Kafka at Brescia, 1909
by Estill Pollock

Last days of empire, the Old Guard
Still blanking lawyer Jews, lucky breaks more hens-teeth than career
He settles instead to a clerk’s routine, insurance reports
And a nagging cough, cold sweats into summer— on doctor’s orders
Eight days’ leave

From Prague, a fading dream of night cafes and brothels
Now, Baedeker in hand, south to Riva and Lake Garda, sinecure
Of Belle Époque and Austro-Hungarian milieu— he wakes

The lazy veranda, a floppy hat for shade, the little boat
Rigged to sail, sightseeing the Castle, a quietude of lizards
Jewel-like in the sun— he hangs on the vendor’s call
The headline, La Prima Giornata del Circuito Aereo

Lake steamer to Desenzano, the train to Brescia
And plains of Montichiari— heat, horse-cabs, carts
And cars, sardine trams and people massed in open fields
In the distance the hangers, newly made, beneath
The word the Age invented— Aerodrome

A rising wind chafes, the sprocketed contraptions sheeted
Against dust, crowds restless for the flying, but only
Blériot in the air, or Curtiss in his Racer

In the restaurant tent, Puccini
Holding court, fingers jabbing air when asked about Wagner

The poet d’Annunzio, white suit
A pennant, posing for Kodaks against machines
Delicate as wishes

Later, returned to Garda, his snaffle notes now
Punchy reportage published in Bohemia
He complains to friends, The editors have cut it by half

His friends, gently— You wrote
Of the innkeeper’s malice, the filthy room
And bedbugs crawling behind pictures of Saints

Of the stink of the crowds, and your preference for vegetables
To plates of grey beef, of Italians, shouting
As though their feet were on fire
Just ordering coffee

Of Puccini, nose like a rotten beet

And, more gently still— You wrote of Rougier
His aeroplane like a threshing machine churning
Chaff off a barn floor, his pretty wife
Blowing kisses as he moved forward, waving madly
As the Voisin rose into the evening light
Like a soul leaving the body

You wrote that picnic days
Will end, these puttering box kites
Bowing to grudges, gunfire rattling cloud to cloud 
Across the Balkan skies, cunning as a poet’s rhyme, all
Symbols of a storm to come

But shall we abandon our homes, our dead
And our Gods, to listen for the future
As for distant thunder

As your friends, we say, what they cut
Was prissy Franz, what they kept, was Kafka

What you write is what you feel or fear, but
It is 1909— we are modern, and transcend
The maps of earth, the lodestone empires
A fading consequence of all they were

Now, richer seeds are sown

In ten years we will laugh, thinking
We led ourselves a merry dance, fools that
We could learn to read the wind 

Estill Pollock’s publications include the book cycles, Blackwater Quartet¬†and Relic Environments Trilogy. A new collection, Entropy, has just been released in the U.S., Autumn 2021. Archives of and links to the work of Estill Pollock can be found here. He lives in England.

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