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Review: Six Czech Poets, ed. Alexandra Büchler

The diffusion of foreign literatures in English translation often depends on two factors: the engagement of a good translator with a particular language or writer, and powerful advocacy by an English-language author. The Czech poet Miroslav Holub has had several translators, and under the spotlight of attention from Ted Hughes, then Seamus Heaney and latterly Tom Paulin, has been the pre-eminent Czech poet in English.

Literary translation, especially of poetry, will always be a matter of affinities and thus of choices that give us a partial or oblique view: as if Carol Ann Duffy and Sean O'Brien were to go untranslated into Czech, while Denise Riley and Richard Price were taken up with enthusiasm. Alexandra Büchler, in her instructive forward to Six Czech Poets, maintains that Holub is by no means representative of Czech poetry, and that the qualities that appealed to translators and Anglophone readers were exactly those which distinguished him from his contemporaries and successors: astringency, coolness, 'the brain beneath the skull'.
In contrast, Büchler looks to the Czech poetry that takes its bearings from symbolism, surrealism, the avant garde of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as folk tradition. It is, of course, a broken line: two generations are represented in this book, one unable to participate in public literary life before or after 1968, and one that began publishing towards the end of the century.

Zbyněk Hejda (b. 1930) and Viola Fischerová (b. 1935) were published in samizdat editions or not at all until after the Velvet Revolution. Their poems issue from dreams and the deep subconscious; often painfully hauled into the light of language, occasionally to comic effect... Hejda's prose poems are often reminiscent of some Czech novels in their sexual candour and surreal situations, As if piled onto a cart/ we are lurching towards love-making. Could that be the right translation, though: 'piled onto a cart' suggests dead bodies; is the destination supposed to be a surprise? Did he mean 'as if we'd piled into a cart' thus allowing the lovers to have taken an active part in the decision, even if it were now carrying them somewhere other than they had expected? There are quite a few of these hesitancies when reading. The translator's desire to clarify is often at war with the poet's intention to complicate, and it is right that the translator should lose this battle, but the price may be an uncertainty in the reader that is not always warranted by the original.

Many poems in this anthology are centred on the family: on dreams or images of dead parents, especially; on the traces of living children, too. In a poem by Pavel Kolmačka (b. 1962), this domesticity is contented... For Fischerová, the circle has another meaning... Anxiety is also the note struck by Kateřina Rudčenková (b. 1976), or rather, unease: nothing lasts, nothing sustains, sexual encounters least of all. Nature offers little solace, more often blood traces, effacement. Rudčenková is also a dramatist, and her poems take the form of brief scenes or monologues, laced with unresolved questions... If these women are restless, then Kolmačka and Petr Halmay (b. 1958) are more meditative, have an eye for precise physical detail within a larger natural world. Their styles and subjects make them the most easily accessible of the group for Anglophone readers... The sixth poet, Petr Borkovec (b. 1970) has published seven collections already, as well as translations from Russian and the classics. Here one senses a complexity of form and subject that repays re-reading, a Rilkean plasticity of language and perception....

We have here such various voices and translators that a short review cannot do them justice. The anthology persuades me that there are six Czech poets who deserve wider publication, wider chance of translation, and the attention of that Anglophone reader, perhaps suggested in Borkovec's poem Mehwa, whose head... bends / over our distance!