Intimate Letters

The last string quartet

(Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová)

She reads romances, she spells poorly, she’s full-breasted,   
broad in the beam, matron in a cloche hat,
bulky knee-length skirt, apron, thick calves, white stockings, Mary Janes.

Her heels go click click on the pavement.
She has those dark Gypsy eyes and the wide laugh.
He loves it when she tosses her head like that.
And here she is in long skirt and embroidered blouse, posing   
by her dwarf ornamental orange tree on the balcony:
high pale forehead, stacked dark hair, heavy jaw, bust cleaving forward like a prow.   
And here she is on holiday with her husband the businessman the perpetual traveller   
with the commanding walk and striped tie and blunt mustache.

“Two decidedly Jewish types,” writes Zdenka Janáčková, J’s wife:

they send her, in the last year of the war,   
bread, butter, eggs, semolina flour, geese   
from the husband’s military contacts.


“My dear dark dove,” J calls Kamila, “My little one.”   


He has taken dictation from every fountain in Hukvaldy,   
where he was born to endless mumbled rosaries of water.   
He notes the gush and prattle of the Fox’s Well
as the beech tree flashes its sleight of leaf, and fox kits hide in the rocks;   
the public fountain, “a fine of ten crowns
on those who fail to replace the cover”:
and when the cover is replaced
the fountain closes her eyes;
the castle fountain, handsome, broad and brimming, but scuttled into pipes
for manor farm, brewery and slaughterhouse
where the stream blurts out in blood;
and the little well hidden through tall grass at Kazničov,   
springing up through the roots of three lime trees, “Helisov’s Well,”
chants the little girl, and he notes that too, the quavering fall   
of the name; and watches water bugs skitter
and green moss, darkling, at the bottom, and shards of sky.   


Bread, butter, eggs, semolina flour, geese.
Kamila knows nothing of music, she worries about her dress   
for the première of Jenůfa in Vienna.
She has two little boys, Rudi and Otto.
Otto the baby swims on her hand
and she leans over him, soft as night, one eyebrow tilted up   
as at a dream of which she is hardly aware.   


“She was of medium height, dark, curly-haired like a Gypsy woman,”   
writes Zdenka, “with great, black bulging eyes.
The voice was unpleasant, shrill.”   


—That once again he saw “her raven hair, all loose,”
and she was barefoot in the house
and she climbed a ladder to pick apricots from the tree   
and she refused the gift of the knitted silver bag
“And your eye has a strange depth, it’s so deep it doesn’t shine.”   


Night leans hugely.
He sleeps alone, in his study, upstairs at the Organ School.   
Zdenka sleeps in their villa across the yard.   


He who had scrawled
on his cuffs, on envelope scraps, on market paper, in his little pad,   
robins’ trills, girls’ chatter at the railway station,

fox bark, thrush whistle, hen cackle,
kitten mew, bee hum, “the chord of stalagmites covered with hoarfrost,”   
the airy, bell-like patter of fountain spray,

    in a notebook
    years before Kamila
    in a notebook
    2 A.M. 24 February 1903

    his daughter’s dying   
    dying, age 21—
    in a notebook—

    “Now I remember that I’m supposed to die”
    (a little string of quarter notes, B and middle C)—
    “What walks we took on the corso”—“We
    should say so much—”

    He tells her,
    “You are the most beautiful among them,” and she smiles,   

    in his notebook she smiles.
    And, down to a G,

    “Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.”

    In a notebook—
    2:45 A.M. 25 February 1903, Olga,
    her light hair spread across the pillow,


    “A-y-a,” two drawn out B’s, scrupulously noted by her father,   
    and in the margin,

    “God be with you, my soul.”   


What can be assimilated into song?   


The rivers of Lachia: the River Lubina
falls from a ridge of the Radhošť Mountain
into an abyss, to seethe of silver, crash of dark;
the Ondřejnice dabbles through the village of Mĕrkovice,
past mossy banks, shallow, beery-blonde, tepid, where goslings swim
dunking for weeds and bugs; and the River Ostravice   
is the color of steel, and smites the wrist with cold:

and all the Lachian rivers run
through cello depths, horn hurtle, foam-spray of glockenspiel,   
clash of cymbals at the smoky inn
where Sofie Harabisová flies from arm to arm
in the glare, smoke, sweat and stamp of feet:

“Where is the poet Šťastný or Professor Batĕk or Mrs. Marie Jungova now?
Gone, all gone, those who took part
that wild summer night, forty-five years ago!”   


Kamila reads romances.

“There’s no love just innocent   
friendship. My husband’s   
away all the time he’s always   
got things to do.”   


“Your raven hair—
I write these lines so they’ll be read, and yet unread   
because unanswered.
So it’s like a stone falling into water—”

“You’re the star I look for in evening—”   
“I was your shadow—”   
“Even thoughts become flesh—”

in the fountain bubbling up among the lime tree roots,   
mumbling its prayers over and over, tonguing the stones.   


Now after the war, no need
for bread, butter, eggs, semolina flour, geese delivered   
by special connection
and Czechoslovakia is free in the Sinfonietta, in the razzle of brass:

“I’m really
an ordinary woman Your heart would stop   
aching if you saw me more.”

There’s Rudi, there’s Otto,
and her husband always dealing in his antiques.

No we cannot attend the première in Prague no we cannot.   
Now after the war.

For that cold: boil three onions with marjoram and lemon peel   
and drink it like tea with sugar.

Your raven hair.
I was your shadow, when you reached for the apricots.   


Gut scrapings: the bow scrapes sunlight from that summer day at the spa at Luhačovice   
where she sat on the grass “like an exhausted little bird”:

“Dear Madam, Accept these few roses as a token”

where she sat on the grass, scrape sunlight   
from the inner petals, scrape the dark from   
her pupil, so deep it doesn’t shine.


“Silence goes to sleep under every tree.”   
Under the tilt of her shadowed brow.   
His baby son died those years ago

                                                      and Olga’s hair   
spreads wide across the pillow where she sighs.

He sleeps alone   
it’s like a stone   


bee swarms,
gut scraping, fracture, a waltz
falters, the schmaltzy tune with raven hair   
whispers, breaks off, and the hand she lets him   
touch, for the first time, she does not draw away   
the first time, “your little hand,”
in eleven years, under the linden boughs.

“That dark Jewess,” writes Zdenka, “I rather   
liked her at first, but I held my position.   
You know how artists are. They have to be   
handled. I would not                                    
                                                                let him go.”   


“These letters were written in fire.”

Zdenka must   
                                    Kamila is

the Gypsy girl, Káťa Kabanová, the Vixen, Aljeja,
the little hidden well by the lime trees at Kazničov,   
the military fanfare on the promenade,
trumpet, oboe, piccolo squeal
when the Austrians march out, the Empire crashes, and the country is,   
like the high-wire flute notes, finally, free.

Zdenka must acknowledge this:   
          These letters
                     were written in fire.   


By now Kamila’s boys have been stuffed into trousers, stiff collars, and neckties.   
They’ve grown leggy, their faces are plump.
It’s a question of tempi slightly retarded, a vertigo   
the viola suffers, following the violins.
Silence goes to sleep under every tree.
The cello drags
gusts of confetti, repetition, emotion is all


pulled by twisted horsehair   
out of gut.

My dear dark dove, a form of mourning,
that too is a form   
of repetition.

Why don’t you write.

So when, those last days, she has come   
at last, with little Otto, respectably
to visit the upstairs room he has built and furnished for her
in his summer cottage in Hukvaldy,

furnished according to his dream—
“I want to have the painting of those two cherubs, a writing desk, a communal table,
a comfortable bed, perhaps of brass, a wardrobe with mirrored doors, a marble wash-stand,
and four chairs, each from a different part of the world—”   

   (the question is, what can be assimilated   
   into song)

she peels oranges, makes tea,
they shop in the market and play and walk
and August 8, on the walk up the Babí hůra Hill, Otto gets lost in the woods and ravines—

Something gets lost so well, no one can find it—

and Leoš seeks and seeks the child in drenching rain   
as if searching for his own
in the woods and ravines
under the wing of her darkly tilting brow

and returns   

In a notebook no one writes, no one scores his cough.   
10 August 1928 J consents to go   
to the hospital in Ostrava


      What walks we took on the corso   
             Something gets lost so well   
      So it’s like a stone

      Silence goes to sleep under every tree   
             I was your shadow   
      I burned your letters but I keep                  

                                                                        the ash

No one scored the sleep rattle in Ostrava
12 August 10 A.M. Sunday Kamila at his side,

a heavy woman who spells poorly, broad in the beam,   
with thick knees and white stockings,
who reads romances,
who will die of cancer
seven years later
at 43
and be buried in the Jewish cemetery in Písek.

       “And I kissed you
       And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace   
       In such a way do the days pass for the angels.”

No one scored the sleep rattle Sunday 12 August.   
Only then, by his order,

is told
and arrives by train.

                                    These letters were written in fire.


The title comes from one of Janáček’s last works, the String Quartet Number 2 (1928). The poem quotes extensively from, and rearranges, sentences in the correspondence of the composer Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman whom he met at the Moravian spa town of Luhačovice in 1917. Janáček was sixty-three when they met, Kamila Stösslová twenty-five. She was a conventional young woman, poorly educated, and fully (and, it appears happily) occupied in her marriage to David Stössel, a dealer in antiques and paintings. The couple had two boys, Rudolf (born 1913) and Otto (born 1916). Janáček, who had been estranged from his wife, Zdenka Janáčková, for many years, though they still lived together in the city of Brno, became enamored of Kamila. For the last eleven years of his life, she was his muse and his passion, inspiring many of his late works. As the letters show, this love developed mainly through distance and separation, as Mrs. Stösslová stayed loyal to her husband and would permit no physical impropriety, though she and her husband did occasionally visit the Janáčeks, and though Janáček did visit them, off and on, in the town of Písek where they lived. In the last few days of the composer’s life, Kamila finally came to spend a few days with him in his summer cottage in his boyhood village, Hukvaldy, with her son Otto. It was there that Janáček caught the pneumonia that killed him.
The story is told through the selection of letters, Intimate Letters, beautifully edited and translated by John Tyrrell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). The lines I have quoted come from that book and also from Janáček: Leaves from His Life, edited and translated by Vilem and Margaret Tausky (New York: Taplinger, 1982), and from Leos Janáček by Ian Horsbrugh (New York: Scribners, 1981). Zdenka Janáčková, Janáček’s widow, gives her own version of the story in My Life with Janáček, edited and translated by John Tyrrell (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1998).
Janáček used to jot down words he heard in conversation, and set them to music. I have tried to arrange the words of Janáček and Mrs. Stösslová as a kind of poetic score, responsive to qualities I hear in the string quartet he wrote for her.
I have abbreviated book titles as follows: Intimate Letters as IL, Janáček: Leaves from His Life as Leaves; and Leoš Janáček as LJ.

“when she tosses her head like that ...” IL 134.
“Two decidedly Jewish types ...” IL 7.
“a fine of ten crowns ...” Leaves 66.
“She was of medium height ...” IL 7.
“her raven hair, all loose ...” IL 48
“And your eye has a strange depth ...” IL 48.
“the chord of stalagmites covered with hoarfrost ...” Leaves 70.
Olga’s dying words are transcribed from Janáček’s notebook page, reproduced in LJ 52.
“The rivers of Lachia ...” Leaves 30.
“Where is the poet � ťastný ...” Leaves 30.
“So it’s like a stone falling into water ...” IL 23.
“You’re the star I look for in the evening ...” IL 39.
“There’s no love just innocent friendship ...” IL 39.
“I was your shadow ...” IL 103.
“Even thoughts become flesh ...” IL 104.
“I’m really an ordinary woman ...” IL 50.
“For that cold ...” IL 164.
“like an exhausted little bird ...” IL 3.
“Dear Madam, Accept these few roses ...” IL 3.
“Silence goes to sleep under every tree ...” IL 22.
“your little hand ...” IL 127.
“... were written in fire ...” IL 282.
“Zdenka must understand ...” adapted from the letter of June 8, 1927, IL 121.
“I want to have the painting ...” IL 225.
“And I kissed you ...” Janáček’s last entry in the album he shared with Kamila, a day or so before his death. IL 344.

Rosanna Warren, "Intimate Letters" from Departure. Copyright © 2003 by Rosanna Warren. Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Source: Departure (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2003)
More Poems by Rosanna Warren