Petr Borkovec: between suburbia and the wilderness of nature

Petr Borkovec

This week we look at a very fruitful literary friendship between one of the best known contemporary Czech poets, Petr Borkovec, and the Prague-based Irish poet, Justin Quinn. Not only are they good friends but they have also worked closely together, with Justin translating a great deal of Petr's work. They may come from different ends of Europe and diverse literary traditions, but in many ways the two poets are kindred spirits. Justin Quinn joins me in the studio.

The work, the river's watermark, the swell

of sunset on the west side of the sky.

Soft folds of air caught in the current's turn

as long as the last bird has yet to fly.

A foot-bridge propped up on the surface, footsteps,

a wrinkled beach, a pair of shoes, and sand,

although withdrawn, which watches you discreetly,

ice, which razors you, the strokes. Point

of no return. Man on a punt, depicted,

perhaps observing his float's glint and play.

Who now encounters only things themselves.

The roar and thunder. The foot-bridge rubbed away.

Can you tell us something about this poem? In terms of the way we talk about English-language poetry you could describe Borkovec as a "nature poet".

"Sure, and it's a very particular type of nature. The landscape is that to the south of Prague, around the Cernosice area on the River Berounka. This poem is clearly poetry of river days. It's about live spent beside the river, the way the river's watermark rises and falls. There's the swell of sunset on the west side of the sky. And I also find it difficult to read this work without remembering the floods of 2002, when rivers made their presence known so clearly to all and sundry. I think this left a mark on Borkovec's imagination. In the poem itself people are "rubbed away". The footbridge is rubbed away, and also there is a man fishing on a punt. It's not clear whether he's in a painting - and thus can be rubbed away - or is really on the river."

The poetry is descriptive, but not easy. There are many ambiguities and it is quite elliptical. It must make it quite difficult to translate.

Justin Quinn
"Perhaps I shouldn't say this, but I find it quite easy to translate. Perhaps it's my own ellipticalness, which is in tune with his! But you're right that while he deals with particular landscapes and people in the landscape, it's not clear what story is behind those people, what's going on in their lives. Often when he writes about his relations or family life you don't get a clear human drama out of that. You get more observation of surfaces, the way the change, reflections between surfaces. It's as though the life of objects around people is the best way for Borkovec to describe these things."

And how do you translate it? The Czech and English languages are so specific and very different.

"Despite the distance between the languages, I've found it easy enough to translate Borkovec because we're more or less on the same wavelength in terms of the tradition of poetry which we come out of - in terms of rhyme, use of stanzas, but also on the level of friendship. During the translation of the poems we've become friendly over the years, and our family backgrounds are quite similar. We have several small children, the kids meet, and sometimes I've felt, when writing my own poetry in English, that it's difficult for me to distinguish between it being an original work and a translation of his. I've offered on several occasions to write the translation first and he could write the original afterwards, but he hasn't taken up the offer yet!"

You mention that your backgrounds are similar. Petr Borkovec is 36 years old and, as you say, he lives just outside Prague. What do you have in common in terms of the world that you are coming from?

"It struck me at first through his relationship to Russian poetry. He translates Russian poetry into Czech and he has attached himself to a Russian tradition that has many overlaps with the English poetic tradition which I'm part of. So we could meet at this halfway house. Also Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, was translated into English by many poets that I particularly admire, and so there's that shared tradition that I think is very important to both of us.

"Here is another poem - another piece of landscape description. Petr has told me that it is about observing the landscape from a car, and there are many quick metamorphoses that occur in the poem as the landscape is turned inside out, and these gather momentum as the poem progresses.

Snow general on outlying fields - gone now.

But still no revelation, nothing new:

an aftertaste of change, if even that,

when you observe the planes - empty, flat -

and hold the very distance in your hand.

The rooks delight and fly above the land,

a black panel, the shadow of an airship,

a string of tugboats uniform in shape

which pulls along the same and single track

the surface, which then coils and closes back,

the river's bridge and bed, the river isle,

the shore, the works and days of river life.

Like black hills crowned with the constant thunder

of a highway, like weather's distant trundle

inland, the shifting brilliancies and planes

at lay-bys and at dirty filling stations,

there where the shadows grade back into murk,

and headlights carve quick frescos from the dark.

Like a gaze blacked out by closing forest walls.

Like the forest broken open by wood trails,

like wood trails which the forest dark then seals,

like the forest razed to leave outlying fields,

as matt as these hinds poised before the sedge,

a beast of prey that stands at something's edge,

and an eye behind glass that turns behind them.

"Rereading the translation again now, I realize how I tried to make him into an Irish writer when I was doing this. By inserting several references, I made him allude to people like James Joyce and W. B. Yeats, I suppose as much to make him at home in the English language as to satisfy my own desire to Irishize this Czech poet. For instance "Snow general on outlying fields" - this is from the end of Joyce's "The Dead", and then "The rooks delight and fly". As far as I remember in the original there is no delight of the rooks, but in a Yeats poem they do delight in this way. There's a "rook-delighting Heaven".

When you do this, when you're tinkering with his poetry, do you always talk with him about it or do you just say, "This is what I've done to your poem. I've changed a few bits because this is how I think they'll work well in English. Take it or leave it!"?

"It's getting quite complicated at this stage. I do alert him to these things, but thankfully we're both on the same wavelength in terms of how translation should be done. He would not say that a poetic translation should be absolutely literal. As I said, you have to make it at home in the target language, which is what he tries to do in his stunning translations of Russian poetry. They have been a great inspiration to me and also they've instructed me about how to go about the business of translation."

I'd like to return again to Petr Borkovec's relationship to - for want of a better word - nature, the natural world. He has chosen to live in a very pretty, but also quite suburban place just outside Prague in the rolling hills of the Brdy. Where do you see similarities and also differences between his perception of the natural world and your own?

"I suppose that we are both suburban poets, in the sense that we are between the natural world and the city. I think that many of his poems balance between the wilderness of nature, its chaos and its violence and its aggression and the controlled spaces of interiors. I think 'Ode' is an excellent example of that, which has the poet standing at a window, looking at a great-tit which comes to the window, which reminds him of the wilder spaces of the forest.


A great tit swoops down to a book in hand

in February, at a window screened by heat,

and standing side on seems to have just set,

the body's flash and tremor all for its eye.

The winter holds on tooth and nail through it,

stock still, glazed over—as you'd say—in feathers,

beautiful and distinct, a moment measur-

able only by other shining things,

made out by gleam alone, which takes the measure

of rhythms and dark ratios, the spillages

of interval and edge—their likenesses

knock you back almost to the icy sill.

That eye's a mask. Of what? The warring frost

and forest which open far out to the margins

like sleeves, almost in darkness, and no emergence

of wrist or fist, just cold light breaking branches

on the horizon, where gazes go without saying,

chapped lip, someone's dry hand (almost), water

like eyelets from snow melted on a sweater,

and ribboned pine and quince above the door.

"At the end of that poem you have the branches that are brought in from wild nature to decorate a house, and I think that, when bringing attention to those decorations, he wants to remind the reader of the exterior, the forces of the warring frost and forest that are violent forces outside. The poem balances as this beautiful object between the two. One of the criticisms of his work is that it is too decorative, but I think it's true to say that that decoration is always balanced against darker more unpleasant forces."

Let's go back to a detail, where you can show us how the poem is working.

"Well, for instance, at the beginning you have the great-tit flying out of the sky to land beside the window where the poet is standing, and there we witness the process of the great-tit turning into a decoration. Borkovec, through the choice of certain words, lets us see this process of the bird becoming decoration. For instance, when he says that the bird becomes "glazed over" it is almost as if the bird is becoming a piece of porcelain before the poet's eye."

And is there an element of the supernatural or the religious in his poetry?

"I think if that's there at all it comes out in his poems for - as he describes it - his three grandmothers. He's fascinated by the residue of human lives, and that actually leads to issues of the supernatural. What he does ask and wonder about is how much the dead need from us, how much we need to give the dead. There's one poem called 'Rozepsana v den smrti' and the English translation is "Natural Causes". It is about the dead coming back as if they almost envy the breaths of the living.


They are returning for us, to the crowds of our exhaling,

which each night billow forth about the bed-frame.

Between half-open mouths they have a cold glass glittering;

in robes cut to a T around sheer breath

they put out candles, close the window, and with both hands

smooth out our wheezing fabrics completely.

"Here the dead are almost caring for the living who are asleep and they are smoothing out the wheezing fabrics. The fabrics wheeze with the rise and fall of the breath at night. I think it's an incredibly caring and tender poem. The tenderness is that of the poet towards the dead and also that of the dead towards the living."