Friday, 17 April 2009

Six Czech Poets: ed. Alexandra Buchler. Arc Publications £10.99


Petr Borkovec, Viola Fischerova, Petr Halmay, Zbynek Hejda, Pavel Kolmacka, Katerina Rudcenkova. (The photograph to the left shows my one year old daughter holding the book, which she finds particularly attractive, blowing a raspberry)

This is one in a series of interesting books presenting poetry from Eastern Europe and the Basque country. The editor, Alexandra Buchler, contributes a helpful and engaging introduction which places the poets represented in the volume firmly within mainstream Czech cultural traditions. However, the introduction is not simply informative; it is also a stimulating polemic, which criticises the focus in the West on the poetry of the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, whose work, we are told, is not at all typical of the kind of verse written in the Czech Republic. Holub's work is described - somewhat perjoratively - as 'cerebal poetry of linear thought ... and easy-to-decipher allegories'. Some of the poets in this volume began writing under Communism; others emerged after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism but all of them tend to write descriptive or lyrical poetry, with emotive undertones, in a pared down though sometimes slightly melodramatic style.

I can't say that I am excited by their work as I was by Holub's or by David Huerta's for that matter. However, 3 of the poets are growing on me:

Viola Fischerova writes surreal poetry grounded in keen observation. The poetry in this volume concerns old women and mother-daughter relationships:

But they elude us
those old women of dust
and sackcloth

Dried in baths
by robust
handsome dead
husbands

those old women
with crimpled faces
no longer recognised
even by the mirror

those old women
calmly
reflected
in themselves


Pavel Kolmacka writes subtly metaphysical verse in a spare style, which speaks of the pain the Czech people accumulated through the 20th century:

What kind of dream have we awoken from?
Late afternoon, end of the century.
In the dark kitchen again, awkward, trapped.
What kind of dream have we found ourselves in?


The viewpoint of this poet seems to me to be based on St Paul in Romans Chapter 8, verses 18 - 25, when Paul famously says that 'creation groaneth and travaileth in pain .. And not only they, but ourselves also ... groan within ourselves, waiting .. for the redemption of our body'

Finally, Petr Borkovec also struck me as someone whose work will grow on me. I had the good fortune to hear him read along with his translator from his new volume of selected poems, which was published by Seren recently. He seems to write pastoral or domestic descriptions which are troubled by the ghosts of history. All his landscapes and interiors seem paradoxically immanent with history:

Outside, no plans were hatched in shadows,
and the towel, lying idle by the chair,
had the same history as us