God the linguist teaches us to breathe

Ivan Blatný

“Bixley Remedial School” is one of the most remarkable collections of Czech poetry from the second half of the twentieth century. At the time it was first published in the early 1980s, its author Ivan Blatný was a long-term patient in a psychiatric hospital in England. A new edition of the collection reminds us that Blatný’s poetry is far from being the mere scribbling of a madman. David Vaughan reports.

Ivan Blatný
Ivan Blatný was the first Czech writer to defect after the communists came to power, settling in England just a few weeks after the coup of February 1948. At twenty-nine he was already one of Czechoslovakia’s most admired poets, but shortly after his exile began, Blatný suffered a nervous breakdown. He never fully recovered and spent most of the rest of his life in various psychiatric institutions. But that was not the end of his career as a poet. He continued writing until the day he died in August 1990 and some of his most interesting and innovative poetry was written in the 1970s and early 80s when he was a patient at Saint Clement’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ipswich, some 75 miles north-east of London. Here is his poem “Spring” in a translation by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.

Spring A cauliflower settles on the roof of a bungalow,
a swallow returns, you watch it in the sky,
and early buds are tight as bronze, they glow,
the dung-cart’s waiting, as in times gone by. The heavens purr and snore, they are sleeping still,
but it will clear up, but it will be a fine day.
A train whistles in the distance, distance whistles
in the distance, silver drops tap planes in play. In the playground, boys at goalposts in their tracksuits,
a cauliflower settles on a spruce new basket,
good French sun, come and bless us with your light. I would love to be off: I am opening the door;
I would love to be off: on the Riviera shore
I’d see the sky and the whole world grow bright.

'Pomocná škola Bixley'
In 1979 the émigré writer and publisher, Josef Škvorecký, put together a hasty collection of Blatný’s poetry, including the poem we have just heard, and published it as Stará bydliště (Old Abodes). Immediately afterwards, Blatný began to work on another collection, this time called “Pomocná škola Bixley” (Bixley Remedial School), Bixley being the name of one of the wards in Saint Clement’s Hospital. The poetry in the collection is remarkable, moving between different genres and even languages. This is how Robert Pynsent from the University of London summed up the qualities of Blatný’s late poetry when I interviewed him in 2007:

“He has fused the naïve, almost puerile writing of the beginning of his career with the avant-garde, to create a strange patchwork sort of writing that works. One can speak of a certain passivity in him before, in keeping to the rhythm, letting the mechanics of the poetry carry him along, but now his illness combines the two previous periods of his writing and also allows them to flow over him within a cultural context that’s basically in his memory and a cultural context that is the context of him in mental hospitals, and he lets those two contexts flow together in a new sort of verse.”

Here is a short poem from Bixley Remedial School, called “Politické názory” (Political Opinions):

The battle of El Alamein
left many red and bloody stain I’m teaching Rebecca the kitten
The allies won Rommel was beaten Válka je jenom pro čerty
better is peace and liberty

Ivan Blatný spent his last years in Edensor Care Centre in Clacton-on-Sea,  photo: author
The English in this poem is not a translation. Blatný moved freely in his poetry between English and Czech, relishing the puns and complexities that emerged. The second to last line, “válka je jenom pro čerty“ could be translated as “war is just for devils”, and then with typical cross-language quirkiness, Blatný makes the word “čerty” rhyme with “liberty”.

For Blatný this is no post-modern game. As an exile – almost completely cut off from his language as well as his cultural context – Blatný spent forty years in Britain leading a kind of suspended life in various asylums, while his mind moved freely and sometimes anarchically across the borders of language and culture. Distant memory and the monotony of daily life in the hospital mix. Here is an odd little poem where the complexities of English become part of the poem itself. It’s called “Both”. (The “Pines” it refers to is a pavilion in the grounds of the hospital.)

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 both are right.

A fully annotated new edition of “Bixley Remedial School” has just been brought out by the publishing house Triáda. Even if you can’t read Czech, you will still find plenty of poetry here in English, or in various combinations of English and other languages. “God the linguist teaches us to breathe,” Blatný writes in one of the poems, and there really is something immensely refreshing about his writing.

Interestingly, the collection has been edited by the same team that published the very first edition of Bixley Remedial School in samizdat back in 1982, after Blatný’s old friend, fellow poet and artist, Jiří Kolář had arranged for a copy of the manuscript to be smuggled into Prague. On the team – then as now – was Antonín Petruželka:

“Jiří Kolář sent the manuscript from Paris via Erika Abrahams, who gave it to the poet Zbyněk Hejda, who then got in touch with me and Vratislav Färber, to ask if we’d like to publish it. Of course, we couldn’t go to see the author, to consult with him, because, if the authorities had found out, it would have threatened not just the whole project but also other samizdat projects. So we decided to publish the manuscript exactly as it was. We decided to rely on the text itself. In a sense this became a great advantage because we remained very faithful to Blatný’s manuscript. One curious thing about the project is that I think it’s the only case where a literary text written by a Czech author abroad, was smuggled into Czechoslovakia, and then appeared as a first edition in Czechoslovakia. Usually it was the other way round. A text would be written here, and if the author couldn’t or didn’t want to publish here, he or she would send it to the so-called ‘West’ and it would be brought out by exile publishers.”

So, this led to the curious paradox that in communist Czechoslovakia, copies of Bixley Remedial School were circulating secretly before anyone in the West had had the chance to read them. Soon afterwards, an edition did come out in Canada, edited by the exile poet, Antonín Brousek, and published by Josef Škvroecký’s publishing house Sixty-Eight Publishing. But Zbyněk Hejda points out that it differed from the original manuscript:

“The Toronto version of Bixley Remedial School is a compilation of poems that Blatný appears to have sent to Škvorecký, but the editor, Antonín Brousek chose and arranged them according to his own ideas. So the two editions were radically different.”

But with the new edition, the original samizdat team have returned to Blatný’s manuscripts and the spirit of their first samizdat version. The outcome reinforces what we have already long known – that Blatný was meticulous in detail. Antonín Petruželka:

Photo: author
“I’ve got nothing against the Toronto edition, but Brousek did make various alterations that I don’t think can be justified, so we have tried to undo those changes. I can give you an example. Here in front of me I have the poem ‘Mluviti stříbro’ (To Speak is Silver). In the original manuscript it only has six lines, but in the Toronto edition, because of a mistake by the editor or in the layout, the poem has nine lines. In the original only the third line is short. It goes: ‘to let fall the anchor’ – and that’s the core of the poem, but in the Toronto version, other lines are also cut up, so you have: ‘after my death’ on a separate line, which puts an excessive stress on the idea of death and time passing, and: ‘motionless in the inlet’ is also put on a line on its own. So returning to the original script really is logical, useful, and it shows the author as someone who is calm, who is well aware of the difference in impact between a short and long line, and that he knew what he was doing.”

Here is the whole of the poem, with Blatný’s original line breaks, in a translation by Martin Tharp. The last line – “Long John Silver, that’s me” – in typical Blatný fashion, is English even in the original.

To Speak Is Silver The hunt for treasure continues on all islands
To leave at least a map for them to find it after my death
to let fall the anchor
that the pirate ship could stand motionless in the inlet
crossed bones and skull on the black banner
Long John Silver that's me

And, finally, I should add that if you find the polyglot – or “macaronic” to use the technical term – nature of Blatny’s poems a bit too much, there is also a selection of his poetry in English translation, published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2007 under the title “Ivan Blatný: The Drug of Art”.