Bohuslav Reynek: eternity in a drowned fly

Photo: Karolinum Press

As part of its Modern Czech Classics series, the Karolinum Press has just published a collection of poems by Bohuslav Reynek in English translation. The poet died in 1971 at the age of 79, having spent nearly all his life in the depths of the Czech countryside, but it is only in recent years that he has been rediscovered by a wider readership. For decades, he was derided or at best ignored by the communist regime, not least because of the deeply spiritual quality of his work. Today Reynek is acclaimed not just for his poetry, but also as a visual artist, and the new book, called The Well at Morning, also reproduces some of his etchings, which balance bold expressiveness with delicacy. Like his poems, they reflect a Catholic spirituality that is grounded in the soil of rural Bohemia. David Vaughan met Justin Quinn, who translated the collection.

Photo: Karolinum Press
Like William Blake 150 years before him, Bohuslav Reynek had a spiritual vision that bridged poetry and painting, and like William Blake he has a magnetic appeal even to readers who share none of his religious fervour. He is also unmatched as a poet of the countryside, of a rural life that is earthy and unselfconscious. The Irish poet Justin Quinn has taken up the challenge of translating Reynek into English and the resulting collection is a joy to read. I asked Justin how it was that Reynek was so little known for so many years even in his own country.

“He had very much an underground reputation. He began his career primarily as a translator in the 1920s and by the time he was writing and publishing regularly as a poet the Second World War came. That, along with communism afterwards, really brought an end to his reputation as a poet. It wasn’t until after 1989 that he became a publicly known figure again.”

Let’s start with one of his poems in your own translation.

A FOOL In my village, I’m the fool.
Sad dogs know me – sad white school
of sleepy dogs that drift away
into the distance. They don’t bay.
They keep me happy from afar
– cloudish dogs is what they are
that run about the sky’s massif.
And we’re all drunk on grief.
Where we wander we don’t know.
Ancient shepherd, as I go,
bless my soul with your great gifts
of moon and these long wakeful shifts,
heavy, gashed time and again
like a bleeding heart. Amen.

There’s everything in that poem. It takes us from details of his rural life, to the sublime.

“He lived for most of his life in a small village just outside Havlíčkův Brod…”

… which is a very rural part of the country and also one of the poorest regions.

Justin Quinn,  photo: David Vaughan
“Yes, and while Reynek initially told his French fiancée that he lived in a chateau it turned out to be an extremely humble chateau in an extremely humble village. And this poem, while it does have a rather exulted ending, also has at the beginning a really accurate perception of Reynek’s position in the village. He was considered the village fool.”

You could almost say that there is a Czech tradition of these rural literary figures – poets who are considered eccentric or slightly mad living sometimes virtually hand-to-mouth in the depths of the countryside. It seems to have a precedent.

“I would put it down, maybe, to the fact that in the second half of the 20th century institutional education would have been denied to a lot of people who were extremely clever, but not very – shall we say – flexible in their opinions. Reynek would be a very good example of this.”

And when you say “not very flexible in their opinions”, that brings us to a very significant aspect of Reynek, which is his Christian faith, his Catholicism, which permeates his poetry. That might put off people who are not Christian from reading the poetry, but it would be a mistake simply to define him as a “religious poet”.

“Absolutely. I was brought up in Ireland, and my experience of the Catholic Church there was very different from what it meant here in Czechoslovakia from the 1920s on. They were much more connected with France, and Catholicism for them was connected with intellectual life primarily, with an intense cultural existence that you couldn’t get anywhere else. So this was a surprise for me, and I had to relearn a lot of my prejudices toward the Catholic Church. And I think Reynek is amazing as a religious poet because all that religious and spiritual thinking is totally grounded in his farm, his house, the immediate landscape around him and the farm animals.”

GOOSE IN MIST It neither burns nor gives a warning.
A goose is calling out this morning.
Behind the wall, lamenting fate,
thus it opens winter’s gate.
The doorpost creaks in solitude.
The white door-handle shifts the mood,
from hope to hope, and unsubdued,
the calling wakes the empty yard
to judgment, and the russet orchard.
It also calls the stones and knees
that take in solitude their ease.
Goose: so ashen white its shade,
its wings of mist, so wildly splayed.
Death is warming its white blade.
A sickle sharpened to dark rhythm.
They go. They take nothing with them.
The wall. And trees. Foreheads smashed
against their wall. Blood is splashed.
Behind this wall a mystery.
The blood a trickle. A blackened tree.

Bohuslav Reynek,  photo: Czech Television
Reynek had a strange fate after the Second World War, because he had his family farm confiscated, but he carried on working there as a farm labourer.

“It was very bizarre. He was very attached to the farm, so it was on the one hand a mercy that he was allowed to stay there, but on the other extremely alienating for him. And he didn’t get on with the people who were his overseers. He spent several years staying inside just to avoid them. I think something of that closeted nature of his existence – while on a personal level it must have been extremely difficult – had this this amazing force that helped focus his work and concentrate his poems, especially after the Second World War.”

He was married to a Frenchwoman, Suzanne Renaud, who was also a poet. Did she stay with him after the war, and did he have other friends who appreciated his gifts?

“She was there after the war. In a sense she got stuck here. Communism came along and they were both deeply Catholic, committed to their marriage, but, as I understand it, her longing for her homeland in Grenoble in France intensified as the years went by. She spoke French with both their sons, Jiří and Daniel, who then went on with some of their cultural work after their parents died. Reynek, especially in the late ‘60s became known to a younger generation of Czech poets and a lot of them would come to visit him in his farmhouse, among them people like Ivan Diviš or Ivan Martin Jirous. So, just towards the end of his life he did achieve some measure of fame.”

Let’s hear another poem.

“This poem is entitled Rue L…, which refers to the street in Grenoble where his wife lived as a child and young woman. And for me it’s something about the distance and the connections between their French domicile and their Czech one where they would end their lives.”

RUE L… Now daylight isn’t far.
The street is misted silk.
Lead by no morning star
the children go for milk.
Heedless of Paradise,
they yet stand on its threshold.
From window panes they prise
each one a coin of gold.
These lights in children’s hands
along the street unfurl,
and the surrounding lands
fade to the underworld.
And on the panes two obols
left for us to take down,
here in this vale of cobbles,
here in the misted dawn.
We’ll take them on long roads,
entranced, across the lea,
round waters and through woods,
whispering: lait, Lethe…

You have translated a collection of Reynek’s poetry which is just being published in English. It includes a very interesting essay you have written about how you approached translating him, trying to make him accessible to an English-speaking readership.

“It’s a bit like having two friends who don’t know one another. Your job is to introduce them to one another and – hopefully – to provide the atmosphere in which they can get on with each other. And that’s what I felt I was doing with Reynek. I was trying to make him echo and resonate with poets who I think are very close to him in English. I also felt very strongly committed to the idea of translating him into rhyme because he is a rhymer in Czech and it strikes me as impossible to translate somebody like that purely into prose. So much is lost at that moment. And then there’s the balance how much content to preserve and in which places you will lose some of the content. But I think translation is always a set of compromises.”

One thing that we haven’t mentioned at all about the book is the fact that Reynek was also an artist and he did the most remarkable etchings – monotypes – many of which are reproduced in the book.

“We’re very lucky to have 25 reproductions in the book. I think it was an integral part of his imaginative life. It had different phases from his poetry. It would be like publishing Blake without ever mentioning the fact that he was also this amazing visual artist. So to this day Reynek is still known primarily as a visual artist. There was a very large exhibition here a few years ago that was hyped immensely. In a way the hype behind that exhibition was, many felt, unfitting for the humility of his art. Again, like his poetry, it concentrates on his immediate surroundings, but melding these seamlessly into religious issues and religious iconic images.”

And he uses almost exclusively the form of the monotype which is a rather delicate and transient form of print…

“I believe he was mainly self-taught in this. He asked for advice from some visual artists with whom he came into contact, but he would set the work often without having full control of the technique. Some of his most interesting works are precisely at that moment where he was learning how to use it himself. Seemingly he was quite an impatient man, and there is a very iconic image of him working on the etchings. He was a very small man, very wiry, perched and kind-of folded over on himself with his John-Lennon-like glasses, as he’s etching in the depths of the morning. He used to get up very early in the morning to feed the farm animals. So this image of him etching has also become very iconic for Czechs.”

He died almost fifty years ago. Have you been to see his farm?

“I walked around it. It’s a place of pilgrimage for many Czechs. Especially in the ‘90s many – especially young – Czechs would go there. They would knock on the door and be entertained with tea and cake by Jiří and Daniel, Reynek’s sons. It’s a beautiful… I would hesitate to say chateau, but a beautiful decorated farmhouse.”

Let’s end with one last poem.

MATCH IN A PUDDLE One black half, one half white.
A fly’s barque and its pyre.
The match a soul on fire.
Gone out now, it might
have taken hours, thus drowned
among the guilty shadows.
When? And whose? Who knows?
Maybe homeward bound. Black foam, and foam that’s white,
a pang that poppies hone.
A feather. Its bird has flown
just where? Match thrown aside – the Reaper’s one small bone.

I love the contrasts in that poem – the contrasts of the fly drowning, the match – black and white, the fire, the water, the blackness of the fly…

“That’s the amazing thing: the match in a puddle, a fly, these are such tiny, trivial things, and the marvel of a poem like this is the way that he can use it as the hinge for so many other greater issues. It’s a very condensed poem.”