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Review: Six Czech Poets, ed. Alexandra Büchler

Six Czech Poets is the third anthology from ArcPublications in its 'New Voices from Europe & Beyond ' series. This bilingual edition offers a range, both in the styles and the ages of its writers. The order in which the poets are presented appears idiosyncratic, not being based upon birthdate or alphabet, though the anthology does not feel randomly composed, and moves comfortably through the different aesthetics of the poets it contains.

It opens with the work of Zbynìk Hejda, widely recognised as one of the most important Czech poets since World War II. One can see why. In the poem, 'A Dream ', Hejda 's speaker says, ''I live on the boundary of the outside and the inside.' I recognise immediately that this is not quite right and I start correcting myself.' Nothing I could say would encapsulate Hejda 's work so well. His poems are fantastic and visionary (several are titled 'Dream '), yet maintain a close personal intimacy, engaged with reality.It is the dream quality that is represented by the poet 's claim to correct himself, rewriting experience as it happens, conflating the illusion with lived experience. It is haunting work built upon landscapes, some part of the surface of which gets scratched away, leaving a view, to paraphrase the author, right down to the bone, the death.

Viola Fischerová also exposes the bone behind the painted scenery. But Fischerová 's poems are filled with more ready-made symbolisms, the stuff of fairytales and fables that cuts to hopes and fears harbored since childhood. When stood against Hejda 's work, it is Fischerová 's frankness that stands out, as in the poem which begins 'And one day every one of them / in the bathroom doorway / commits / the final defeat.' Fischerová often leaves her characters
unidentified, and thus, somehow universalised; all become your friends, your family, yourself. In this lattermost case, it is the project of our bodies that Fischerová scrutinises, the way that 'bodies hate / the rights they once had,'and so does not shy away even from the ultimate fact of our dissolution.Immediately preceding Fischerová in this anthology is the youngest of the poets included, Katerina Rudèenková. There is a kinship between the two women that is noticeable from the start: an unabashed carnality in their treatments. But Rudèenková is a poet of her own order, and of a different generation. The lyrical force of this young poet is apparent from the outset:
'I 'd give anything for Akhmatova to step down / from Petrov-Vodkin 's picture, and, continuing to fix me / with that gaze ... lie down by my side / in the dark.' This untitled poem is one which ends on the line 'Enchanted by direct speech 'and one can see why it is used to open the section on Rudèenková. Her lines are tightly dramatic, and marked by the bold-faced force of their expression. Here is the poet who will leave nothing to chance, saying no less than exactly what she desires to be heard.

By considerable contrast, Pavel Kolmaèka takes a more openly philosophical approach. His poems build momentum through often unassuming visual details or perceptions that leave the larger questions hanging on the air at the ends of each poem. And in similar style, Petr Halmay relies on tangible landscapes (rather than symbolic or imagined)from which to source the truth. These two poets comprise the generational middle-ground between the older poets Hejda and Fischerová, and the younger Rudèenkova and Petr Borkovec. Of the two, Kolmaèka 's lines are the more languid, while Halmay 's are enjambed heavily to draw tension from the syntax. The voices vary in this regard, but there is something identifiably shared between them, as if looking onto the same setting through two different sets of eyes. The sixth poet in Büchler 's anthology, Petr Borkovec, also has a collection of selected works out from Seren. From the Interior: Poems 1995 -2005 grants a wider overview of the six collections of poetry that he has published in that time, an impressive rate of production from the young poet. Just as in Büchler 's anthology, From the Interior is presented with the original poem and its translation on facing pages. Even as a non-Czech speaker, one can tell from a glance at the original that, in many cases, Borkovec has a concern for the auditory qualities of the poems. Justin Quinn has done a fine job in the translations (of poems such as The light drawn off and rain began to pour) of adapting off-rhymes that don't feel remotely out of place. Moreover, in a poem such as Kitchen he is able to maintain both Borkovec's tidy, clipped lines as well as the exact end-rhymes of the original poem.

While I like to give due credit to Quinn, it is Borkovec, of course, who garners our attention, and the tonal control which his sense of line and syntax enhances. An opening, for instance, such as

Prairie sundown. It fills the pane of glass.
A new apartment. A new listlessness

typifies the work. The end-stopped fragments immediately key the reader to the poem's emotional timbre, its speaker's mindset. Each line stands as its own unit, but even the abrupt punctuation cannot keep it from feeling continuous and logical. One can end the poem here, invoking the work of Imagism, so neatly bound is the sentiment with the visual elements, but then we'd never get to the speaker's realisation of himself,

An ornament amidst the ornaments.
The dusks to come are countless and immense.

Borkovec's work is always opening outward from the language and from the self. The starting point for his poetic seems to be a precision in the employment of description, no doubt a natural byproduct of the acuity of his observation. As this collection progresses - and I can only assume that it progresses with some sort of chronology, as poems are not dated or partitioned based on previous publication - Borkovec's poems tend to vary more in their form, with longer pieces becoming more frequent, and his utterance taking on more dependent clauses. There is a feeling of exploration in this, given that the poet does not become more lax in his line, nor less focused on the poignant minutiae. Instead, the poems are aided by the power of their structural variations, and within them we hear the thematic resonances of this expansion by the poet who finds

the song was still unchanging.
I watched. Called everything the same.
I listened. The thrush sang.
I believed it all. What it seemed. How it looked.