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Ivan Blatný
The Drug of Art: Selected Poems, edited by Veronika Tuckerová
reviewed by
Barry Schwabsky
Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse. 175 pages. $15

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Barry Schwabsky and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

The bee-hive’s personnel


This handsomely presented paperback represents the first substantial publication in English of the Czech modernist Ivan Blatný (1919-1990) — preceded only, it appears, by a couple of poems translated by Edwin Morgan, ahead of the game in this as in so many things. Over the past two decades Blatný has been extensively translated into French and German as well as other languages. His oeuvre divides neatly into two distinct chronological portions: works produced in Czechoslovakia before the poet’s defection upon the Communist seizure of power there, and works produced subsequently in England.

Section 2

The selections from Blatný’s earliest poems, Brno Elegies, published (as Melancholy Walks because censors considered that the true title could imply opposition to the country’s German occupation) in 1941 when he was just twenty-two, are written in rhymed quatrains — gamely handled by Justin Quinn, the translator of this section, one of five in the book as a whole — are heavy with nostalgia. This must be the Blatný whom Milan Kundera recently recalled as “the poet I most admired when I was fourteen,” although citing a poem that is in fact of later date. There is an intoxicating sensuality to these longing recollections, as in the briefest of the translated elegies:


The plain spreads out form you when you’ve gone by
the cemetery wall where greensward glistens.
Beat on it desperately and in reply
a startled bird flies off into the distance.

And startled through the sky he loops and pegs,
who danced on graves and sang the dead his jokes.
Regret draws tighter, tighter, till it chokes.
You watch his flight, lead clipped onto his leg.

You watch his flight, how he lightly wheels,
a wound upon the sky that slowly heals
above the meadows, cradled by a beck.
That silver furrow… groove… that thread… a speck.


The breaking up of sense that concludes this poem is rare in the Brno Elegies but is essential to Blatný’s second book, This Night (1945). Here, rhyme is rare, and syntax is sometimes fractured, but the repetition of entire lines becomes a recurrent device. Like the still lifes the cubists painted during the First World War, these poems of the second build vast worlds out of concatenated fragments from daily life. War turned out to be a good collaborator for Blatný: The intimate ache that made his perceptions of the natural world and daily life so poignant found a larger echo in the atmosphere of a continent tearing itself to bits.


One would have been curious to learn something of the poet’s experience of the war years, but the editor’s introduction is silent in the matter. In the poems, a few simple humble objects, not even described but simply named, loom huge: “Papers, books, a pitcher” — last bits of dependably concrete reality. In contrast to these near, tangible objects, the landscape in which the poems are set is crisscrossed by distant trains that are not seen, only heard — they “grumble on the viaduct.” “The railroad bridge is / A sad song in the air.” These sounds are a broken music of departure: “But Europe is setting off on journeys too.” Blatný’s poems of this period unwind in stubborn, uneasy repetitions, continually turning back on themselves and reusing phrases as if language itself had to be rationed out frugally like any other needful possession in difficult times. Here is “Small Variation” in Matthew Sweeney’s translation:


Thursday 8 pm. On the table:
Matches, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
My tools.
You already know my music from five or six things,
You already know my music from five or six things,
My little song.
As it sizzles on the stove, as it bubbles in quietude
The song of the interlude,
Which happens only once in history.

Matches, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp,
And dust on all of them.
The silent horse gallops and carries it on hoof.
Dust of the barren flat.
Dust of the barren flat.
For the last time unsettled, is lost into history.

Thursday 8 pm. On the table:
Newspapers, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
Newspapers: Papandreu, Pierlot.
Furniture: Divan, ornamented credenza.
My little song.
Big drops hit the badly boarded window with a splat.
We’ll get wet inside the flat!
We’ll get wet inside the flat!
And even shabbier boards
Will be left for the coffin.


Blatný’s post-war Czech poems are less intense, less affecting than those in his first two books — and the two relatively long poems of the later ‘40s given here, ‘Terrestris,’ a Symbolist extravaganza in which the earth is conjured as an all-devouring witch, and ‘The Game,’ a dream narrative primarily in prose whose Freudianism now seems dated, show the poet straining unsuccessfully for more dramatic effects than his fundamentally lyrical gift could produce.


In 1948, Blatný arrived in London and immediately made a speech on the BBC denouncing the new regime in his country. His Czech citizenship was revoked and England became his home. A few months later he was briefly hospitalized for mental illness but until 1954 he made a living as a journalist, “collaborating at times with the BBC and Radio Free Europe,” according to Tuckerová, though he seems hardly to have written poetry during this period. In 1954 he was again hospitalized, and spent the rest of his life in a series of institutions.


At some point he began writing again, but it was only after a chance meeting between one of his nurses and a Czech poet who knew Blatný that his later writings reached the novelist Josef Škvorecký, living in Canada, whose press, 68 Publishers, issued a selection of them in 1979 under the title Old Addresses. “It was our book,” according to Škvorecký, that “finally persuaded the attending physicians that Blatný was a real poet, not just a madman who believed he was a poet.” Three years later, another collection was published in samizdat in Prague, Bixley Remedial School, and then in a different version by Škvorecký’s press in Toronto in 1987. Blatný himself took no part in preparing any of these publications.


The poems in Old Addresses are very mixed in nature, presumably meaning that they were composed at quite different times. Some employ traditional verse forms — for instance the sonnet ‘Cigarettes,’ or ‘Football,’ which is a double sonnet — while others are quite irregular in form, such as ‘From a Terrace in Prague,’ with its juxtapositions of short lines with extremely long ones, but many of them reflect the interpenetration of memories of Czechoslovakia and present experience as a patient in England. In ‘Sunday’ the poet imagines the visits he might receive, but never has, from old acquaintances such as František Listopad, another exiled Czech poet living in France and then Portugal, or Karel Brušák, a somewhat older writer who’d come to England in the late ’30s and become well-known among his countrymen for his wartime broadcasts for the BBC Overseas Service; but the poems ends,


they’ve been abroad here for years and I still haven’t seen them
I have poems ready
we’ll talk about literature
the world will be full of life again.


Bixley Remedial School is something quite different, and probably accounts for much of the interest in Blatný’s work today. These poems are quite brief, most of them just six or seven lines long, and are much more casual in tone than any of his earlier work — sometimes downright jokey, as in ‘Janus Sapientiae,’ a poem composed directly in English, which begins, “The Monx speak Monx / I speak czech and english.” Indeed, one of their peculiarities is the freedom with which these poems mix Czech and English — though perhaps the poet’s use of the lower case is a more accurate reflection of his attitude toward the two languages — with some German and just a smidgen of French and at least one word of Spanish thrown in for good measure. The notational immediacy of these poems, and their concrete nature, nearly devoid of overtly figurative language, mixed with their unfetteredly free-associative movement from line to line and their jaunty polyglot construction, gives them a texture quite unlike anything else, all the more so in that Blatný’s English and German, at least, can be idiosyncratic. The poems keep reminding themselves of details of usage and of the poet’s potential mistakes: “A group of factory buildings may be called a plant / God the linguist teaches us to breathe,” begins ‘Outside and In’; in ‘Anarchy’ the poet reminds himself, “Choc-ice is in czech called Eskymo / I used to have three on a bench at Felixstow Road.”


The last poems in the book are uncollected poems almost entirely in English, each printed facing a reproduction of its neatly handwritten (or in a few cases, typewritten) manuscript. Except for their relatively monolingual construction these poems are similar to those in Bixley Remedial School. In fact one might have thought that the poem called ‘Both’ had been the source for the name of the collection in which it does not appear:


If it were morning in the Pines I could take gun-powder
it is afternoon on Bixley
or at Bixley
the praepositions in english are a trouble

God never made a serious error or blunder
“on” or “at” I think that both are right.


Blatný’s worries about idiomatic correctness, more than his dismissal of those worries, would seem cognate to the uncertainties that must arise when trying to establish the text of a poet who, for a good part of his life, wrote without any expectation of publication or indeed of any sort of readership at all — and who, when publication finally became a possibility once again, had no real involvement with the process. One thing that the reproductions of the late manuscripts assure us of, at least, is that Blatný definitely did treat these texts as works: carefully copied out — they betray none of the signs of being first drafts — in a clear hand, they were certainly meant for the eyes of others. So if some of the texts seem more like random jottings than finished poems, the reader should think again: This informality was a considered aesthetic choice, an artifice.


But that still leaves the question of which texts to publish, a choice the author was not able to make himself. According to one report passed on by Tuckerová, he “filled several hundred copybooks,” and elsewhere we are told that “he left behind thousands of pages of writing, very little of which has been published to date.”


Just how contentious editorial choices may be becomes clear when one reads the Afterword by Antonin Petruželka, one of the publishers of the samizdat version of Bixley Remedial School, who derides as unreliable and misleading the selection made for Old Addresses — whose publisher, Škvorecký, has provided the present volume’s Foreword. The two men are equally at odds as to the poet’s mental state: Škvorecký recounts that on the single occasion he saw Blatný, it was clear that he was deeply ill; Petruželka insists that he was only “so-called mentally ill” and instead “a bright, joyous, sensitive man.”


Having only The Drug of Art to judge by, it’s hard not to sympathize with Petruželka’s image of the poet. Certainly Blatný’s late works are not those of a tormented poète maudit like Gérard de Nerval or Dino Campana. Like his early poems, they tinged by nostalgia, but no longer in a plangent, haunted way; instead they are wryly, ironically nostalgic — and not rarely joyful for all that, though never less than problematic. It’s partly thanks to the problems his poems pose that I suspect we are going to keep hearing more about them as time goes on.


In Blatný we discover, not only an unfamiliar Czech poet, but also an unfamiliar English poet, and one whose English is very much his own. All the more curious that it’s so hard to tell where the Czech poet leaves off and the English one starts. In the best of his late poems, it no longer matters:


Queen, drones, bee-workers, život vček
that is the bee-hive’s personnel

Now I must whisper in a low tone
I was today a dying drone

But I am fresh and Glück-alive
back in the úl, back in the hive.

Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky, an American poet and art critic living in London, writes regularly for The Nation and Artforum, among others. His new collection of poems is Book Left Open in the Rain (Black Square Editions/The Booklyn Rail).

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