Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická are the recipients of a 2015 Heim/PEN Translaion Fund Grant for their translation of The Absolute Gravedigger, a collection of poems by Vítězslav Nezval, a leading poet of Czech surrealism. Nezval’s poems not only highlight Prague as the twin capital of surrealism with Paris, but are also a dark and prescient avant-garde document of Europe in crisis. Read Delbos and Novická’s essay on translating The Absolute Gravedigger here. 

from Bizarre Town


Under the slender Gothic arch
Of a water tower
A beardless young man
Lamp in hand
In his vaulted chest
A bell
When he coughs
The bell rings
And in the town
In one fell swoop
All the windows


From dormer windows
Tilted upward
Toward the west
Long and beautiful hands
In white gloves
Bedecked with
Diamond jewels
Rained on


In the fountain
Amid the square
A diver
For yesterday’s sunset


A knight
In asbestos armor
Over a short oak log
Splits the wood
And throws it
Into a well
From which rises
Bluish smoke


The Swarm
On a sleeping woman’s face
Settled a swarm
Not changing place
And perfectly calm
She lies still as if in a trance
With larva on her brow
Which changes her countenance
Until it resembles a pillow
On her head like a cover
As sleep locks her tight
Disturbed only by the dam’s roar
And the reflection of twilight
The writhing larva pile
Grows stiff wrinkling
Its color meanwhile
Before the sun sinking

Can gild its blackened beauty
With the light that fails
Resembles remarkably
A black veil

On a pretty young lass
Who died with a lurch
In a carnival mask
On her way home from church

This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.

The Absolute Gravedigger is forthcoming from Twisted Spoon Press. 

Vítězslav Nezval (1900-1958) was perhaps the most prolific writer in Prague during the 1920s and ’30s. An original member of the avant-garde group of artists Devetsil (Nine Forces), he was a founding figure of the Poetist movement. His output consists of a number of poetry collections, experimental plays and novels, memoirs, essays, and translations. Nezval frequently traveled to Paris, engaging with the French surrealists. Forging a friendship with André Breton and Paul Eluard, he was instrumental in founding The Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934.

Tereza Novická, a native of San Francisco, moved to the Czech Republic in 2000. Currently a student in the American Literature graduate program at Charles University in Prague, she also serves as assistant director for the annual Prague Microfestival. She has translated a number of Czech and Slovak poets into English, including Ondřej Buddeus, Jan Těsnohlídek, Sylva Fischerová, Lenka Daňhelová, Martin Skýpala, Vlado Šimek, and Pavel Novotný.

Stephan Delbos is a New England-born writer living in Prague, where he teaches at Charles University and Anglo-American University. His poetry, essays, and translations have been published internationally. He is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). His collection of visual poems, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” was exhibited at Prague’s ArtSpace Gallery in 2012. His play, Chetty’s Lullaby, about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, was produced in San Francisco. He is a founding editor of B O D Y.