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In a follow-up to his grand translation of Beowulf, Heaney brings to English a tiny cycle of Czech love poems made famous by Janacek, who first set them to music in 1919. A classic tale of forbidden love, the poems relate the experiences of a young farm boy who forsakes house and home to run off with an irresistible Gypsy girl. The boy's sexual epiphany, brought on by the girl's seductive manner and sad plight, comes off the page in tight syllabic verse that effectively captures the earthy qualities of his consuming love. Only the diary remains in the end, sole witness to this carpe diem affair, as Johnny follows his Zefka and their newborn son into the forest with the paradoxical farewell: "To find my life, I lose it." Perhaps it was the timeless drama of these slight lines that appealed to Janacek when he first spotted the 23 anonymous poems titled From the Pen of a Self-Taught Man in his local paper in May 1916 (it was not until 1977 that Kalda's authorship came to light); perhaps, too, the lure of a relationship ultimately relegated to the page intrigued this avid letter writer who saved all of his correspondence. We do know that the then, 63-year-old Janacek identified the poems' "Zefka" as one Kamila Stosslova, the muse of his last and wildly prolific years, who was 38 years his junior at the time of their meeting and who never fully returned his obsessive affection. Heaney highlights the fascinating convolutions of the Diary's compositional history in his introduction, adding that his translation was commissioned by the English National Opera and taken on by him as a sort of "experiment" in wedding a singable English version of the poems with Janacek's folk melodies—no small feat.

A delightful little libretto of love at all costs results, bearing a music all its own.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-13923-7
Page count: 48pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2000


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