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Review: Six Czech Poets, ed. Alexandra Büchler

Six Czech Poets is conceived as a 'poems after': after 1989, and after the period in which British interest in Czech poetry was guaranteed by political circumstance. All of these poets were published either first, or for the first time since the 1960s, in the years after 1989. The collection makes no claim to offer a cross-section of current Czech poetry, though it does represent the strange literary environment of the 1990s, in which new writing, works which had only been printed abroad, and works which had been mouldering in desk drawers for anything up to forty years suddenly found themselves contemporaries.

The selected poets fall naturally into three generational pairs, and it is unsurprisingly the poets who were writing before 1989 who show the most acute sense of time disrupted. Zbynek Hejda and Viola Fischerova were born a decade after Holub and have long writing careers, though neither could publish officially in Czechoslovakia between 1970 and 1990. There are manifest differences of style, but one thing they share is a mistrust of conventional marking of time. The volume opens with Hejda's short, inconclusive pieces, full of the imagery of boundaries: bridges, doorways, dawn and dusk. The poems describe impossible encounters with the loved dead, interspersed with prose dream narratives. In one of the several poems entitled Dream, the speaker claims to live on the boundary of the outside and inside. Fischerova's poems, untitled and spare, also speak of hiatus and disrupted time: many depict claustrophobic relationships between women of different generations. An emigree of 1968 who returned in the 1990s, Fischerova rhymes nyní (now) with není (is not), and the first poem ends with the words Zádné příští (James Naughton's translation has 'no oncoming', though 'no next' might be better); a later poem declares For me from the future there gapes / only what has passed. One of Hejda's untitled prose dream pieces epitomizes the sense of aborted future. The speaker is crossing a bridge (as translated by Bernard O'Donoghue):

The thing was that I had stopped in the middle of the bridge... Now I am sitting here, and I know I have to go on to the end, but I am not moving... If I don't stand up and go on, I will slide down into the water... I know I have to get to the end... And I just keep sitting there.

The reluctant Sisyphus refuses to be before or after.

Petr Halmay and Pavel Kolmacka are of the middle generation, born respectively in 1958 and 1962, and - coincidentally? - represent the least interesting writing gathered here. Halmay's poems gathered here, dating from 2004 and thus relatively unmarked by considerations of historical interruptions, court more significance than they will bear. He repeatedly resorts to ellipsis and exclamation marks, even '?!' and '!?', as if doubting the impact of his language without diacritical directions to the reader. Alexandra Buchler's translations try to compensate by altering the punctuation and padding out some lines for tone. Kolmacka's brief descriptive poems at first look slight, but later on disclose insinuating symbolism and patterns of sound. Kolmacka, like Holub, Fischerova, and Hejda, reflects the bathos of the 1990s, asking What kind of dream have we awoken from? ... / What kind of dream have we found ourselves in? Several poems are poised between nostalgia and desire, and like Hejda's, frequently set at twilight or dawn. Of ten poems, four contain the word 'dusk' (in translation: Kolmacka's vocabulary is more varied), one a day drawing to an end, and one - the last - the phrase 'in the sight of morning' (my translation), a rare moment of tentative optimism. Either Kolmacka or Buchler, editor as well as translator, has a taste for the crepuscular.

Of all the poets here, only Katerina Rudcenkova (born 1976) is seemingly free of the compulsion, internal or external, to relate her poems to a sense of 'before' and 'after'. A volume of poems published in 2004 - her precocious third - was entitled Popel a slast I Ashes and Pleasure (also the title of a poem printed here), and the traditional topics of death and desire are subjected to an oblique gaze which preserves the poems from the pompousness such a title might suggest. Rudcenkova introduces a sexuality which is impassioned but not, thankfully, confessional.

Only one of Rudcenkova's poems suggests an engagement with the problems of time so rife elsewhere. Movement, Hardness opens Of late, you do not witness / rapid changes, / only minor shifts. The sense of a move away from a history of repeated 'prelomy' to some more gradual model of change is shared by Petr Borkovec (born 1970), the most formally sophisticated and assured of the poets under consideration. His poems, which dwell on close interiors or describe in slow detail movement and change in nature, are more linguistically daring than Holub's or any others in this volume, his lexis more various and redolent. As a result of his investment in sound - one of the poems is entitled Sonograph - Borkovec presents the most difficult task for the translator, and Justin Quinn's translations, though frequently ingenious, do not fully reveal how good the originals are.

In an interview with Quinn in 2002, Borkovec discussed the impact of the fall of Communism on Czech poetry. Usually, he commented, poetic language reflects with lightning speed the tiniest changes in the world, and, at the same time, tradition puts the brakes on that process of reflection. For Czech poetry, however, the ruptures of the preceding fifty years meant that the brake mechanisms had been damaged. In an effort to restore them, Borkovec called for a turn to conservatism, epigonism, and more ornament. An epigone - etymologically one born afterwards - is for Borkovec a positive model for being 'after', representing a responsible recognition of the debt to tradition and an attempt to forge continuity out of rupture. Uniquely among the poets here, Borkovec makes time and change an issue of form, as well as of the 'extra-literary' function of poetry, explored through rhyme and half-rhyme, assonance and alliteration, repetition and alternation. Borkovec described his poem Snow general on outlying fields as a poem about changes which aren't real changes. In the other poets represented here this would be another utterance of the disappointed Sisyphus. For Borkovec, however, a more positive construction is possible: these are changes which make alterations, but leave the past intact. Movement in Borkovec is rarely sudden. His favoured terms are 'wavering', 'flowing', 'swaying' (again, Borkovec's own vocabulary is much wider than the repetitive translations). The poem Pine provides the most abrupt change: Thaw. Snow leaps off needles. Unlike Holub's harnessed cork, this is a celebratory moment which cannot rebound. The poems by Borkovec and Rudcenkova gathered here suggest that more recent Czech poetry may be finding new ways of handling change, new ways of being 'after'.