Jane Kirwan: a poetic passion for the Czech Republic - despite the prepositions
Jane Kirwan was born of Irish parents in England and has been based in Prague for several years. In this programme we will be look at her poetry from recent years, much of which is about her connection with this country. Her first book called "Stealing the Eiffel Tower" was highly acclaimed. Here is the title poem:
Stealing the Eiffel Tower
She carried it back on the ferry
in Safeway bags. Convincing Customs
the longer girders were for catching
butterflies, she hid the WD 40
she'd used to loosen the rivets.
It was bigger than she thought.
Two legs straddled the house,
the third beyond the phone box
and the fourth by Mrs Hussain's
washing line proving useful
for young Leroy's socks.
She painted it chrome yellow,
made the platforms revolve
but even though she sat at the top
on,a striped beach chair, offering
free baguettes and brie, no-one said:
You've brought a little piece of France to Peckham.
Dragging herself down the 1,792 steps
she suddenly saw her mistake.
It was a rusting puff, no passion.
She collected chisels, mallets,
fleece-lined boxes for the semi-precious
stones, bought a ticket to Delhi.
She'd bring the Taj Mahal to Burgess Park.
What was that poem's inspiration?
Many of your poems are about your Irish heritage and your experience of your visits to Ireland. How influential was this on your early work?
"Well, I suppose it was as you unpick your life. We lived in an Irish community, we weren't really English. We went to Irish schools with Irish nuns, we went to the church, my parents were the local Irish doctors. What I love about England is that you can keep these communities. So only when I was in Ireland did I feel English, and... well... I feel very confused in Prague. I don't know what I am. I'm not English, I'm not Irish and I like that feeling of being transplanted and unrooted."
Many of your poems are born out of this experience, but many are on other topics. There's a wide variety in this first collection. In your second collection, "The Man Who Sold Mirrors", you've moved away from the more varied structure of the first collection. Could you say something about the narrative, which is focused on your relationship with the Czech Republic?
"Well it is a themed collection. I fell in love with a Czech. I had known him for some time. I had met him in '89. He came over as a refugee to London. So the poems chronicle that. They chronicle my own memories. I was here in '68 and then in the '70s when I got married. My father-in-law, whom I adored, was also a Czech who left in '39. He was Jewish.
"So, meeting Ales and then getting to know him and falling in love with him, I wanted to have a collection that followed that experience of being with someone like that, of hearing their stories. He describes it as a literary seduction, but actually he seduced me with his stories first, and then my poems came afterwards."
Game of Monopoly
You take Park Lane to get to Victoria, fret
at being caught by the sodium reflected
metal of S registrations
your hands tight on the steering wheel
a Dunhill burns between your fingers.
You say not to worry about your blood pressure,
winning is not important,
prison was your calmest time.
You made your own Monopoly,
got the non-politicals to write out cards
break match-boxes for houses, hotels.
There was no time to play.
At the interrogation you agreed
it was an escape plan,
helped your questioners
decipher the route:
The Kremlin via Pimlico.
Liverpool Street to Wenceslas Square.
They puzzled over Do Not Pass "Go".
Move directly to Jail.
You point out the travel agency in Grosvenor Place
where you worked
when you first came to London
until you sent the wrong Johnsons to Paris.
So your return and living here with Ales must be an extraordinary experience for both of you, because he's returning to his homeland, where he was in fact imprisoned, and you are dealing with all of the issues surrounding the language and being a part of a culture that is very new but also very known to you, because of your personal history.
"Yes. My daughter's grandfather was Czech, so it's also about coming back and going to Terezin [the wartime Jewish Ghetto] and finding things about her family. So it's not just about Ales's history, it's being in the middle of Europe. In Ireland and England we're on the edge and here everything is much more real. And so it's been coming to terms with all that as well.
"Ales is a planner. The StB [the Czechoslovak Secret Police] said that he planned decades in advance. I have no imagination. I just thought - well, we'll come. I didn't think - gosh, I'll have to learn Czech and deal with being in Prague. And we also live a lot of the time outside Prague. We have a ruined 'chalupa' [cottage], and so suddenly I'm in the middle of the countryside living in a tiny community which is very like my grandmother and my great-grandmother in the west of Ireland. You know, they were in a tiny little hamlet in Mayo, so it's some kind of coming back."
You've mentioned the language. Czech is an extremely difficult language to learn. There are seven possible ways of saying each noun, and you wrote a very witty, seductive, playful poem about your relationship with Ales and also with the language, and it's called "Instrumental in the Garden". It plays on the seventh case of nouns, which is the "instrumental", the case which is connected with "with-ness".
Instrumental - in the Garden
She unpacks - prepositions
strewn across the duvet.
He murmurs all he has in mind
is wine, bread. Perhaps a
pleasant chat. Fine, she says,
let's take a different case.
I'm on top, you 're locative.
By your side, possessed.
I have to wait to see if
you're with me or without.
But, he says, by the end
you know. Ignore accusative.
Impossible. Should I stay,
make a habit of it or
get it over with once and
for all. You even fiddle
with my name. I never
know ifl am coming
or going. Or recognise
myself when I am there.
Where, he asks? Exactly.
I linger outside the house
while you are right inside.
You insist on being on
the garden. Flat out on
the lawn, nose stuffed
with pollen. So what do
you want? I want you in.
"Ales still says 'on the garden', everything's 'in television' and not on television. He goes mad at everything else, I just go mad at his prepositions!"
I think it's a lovely conceit - to express a relationship between people from different cultures in that he has problems with the prepositions and that you maybe have problems with the case endings of the nouns. It's a lovely poem. So how, as a poet, has this encounter with a new language affected your poetry?
"I think it's made it less playful. There are so many more serious issues to deal with. I find the whole act of the poem an act of magic. I have written novels and I've written prose, and - before - poetry was always a more playful, magical thing to do. And here it's also something I've used to open up him, to open up the country, to try to explore something that I never thought I'd be in a situation to try to explore. I mean history is just so 'here'. I adore Prague and I love the Czech Republic, but there are aspects of it that are really heartbreaking. There is a section in 'The Man Who Sold Mirrors' about war and death and pointless loss of life. You can forget about that in England. England is very insular. Here people seem more aware of it and more international somehow."
This January a few apples still hold
to bare branches near the train sheds
in Prachatice. Swollen. Clotted red.
They are left from some harvest
grip with such insistence like the guilt
that spouses children parents having
pushed aside the tea pot make space for
on the cloth - carefully unfolded evidence:
the body that was burned or shot
was innocent. What is there when
you peel away the skin. A puff of gas,
at most some dust? Or do the trees
keep fruit that feel certain - cold as steel
to stay from terrible necessity.
In reading your poetry I've felt that there's a certain Czech temper to many of the poems. I know you actually encountered the Czech poet, who was also a scientist, Miroslav Holub, when you were in England. Can you tell me something about your encounter with him?
"I did a week's workshop with him because I liked his poetry. He was an immunologist and I was a dentist, and I liked the idea of mixing science with the arts. It was a couple of years before he died. It wasn't till I came back that I found out the political complexities of his life. Then I just loved the way he talked with passion about Czech and about Plzen. His poetry was very coded and playful. He was an extraordinary man."
Here is another poem from your collection which I think is both playful and serious. It's called 'God Had a Players No 6'.
God Had a Players No 6
clipped to the comer of his mouth
like the man in a brown trilby waiting by the beer tent
or silent in the queue for the Tote
said he wanted to be an artist
never drew anything except the sparrow on the rim
of the mountaineer's hat in Margaret's autograph book.
In perfect calligraphy he wrote: there is always room at the top.
For Christmas he gave her a paint-by-numbers set.
It made no sense - colours without names
marked canvas, tiny cups with precise amounts.
For days following the code she filled in red, blue, all the yellow.
Odd blobs of light where it marked 3 - white.
It shifted into sense. Looking down as walls houses streets
became Sorrento. The Cote D'Azur. Rome. Seductive
yet hollow birds-eye view, two dimensional.
Down here, colours are grey with shadows
walls curve, the hotel on the comer is empty, a door half closed
footsteps on the cobbles.
"I wrote that because that was a constant dream before I came here, and then I came here and it really is cobbles and empty hotels and I thought - this is it. That's my feeling about God, which is an amalgamation of my father and this sort of shallowness of religion. It is that - the black and white here and the cobbles and the echoes and the footsteps have great power."
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.