countdown clock ticking. I would only be in Prague...25 more days, 20 more days, 18 more days. It was a looming sentence.
Prague Old Town Square. Photo by DC Pelka

Then the ignition of an idea. What if I beat the rap...stayed beyond my four-week term. What would happen?

Well, for one thing, my marriage was unlikely to survive, said my wife. And there were many other things to consider, or were there?

I happened to mention to the director of the program my quest for temporary lodging in Prague, and he said he would be sub-letting his family's flat for the 9-month academic term. Voila! Or, perhaps, "Zde!" in Czech.

Deal done.

The transformation started....from foreign full-time ex-pat.

Due to the four-week poetry workshops I had amassed dozens of new poems or at least partially written ones, and the program itself gave me a kick in the pants to writing: poems, short stories, essays.

Of course, life doesn't stop because you decide to, at least temporarily, reside in a foreign place: marriage must be dealt with, parents get sick, money starts trickling away, then cascading and your new ex-pat life begins to be fully-formed. A new city and culture and language, new friends, new lovers, new problems: source material for a sheath of poems, a memoir, stories, films or as someone once wrote: "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

But my heart, which had momentarily failed me, and my writing, which had been on an extended furlough returned: new strong beats, a new voice...a new way of looking at the world...the Old World, at that.

Blood-Red Moon

by Paul Deblinger

On the overnight train to Prague we argue
about the color of the moon.
At the stop at Auschwitz
the moon slips between two buildings on the platform
Photo by Ricardo Wang
and exposes its metaphoric blood-red hue.

Standing in the corridor,
head and neck out the window I call
you to come look at the moon.
You sit twisted, pretzel-like in the compartment,
hand holding a cigarette out the window.

It’s not blood-red, it’s amber, you say—the color of the little ring
you bought in the market in Krakow, the amber stone,
a dome nestled in a swirl of silver.
You hold the ring up to the moon.
Blood-red, I say.

The train pulls out from the station,
passes just meters from the Birkenau killing
fields. The blood-red moon hovers over the camp,
half-lopped off by the earth’s shadow. People
really live here, you ask?

Yet we ride these rails of horror from Prague
to Krakow and back for a hedonistic weekend
while history-jabbing body punches
sway me to numbness.

In the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow I imagined an ancestor,
perhaps a great-grandfather, traveling from Eastern Galicia
for business, for pleasure, or maybe to meet a mistress of his own
to toast the moon with Polish vodka. With the thrill of earthly
pleasures coursing through his veins, he momentarily forgets
the daily miseries, can’t even comprehend the racial future.

And I can’t comprehend my aching
bones; my mundane pain clouding history. In the train’s
cozy compartment I turn to you for comfort
and touch. You don’t touch.
You don’t comfort. I stare again
at the blood-red moon, trying to find
a way to navigate this tortured history around your skin.

The smoke from your cigarette plumes
up and out the window. We stare at each other
with hollow, uncertain eyes. The blood-red moon
rises above the plain.

Icy Days

by Paul Deblinger

This morning, the purple-turning
pink smoke drifts,
gathers across rooftops,
crystallizes the abstract
expression grafted to the panes.

Later, walking to Sinku tears flow again.
In the kavarna I try to talk Czech
but it comes out French. Wine
Photo by Eva McDermott
finally loosens my tongue.

Owl-earred knit hats,
puffy marshmallow coats,
hands jammed way down
in pockets, people stiffly exit the tram.

I’m at ease with high pressure
days, flat smoke, leaden skies sending
icy tears down all the Czech faces.

What in the World
by Paul Deblinger

When I was a kid
I thought there was another me
In every country in the world.
I dreamt about the me in France,
In China, Ghana and Ceylon.
Tonight walking down the narrow
Cobbled streets, I saw you gliding
Down the hill, bouncing, laughing,
With a curly-haired boy half my age.

I followed you down the hill,
Photo by LifeInMegapixels
As you headed into the cinema,
Curly-haired boy in tow.

I ducked into the casino next door,
Tried my luck at 21, lost
Each hand.

Dashed back to the cinema,
Just as the doors flung open
To you and the curly-haired boy.

With the bright city lights smacking you
In the face, I could clearly see it wasn’t you.

And it wasn’t me
Or even the other me
Walking down the cobbled slope
Wondering what in the world
I was doing there thinking of you.


  1. It is wonderful that you found the place you feel most at home, Paul. So many people search and never find it. And it takes courage to follow your heart. I enjoyed reading these poems, which I find both thought-provoking and vivid.

  2. Thanks Paul for agreeing to do a guest spot! Your poems truly evoke Prague for me. :)

  3. So lovely, Paul. The poems as well as your journey. That your name is on that wall too. (You MUST find out more about him!) I love the way you put it too--this new way of looking at the old world. Perfect. And how perfectly poetic that it was your heart that led you where you are, right? Sigh.