as i descend through the clouds over rakovnik, i see the beautiful city laid out before me like a banquet of setting suns. the iodine lights of ten thousand streetlamps below me like candles, like the sun shining through bullet holes in a vast steel sheet, like a thousand lonely smokers. i turn from the window and a soft fatigue washes over me. if the plane was suddenly to fail, and all its passengers to die, i think i would be quite content to have the lights of prague be the final thing burnt on my retinas.
the first morning brings fermented cheese, pickled fish and rye bread that smells of an evening spent in a field with a loved one. czech coffee is strong but barely there, a couple inches of malt black liquid, a brief mention of foam, every cup served with a glass of water as if the waiters feel you might need more hydration than the main event provides. but i drink my fill and wash away the taste of vinegar and herring that, while enjoyable, i feel is unnecessary at such an early hour. i pull on my boots, tight fitting but glamorous brown leather, and leave the hotel to a blast of cold air that reminds me i am human.
i fall into the city as one would a lover, an old friend. the cobbled streets and baroque buildings seem instantly familiar after my time spent in eastern europe. like riga and tallinn, the old buildings are preserved with an astonishing level of care and love for the history of the city. but i am not interested in the prague found in lonely planet, or the rabid, seething packs of tourists consuming pilsner at a heroic rate ready to mount an attack on the weekend. i want to see the prague of kafka, the writer whose very ink runs like jet-black blood through the streets. who shaped the narrative of the city and the culture with his surreal and infinite descriptions of life and confusion. whose turmoil and torture led to some of the finest works of literature i have ever read. the prague of kupka, the artist whose work bent and warped alongside the city itself. who woke one morning, not unlike gregor samsa, and decided that life was something else entirely. whose paintings went from stately to thick, bizarre creations dripping with geometric whispers.
i make my way to old town, smoking cheap czech cigarettes on the way. each façade could be lifted from a book on gothic architecture. pristine 15th century buildings house thai massage parlours, irish bars ready to welcome the shifting masses of stag parties nestled in the lower floors of renaissance masterpieces. i feel sad. these buildings deserve more than to be fucked, impregnated by moneymakers and endless tourist traps. they deserve to house swathes of artists lost on opium and the smell of acrylics. or perhaps a feast, or great royal dances. i should like to dance again one day.
a face follows me from my hotel, something not quite there. each time i turn, the features seem to sigh out of existence, a charcoal sketch, a breeze. but she is there (for it is a female, of that i am certain), walking three steps behind me, her scent a whisper, her taste. her taste. i burn for it. but i cannot tell you why. what is infinity? i feel it. her hand in mine. i turn again. nothing. did i sleep? in the shadow of the vast, astronomical clock that haunts the old town square. i feel dull, pushed by a crowd into a small alleyway. there stands a golden statue of the infant jesus. he swims to me then, a silk strand, a brushstroke. i am dreaming. she was there.
suddenly buildings loom above me and enormous, malformed infants crawl punch-drunk, their giant brass palms slapping the earth below. i find myself drunk in a room full of twisted faces. don quixote, a drowning girl, a man braced for the winter. each face warps in its own way, a scream trapped tight behind each set of sculpted lips. in vain i search for comfort among the filing cabinets and pissing copper men of kafka’s mind. i stumble down endless mirrored corridors, see insects the size of a man, lie in a room lit only by the faces of those i have failed.
i eat goose, sausage and dumplings. i eat cabbage cooked in bacon fat, i eat potatoes stained a rich orange by turmeric and smoked paprika. i wash it down with yeasty pilsner, crisp vodka, herby becherovka. but still i think of her. i see her face in every window, in every book, her name, repeated. she is the sky my breath escapes to. the blood running through me. i am haunted. am i going mad? has the city gripped my throat, vicelike, refusing to let go? do i even want its hands to release me? what beautiful suffocation is love. what fingers down my throat. gripping my tongue, running its thumb along my spine. i shiver past brass and gold. past faceless monks and clocks that tell you when you will die. might i die on my knees, the snow falling on to my face as i watch breath leave my lips. i am ill prepared for a night spent searching for someone who is not there. i am ill prepared for love.
and again, what is infinity? can you pull time inside you, softly as you might allow a lover to explore the most holy parts of you? to feel infinity is, i believe, to place your thumbs over the eyes of a ghost. to feel the soft, giving eyeballs below. to have the power to end the sight of another, but instead to feel the flitting, papery wings of their dreams. if this is to be the end of all things then let me hold your body tight against mine, to breath with you, to coat my tongue with starlight.
Stuart Buck (he/him) is a BOTN/BIFFY50 nominated poet and artist living in North Wales. His second book Becoming Something Frail was released to critical acclaim on Selcouth Station Press in 2019. When he is not writing or reading poetry, he likes to cook, juggle and listen to music. He suffers terribly from tsundoku — the art of buying copious amounts of books that he will never read. Tweets @stuartmbuck
Images by Stuart Buck. Digital enhancements and image placement by Robert Frede Kenter.