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Review: Six Slovak Poets, ed. Igor Hochel

Further evidence of Arc's commitment to bringing out the best poetry in translation is provided by Six Slovak Poets, the sixth in its series of bilingual contemporary verse anthologies. Two years ago I reviewed the Czech companion volume. At the time I complained that it didn't seem to know whether it was for the academic specialist or the general reader. The parallel text suggests the former; the breadth and 'introduction to' style the latter. The small sample of each poet's work, I suggested, would satisfy neither. The Slovak volume is no different in this regard. Each poet gets only about a dozen pages so that, for example, Ivan Strpka's fifteen collections are represented by just twelve poems. However, it is superior to its predecessor in one regard at least - rather than spanning several generations it concentrates on just one, so you get a feel for the voice of a group of poets responding to a particular set of historical circumstances. With two exceptions these writers were born in the 1940s and grew to maturity in the 1960s - they are the generation of the Prague Spring, if you like, who first glimpsed creative freedom then had it snatched from them.

Although there are considerable differences between them, all six favour allusive, densely written free verse, which takes a European surrealist tradition and weaves into it snippets of folk tales, theology and heavily disguised satire. Several of the poets also clearly have a strong response to nature. Strpka is perhaps the closest to the European avant-garde tradition, and the most 'difficult'. Jan Buzassy writes evocative, well-crafted poems (she falls apart like a bouquet of flowers / and a tepid rapture washes over you) which play with ideas. Peter Repka, the introduction tells me, is a rebellious poet concerned with the repressive social order. In fact he struck me as much for his subtle response to the sights and sounds around him, though the philosopher is never far from the surface: When you seek the smallest grain of sand / must what you find be / the smallest grain of sand?.

Mila Haugova, Slovakia's best known woman poet, is already represented by an Arc collection, so readers may be familiar with her technique of building up collages, magpie like, from scattered words and images, to create something greater than the parts. Human relationships form her main concern, as in poems like To My Daughter About Love:

in the sudden fissure you'll see
dark, inscrutable waters,
reflection of a hazy star,
that which you love, unknown,
and all you'll manage is to
slightly part your lips.

Daniel Hevier, at fifty-five the youngest poet here, is also probably the most in tune with current English taste. There's a Mersey beat vibe about him, if I can be so crass. For me, however, the stand-out was Kamil Peteraj, who also happens to be a successful writer of rock lyrics. As you'd expect of a classical violinist, his work has a strong musical sense, even in translation. His work also betrays a subtle appreciation of nature. But what I really loved was his ability to conjure up the universe in a grain of sand. There is genuine tragedy in Death of a Hen:

they fling her on the table
cold and exact

a little mound of feathers will remain
and the children outside
who know
but they're not supposed to

I hope we will be seeing full length translations of all these poets in the near future.