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Madeleine

Madeleine

A poem written and read by diplomat and Václav Havel biographer Michael Žantovský following the funeral of his friend Madeleine Albright at Washington National Cathedral.

Michael Žantovský

She was she told me a proper English schoolgirl,
though born in Prague and weaned off south, in Belgrade,
hiding from Hitler’s bombs in a Kensington Park Rd. basement,
not really knowing they were meant for her,
an unsuspecting Jewish girl
from a faraway country of which it was known nothing,
the country lost, and freed, and lost again,
its freedom lost and found, and lost again. They fled.
“For us, like any other fugitive,”
the poet said, “it is today in which we live.”

She became a refugee on Long Island
and teenager in Denver, proper again, how else,
wishing, as all refugees do, to belong.
She started clubs and groups, a family, a home,
and hosted parties, raised funds and daughters,
and acted proper and was content to stay silent
until she lost it one more time,
and had to start from scratch; but before long
she found a bridge across the troubled waters.
Her loyalty grew out of being exiled,
her strength out of being left alone.

So she went public, never to be alone again,
went back to school, reading Locke and Hobbes and Plato
and her own dad, some Henry, mostly Zbig,
taught through the years and traveled through the summers
and learned to fight and learned to speak in pins
and worked and studied till she made it big,
till she was poised to help enlarging NATO.
She knew defeat but scored some major wins,
Democrat to the core yet open to all comers
for who else could charm both Jesse Helms and John McCain?

With freedom she went back to the city she was born in,
looked for family graves, those that were not just airborne ashes,
and spoke Czech again, though she received no warning
she would be wined and dined by true or sycophantic
friends, treated at times like queen, at times like some difficult auntie,
and fell in love with Havel, the roasted duck, the spires,
kept safely away from our domestic clashes,
and humored all, the foes and the admirers,
made Bill Clinton play My Funny Valentine on sax
and made me put on my threadbare wedding tux.

Proper most of the time, decent always,
but tough as nails, a Calamity Jane
siding with those oppressed, betrayed, and women,
not to be lured by populistic sirens
easily smelling the lack of cojones in tyrants
and lies in diplomats and politicians of both sexes,
including some of those she used to call her “exes.”
And though she surely made for herself a name,
she was never carried away by hallowed hallways
but lit them up to push against the dark,
knowing that a lived life is the only life worth living
And as all those who have left their mark
was hated by some and loved by many,
a teacher, a friend, a policy wonk, a granny.

Michael Žantovský is executive director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague. He is former spokesman for President Václav Havel, and served as Czech ambassador to the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom.


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Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team