David Howard: living with Uncle K. in a filing cabinet

David Howard, photo: David Vaughan

Even though he lives a world away from Prague, the New Zealand poet David Howard was on familiar territory when he visited the Czech Republic this year. In his poetry he has come to this country many times. Thanks to the Cities of Literature scheme, coordinated by UNESCO, he was able to spend a two-month literary residency in Prague. The encounter of the city of his imagination with the reality proved an inspiration. David Vaughan has more.

David Howard, photo: David Vaughan
David Howard has been described as a poet of “loss lurking within the moment”; his work is often haunted by a sense of the elusive, but in language that with economy and precision displays a lightness of touch. He enjoys experimenting with words, sometimes to explosive effect, so perhaps we should not be surprised that David’s second job is as a pyrotechnic and special effects supervisor. His home in the South Island university city of Dunedin is about as far away from Prague as you can get, and yet Prague has been part of his life for over thirty years as he told me when we met during his stay.

“Since my early twenties I’ve had a fascination with Prague and when I was 23 I started a long poem, conceived as a radio play, on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi overlord of occupied Czechoslovakia, as it then was. I never thought I’d get to the city of Prague. I’d read Kafka and want to see the room he was in, where he could look out to the cathedral. I understood, as millions of people have, reading Kafka, what it was to be frustrated by bureaucracy. But New Zealand really doesn’t have much of a bureaucracy. I wanted to come 18,175 kilometres to see what kind of paperwork you guys have to put up with and to make my own paperwork – a poem.”

And so, how has Czech paperwork affected you?

“Czech paperwork has been depressingly efficient. Within three hours of arriving I had my monthly bus pass, I had a National Library borrower’s card, I had my desk at the reading room of the National Library, I had a list of things I could do if I wished to from the sponsor of my trip, which is Prague City of Literature. I’m representing Dunedin in New Zealand, City of Literature. I wasn’t frustrated at any turn. It’s been deeply disappointing!”

After this first disappointment, did you find a different inspiration in Prague?

Barrandov, photo: Mestska CC BY 3.0
“Happily, you don’t only need suffering to make poems, so I was able to lock into joy. And Prague offers much pleasure. It justly deserves its reputation for beauty. It’s physically one of the most inspiring places I’ve ever been. But I was here to make poems. So I wrote most of the time in the very fine apartment where I stayed in Barrandov. It is high-rise and after dark, if you haven’t memorized the route, you can never find the building. So, none of the distinctiveness that is in the inner city of Prague is evident in Barrandov. That just encouraged me to stay in the apartment and make poems. So it’s been really useful from that point of view not to be seduced by the attractiveness that is here.”

It’s a paradox isn’t it? Here you are in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, spending most of your time in an anonymous high-rise concrete block of flats.

“I think that’s true, but making poems requires you to be interior and really as an explorer you mine the interior more than the exterior. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t benefited from being here. It’s been essential to sit on trams and listen to the announcements, pre-recorded as they may be, and get a sense of how the language moves – that curious thing of consonants outweighing vowels – also to look at behaviour at metro stations, to sit on one side of Charles Bridge and watch the beggars being moved on by some heavily armed police, to see the delight that people take in giving directions – that’s something that I’ve benefited from – the Czech people have been really friendly, they’ve accepted that I’m an incompetent who hasn’t bothered to learn their language and they’ve forgiven me.”

You’ve already mentioned one thing that made you interested in the Czech Republic, when you were a young man. That was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich during the Second World War and the destruction of the village of Lidice that followed it. We visited Lidice together and you met someone whom you actually mention in your poem The Carrion Flower.

“It was an enormous privilege to shake the hand of Václav Zelenka, whom, as you say, I had used for a monologue in a poem I wrote in the capital of New Zealand, Wellington, in 1983. And here I am, shaking the survivor’s hand.”

Destruction of Lidice, photo: Czech Television
He is one of very few children of Lidice who survived the destruction of the village in 1942. He had blond hair and was taken away for adoption by a German family until the end of the war, and only later was reunited with his mother. Now he is 78 years old, living in the rebuilt Lidice…

“… with his feet firmly on the ground. He doesn’t have any airs or graces. He seems to have lived his life decently, well and with a relative lightness in his step.”

So what role does Václav Zelenka have in your poem The Carrion Flower?

“He’s a child who is dispossessed of his childhood. I give him one monologue and it goes like this:”

In school wrinkled children sing
out-of-tune. Truant, I play
hide-and-seek with the day outside
St Cyril and Methodius
in Resslova Street. A policeman beats
his pigskin drum.
Mama wakes me.
The SS splinter our door inspect
hair and eye colour tighten
strings with numbers
around our necks. Soon I’ll sleep
under an eiderdown of lice;
Mama will not recognise me by these scars:
one is not for the Father
one is not for the Son
one is not for the Holy Ghost.

“It’s a fairly brutal, perhaps too knowing accusation against an absent God by a child. But the frustration, I think, at the failure of a benign universe is universal in children. You see it again and again. Every time a toddler has a tantrum, it’s because this expectation of natural justice, of goodness winning out, of desire being rewarded, is frustrated. That’s what I was looking into here, and that’s what happened to his schoolmates. They were denied their childhoods.”

The Carrion Flower is your first poem with a Czech connection, but that’s certainly not all, is it?

David Howard in Prague, photo: Fabian W. Williges, CC BY-SA 4.0
“No. I wrote a long poem in the early 2000s, called There You Go, and it was picked up, after correspondence, by a Prague composer, Marta Jiráčková. We had an extended collaboration of several months, because it’s a long poem. And I did a recording of the poem. Marta said, ‘I need to hear you read it,’ so I got myself into a recording studio and read it, and sent that recording over. Marta scored it, and that was really my first experience of working with a living Czech artist and realizing that I could cross the world with my work. That was a big thing for me. Marta and I have been friends ever since, and one of the great things about being here is that I’ve actually met her, I’ve had dinner with her, I’ve been to a concert of her work. She’s real.”

So, Václav Zelenka is real and so is Marta Jiráčková. Can you read to us the poem that she put to music:

“It’s a short lyric called The Impossibility of Strawberries. I want you to imagine as a listener an old man on his own, no partner, not even a widower, no one in his life, not even a few years ago, but thinking back to when he had options romantically:”

Once a dress the colour of sunset. After dark she would let him
take it off. Even the god who approved could not watch.
‘If you want love to stay, shut up
our house, covering the furniture with dirty sheets.’ When the moon was full he could see it in the pond.
Still, if he pulled the shutters there would be no colour, just
the memory that is language, bad language.
He could have married the younger sister with the swan’s neck who said: ‘When strawberries are fresh why write about them?
There is already more darkness than you know.
Don’t offer me shadows when I need strawberries.’ He didn’t care. Only later, the later that takes him into old age.

You mentioned that you have been able to write here in the Czech Republic. You are going to read us a poem that is inspired by a visit to the Museum of Communism. Tell us something about it.

“Well, it won’t have escaped Prague residents that the Museum of Communism is located next to a casino and a McDonalds, which has got to be one of the blackest jokes in cultural history. It’s certainly an unusual context, a delightful context for the wealthy owner, to whom I’m grateful, because I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and it gave rise to a series of linked short poems. I’m going to read a few.”

4 The sun doesn’t rise for one side of the street
it shines on one side of the street. When there are strands of long hair
expect an investigation. When there are none expect an investigation to produce twenty.
Enter that crematorium, the State where your mother and father must live
with Uncle K. in a filing cabinet. By the gates two trees stand at attention.
Their leaves have no shadows. The shadows have been taken for questioning.
Collect the dirt from under Uncle K.’s fingernails, the dirt
under Grandmother’s eyelids, the dirt between the toes of the Madonna. 5 In the yard two strangers on opposite sides of a well
looking into the darkness, silent. After mystery, peace; stunned enemies become friends
because we need one another to haul up the bucket, to empty our memories into it
each one longer than the tail of a meteorite then to send the bucket through the night, again. 6 We were assigned a field
to dream, sleeping with one another under stars their light sharpened the sickles behind us
so, being free to choose, we could cut the flowers for our funeral.

Some of your poems have been translated into Czech by one of the most respected contemporary Czech poets, Tomáš Míka. When you met him, did you find it stimulating, discussing how to translate your New Zealand English into Czech?

“The first thing when I met Tomáš was that I had to apologise to him, because one of the pieces he’s translating is in meter and end-rhyme, which is a terrible burden to land a translator with. Not surprisingly, the poem I’ve given Tomáš that he takes the most delight from, is in free verse. It’s not, of course, that free verse doesn’t have its own stretches, but they’re more transferable between languages than the formal constraints of a traditional poem. Tomáš seems to me an acute intelligence, so I’ve been stimulated by his questions and, in fact, some of his questions during translation caused me to make changes in my English. I realized that if someone as smart and as closely reading as Tomáš wasn’t getting what was supposedly there, then it wasn’t there and I’d fooled myself. I hadn’t done my job properly. Just the process of being questioned and interrogated by someone who knows their stuff, whether it was a translator or not, has done me a service. So, I’ve taken guidance from Tomáš and I’ve taken courage to make more changes in the poems from his questioning. I think I benefit on three fronts. One: my original poem gets stronger from having him look at it. Two: I get some, but a very limited, understanding of what the issues are in the Czech language. Three: I get a poem that has got a new life as a Czech poem, but with Tomáš’s name alongside mine, justly so.”