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Alexandra Büchler, from Six Czech Poets


The present collection is — somewhat surprisingly — the first anthology of Czech poetry to be published in English since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Several anthologies and collections came out in the 1970s and 1980s, most notable among them the Anthology of Czech Poetry edited by Alfred French and published by University of Michigan in 1973.
Despite Jaroslav Seifert's 1984 Nobel Prize, Czech poetry has not achieved the same international recognition as Czech prose with authors like Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, Arnošt Lustig and Bohumil Hrabal. Especially in English-speaking countries, Czech poetry is virtually unknown, or rather it is represented by a single figure, that of Miroslav Holub, the most translated poet of the generation which started publishing in the late 1950s and 1960s and became known in the context of its opposition to the political oppression which followed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.

That Miroslav Holub is by far the most widely-known Czech poet is symptomatic of the ready acceptance of cerebral poetry of linear thought, "universal" ideas and easy-to-decipher allegories on the one hand, and of a reluctance to engage with poetry referring to an unfamiliar cultural and literary context on the other. Even Seifert, whose work received a brief flicker of attention following the Nobel Prize award, did not merit as prominent a place in English-language publishing as Holub, whose work was brought out by Penguin and Faber, and later by Bloodaxe. Seifert's selected poems came out in 1986, thanks to the concentrated effort of his translator Ewald Osers, and were subsequently published in the United States by the now defunct Catbird Press, a small independent publisher specializing in modern Czech literature in translation.

The praise for Holub's work from two of the most respected arbiters of poetic taste in the British Isles holds a key to his popularity: "He is a magnificent, astringent genius and this volume sings with an oblique and cutting candour, a tubular coolness we must praise again and again," states Tom Paulin in a quote displayed on the website of Holub's publisher Bloodaxe. Seamus Heaney's assessment is even more telling: "A laying bare of things, not so much the skull beneath the skin, more the brain beneath the skull; the shape of relationships, politics, history...". In other words, what the English-language literary milieu finds attractive about Holub's poetry is also what makes his work stand in contrast to a strong current in Czech poetry which is far more representative of what is close to the heart of contemporary Czech readers.

This current, however, represented here by the poetry of Zbyněk Hejda and Viola Fischerová, had a subterranean flow and remained mostly hidden until the 1990s, a decade of discoveries for the wider Czech readership, as the work of authors who had previously published only in samizdat, in exile or not at all, appeared for the first time alongside the work of the youngest literary generation. On the whole, the development of post-war Czech literature was to a large extent affected by the way in which public cultural life was distorted by ideological exigencies which condemned important writers and artists to invisibility. Hejda and Fischerová belong to this generation of Czech writers whose literary careers were disrupted by exile, internal or external, and by the process of "normalisation" — one of the absurd terms applied by the ideologues of the post-1968 totalitarian regime to its own repressive measures. Their poetry was discovered alongside the — until then — completely unknown poetic work of other major Czech literary figures, such as the playwright Josef Topol whose poems were only published in 1997, the artist Jiří Kolář who had been living in exile in France, or their contemporary Ivan Blatný, who emigrated to England in 1948 where he continued writing poetry until his death in 1990.

The work of these poets has it sources in the poetry of turn-of-the-century symbolism, surrealism and avant-garde movements of the twenties, thirties and forties, as well as in the Czech oral folk traditions. Above all, it has its roots in two key works of the nineteenth century which still exert an influence on Czech poetry and on the collective consciousness. One is the celebrated romantic epic Máj (May) by Karel Hynek Mácha, with its unrivalled use of the sound qualities and melody of the Czech language. The other is Jaromír Erben's Kytice (Bouquet, or Garland), a collection of Czech folk tales and legends in verse which deal as much with human relationships and the ancient social laws governing them as with the complex interaction between Christianity and pagan traditions and beliefs.

Zbyněk Hejda and Viola Fischerová, then, belong to the generation which first appeared on the literary scene in the post-war period and which later faced the dilemma of choosing between dissent or emigration, which in both cases meant a silencing, a distancing from their readership, a waste of creative life. To some extent, Zbyněk Hejda's story reads like the story of so many of his contemporaries. Born in 1930, his first collection Všechna slast (All the Pleasure), offered for publication in 1958, was rejected by several publishers on ideological grounds and was finally published in 1964, together with his second collection which had, in the meantime, been completed and brought out in a limited edition a year earlier. His third collection, Blízkost smrti (The Closeness of Death) was typeset in 1970 but was not published until it appeared in 1979 in samizdat. Hejda's work was finally published in a complete edition in the 1990s, when it brought him general acclaim and made him one of the most popular Czech poets.

What Hejda and Fischerová share is the autobiographical nature of their poetry which, in Hejda's case, crosses over into the territory of an intensely personal, confessional document, a record of events lived, imagined and dreamt, events often charged with a powerful sexual directness. The body of Eros is always entwined with the body of Thanatos, everything is a memento mori, a reminder of the ephemeral nature of all things, of the constant presence of those absent and lost. Records of dreams and visions, narrative poems reminiscent of folk tales about the dead rising to claim the living, all point to a rootedness in the oral traditions of village and city folk legends on the one hand, and in the surrealism of the pre-war avant-garde on the other.

As the critic Sergej Machonin stated in his afterword to Hejda's collected poems published in samizdat in 1979: "There are poets of light, poets who nurture, poets who follow the current of life, poets of bitter-sweet nostalgia, of divine playfulness... and there are poets cocooned in darkness, fed by the relentless awareness of death, by the anguish of being, by the terror of impermanence." They are, as it were, the poets whose poetry bares the bone and skull (rather than the brain beneath it, as Seamus Heaney would have it) and gives expression of unredeemable anguish caused by "millstones of the soul" as Hejda puts it in one of his poems.

Viola Fischerová's literary career was also interrupted for decades when she went into exile in 1968. She returned to her home-land in the 1990s and achieved immediate recognition with her collections published in rapid succession, as if making up for the long years of isolation from the Czech literary milieu. Her poetry speaks from an intensely personal, woman's point of view, and arguably her most outstanding collection Babí hodina (Hag's Hour), published in 1994, is a powerful existential meditation on the indignity of old age, its unredeemable process of physical and mental deterioration ultimately ending in the "darkness" of nothingness. Reminiscent of another well-known cycle on the same subject, Frantisek Halas' Staré ženy (Old Women), it is distinguished by a quality of raw directness, while its poetics sometimes point to the oral tradition of dark folk legends. In one of the most compelling and memorable poems from this collection dealing with the taboo subject of incest, the victims are redeemed by their own love and need for love and, as in a folk legend, their severed heads grow back and their broken hearts become whole again.

Kateřina Rudčenková, whose generation knows nothing of the difficulties and obstacles faced by Hejda and Fischerová and their contemporaries, became one of the most acclaimed female poets of the 1990s. She can, in fact, be seen as Fischerová's younger counterpart; her intensely erotic poetry speaks of a young woman's passions and desires, of the frustrations, tensions and disappointments of male-female relationships, as well as of a fear of old age which makes the body a burden rather than a source of pleasure.

Pavel Kolmačka and Petr Halmay both made a mark on the Czech literary scene of the 1990s despite their relatively modest output. Kolmačka's second and, to date, his last, collection came out in 1998, and although his work is mainly considered in the context of Czech Catholic poetry, the immediacy of its existential quest and its child-like vision places it in a category of its own, as does Halmay's delicate lyricism and exploration of the fleeting revelatory moments of everyday life.

Petr Borkovec's debut collection in 1990 was followed by seven books, several of which have been translated into other languages, making him the best-known contemporary Czech poet abroad. His poetry, subtle and formally refined, complex and demanding, represents an accomplished, mature oeuvre despite the fact that Borkovec is not yet forty. A translator, editor of two literary journals, teacher of creative writing and active organiser of poetry encounters, Borkovec is influential in the Czech literary scene in many different ways; his work, in turn, owes a debt not only to earlier Czech poetry of the first half of the twentieth century but also to the Russian poets of the same period that he has translated. And it is with poets like Borkovec, and his elder peers, Hejda and Fischerová, that we are reminded again of the key role translation plays in the development of a literary milieu and of the work of individual poets.

Publication of literature — and especially of poetry in translation — depends largely on the dedication and commitment of translators, and we should not forget to mention the ambassadors of Czech poetry in English-speaking countries, translators of a generation most active between the 1960s and late 1980s — Jarmila and Ian Milner, George Theiner and Ewald Osers. While their prolific translations did not always do full justice to the originals, they made a systematic effort to introduce Czech poetry to English readers in literary magazines and books. This generation of translators has regrettably not been replaced by an equally active younger group. Today, translators of Czech poetry include the academic James Naughton and poets Justin Quinn and Matthew Sweeney, who have concentrated on translating the work of a few selected Czech poets with the required linguistic knowledge, passion and dedication. We can only hope that their fine work may inspire a new generation of translators who will continue to broaden the notion of what may also constitute poetry for English-language readers.

© Alexandra Büchler