Saturday, September 23, 2006


Don't think I have a collection of them. I only have the four clay pots and some hens and chicks; but the vegetation involved suffices to astound me.

The first little cactus looks like it has a mind to grow itself a piece of raw mutton; it is red tending to violet, fat, and very comparable to a job terribly botched; this wonder of nature is, honestly put, a little loathsome.

The second cactus decided to adopt a shape that seems to have come out of a tinsmith's fantasy. It must be doing this intentionally; it looks like a some sort of manufactured good.

The third one is made up of pretty little fat purple and green sabers with a clear eye towards stylization; the whole thing, though, is speckled with some sort of tropical rash that looks like thick, white, mildewy pustules. It seems to not be contagious, at least.

You should see the fourth monster grow. This hair comes up first, a little star comes out of that, and a green tassel sprouts under the star. Finally the whole thing turns into this horned ball thickly set with prickly stars. I cannot begin to imagine what will happen next.

The strangest of all, though, are the ordinary hens and chicks. I set the first one down and ignored it; let it show me what it could do. Well, it does something interesting; wherever the fancy strikes it--in its armpit, round the back, on its head--it throws out a green leafy head. This breaks open, rolls into the clay, sends out a rootlet and grows like crazy.

I can't even imagine what I would do if a child started to grow in my armpit or on my breast or on the back of my neck. Some hens have twenty chicks on themselves; that's an outbreak of fertility; it is motherhood completely unleashed.

--from Philemon or On Gardening, Karel Čapek

The final verb has the sense of "all hell breaking loose, I get the sense, but am unsure how to render it further. Apparently hens and chicks (genus Sempervivum--I mean to get some for the side of the house) are more succinctly called houseleeks, but that's nothing I've ever heard, and I don't care to use it. Part of me assumes Čapek was actually basing these on real cacti, and I'm tempted to poke around some pictures looking for what these might be based on. My mother's got all the good cactus books, though.

Comments, again, are welcome. There's three parts left to Philemon; I hope to get to one a day through Tuesday.


Anonymous said...

well, this is a very fluid read so far. Cheers. I don't know specifically yet what else to say, I've read some rather lackluster Capek translations, and this ain't bad at all.

- Jesse

The Earthtopus said...

Much obliged. I've been slightly more willing than usual to sacrifice literality in terms of flow. And these are cute l'il nuggets of fun, which I hope is getting through to some extent.

Anonymous said...

Oh, it most certainly is. These are obviously very playful.

- J