“Six Czech Poets”: A first post-revolution anthology of contemporary Czech verse in English

r_2100x1400_radio_praha.png

In this week’s Czech Books we look at what is, amazingly, the first anthology of contemporary Czech poetry to be published in English since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The anthology includes six contemporary poets, some of whom were writing under communism – either in exile or what might be termed internal exile. Others are much younger and have been published since the late 1990s. The anthology, called simply “Six Czech Poets”, was edited by Alexandra Büchler, who divides her time between Prague and the United Kingdom and has been responsible for drawing the attention of the English-speaking world to much contemporary writing from Central and Eastern Europe. When we met to talk about the new anthology Alexandra began by reading a poem by the 31-year-old Czech poet, Katerina Rudcenkova, who is probably the most successful and best known of the younger generation of Czech women poets. This is a poem about the fear of growing old.

Katerina Rudcenkova
COME NIGHTFALL

That evening stream of people with their lingering voices/ the diminishing light withdrawing from the streets

I don’t want to grow old like the woman at the next table

whose lines are so deep as the pattern on her partner’s pullover

I don’t want to grow old like the woman at the second table

whose hair resembles a wig more than a wig could ever resemble hair

I don’t want my face to be lost in the shop-window of spectacles

and most of all I don’t want my own body

to clamp me tight like a narrow ship’s cabin

all those radiant people and wrecks, I among them

exposing my body to the sun

and my life to random interpretations.

(trans. Alexandra Büchler)

How did you go about choosing these six poets?

“What I was trying somehow to bring together in this collection were poets who have something in common. There’s a strong sense of the body, of physical existence, of growing old and so on. This is a very characteristic theme for Viola Fischerova, for example. She writes very powerfully about what it is like to grow old for a woman.”

Here is a poem by Viola Fischerova which is typical in this respect. It does not have a title, but it does have a dedication – “For Mother.”

And she leaves

being abandoned even by images

So tired

she can no longer lift her two bodies

the stiffened self and the cold home

No longer struggles

till morning with a shirt

and stockings

Has given up

Everything she wasn’t and was

and could have been

No longer looks after herself

Has let go even the visit

that does not come

Lies ever so quiet

and dreams of her last green tree

beyond the window

(trans. James Naughton)

You translated Katerina Rudcenkova’s poems and the poems by Viola Fischerova are translated by James Naughton, who teaches Czech and Slovak at Oxford. How did you find the process of translating this very intimate poetry?

“The main challenge in translating both these poets is to capture the spirit and convey the images, because I would say they don’t play with language, although maybe Viola Fischerova does so more than Katerina Rudcenkova, and that is sometimes lost in translation – the inner rhyme or alliteration and so on. But on the whole I think it’s the melody, the rhythm and it’s the images that have to be conveyed, which are very powerful in the poetry of both these women poets.”

Viola Fischerova is a poet who went into exile, and that sense of exile is something that is very prominent in her poetry. Another of the poets of her generation in this anthology is Zbynek Hejda, who was born five years before her in 1930. He did not go into exile, but I think there is a sense of inner exile in his writing.

“What happened with Hejda is that he actually started publishing already relatively late in the 1960s, and his book which was supposed to be published in 1968 or 1969, like many others was actually type-set but never printed. Subsequently he published only in samizdat – in underground editions – and his work was republished in the 1990s.”

Here is a poem by Zbynek Hejda, which does, in a very literal way, show the skull – and bones – beneath the skin.

SNOW

Snow

Animals starved to the bone,

small mouths torn by thorn-trees,

a time so white,

it’s as if angels

(once aflame perhaps?)

have burnt to ashes.

All colour burnt from the landscape.

Tears quenched in eyes of ice.

Ailing small bodies of children,

tiny shrouds of white mist.

(trans. Bernard O’Donoghue with Simon Danicek, and Alexandra Büchler)

That is a very bleak poem indeed.

“Yes, and so are many others in this collection. Hejda is a very interesting poet. Right from the beginning he has been dealing with these themes. His view of life is very bleak. He also, very interestingly, carries on the tradition of surrealism and some of his texts are actually records of dreams. They are also very interesting. Finally, another strand of his work is poetry which goes right back to folk poetry, folk songs and oral tradition. It is again this sense of the dead never leaving us, the dead being always present in our lives. He even has these wonderful images of sleeping in a bed, which generations have slept in before. It is very much like going back to folk legends.”

One of the poets in this collection is little less bleak – the Catholic poet, Pavel Kolmacka. Here is a poem, which describes what you might call a “moment of everlastingness”.

Still midday air,

the breeze asleep

in the nest of a tree.

Before long God will give us a sign

or trip us up in one of his traps.

On the village green a freckled boy

falls off his father’s bike.

In tears, nursing a grazed knee,

he’s dragging his feet home.

A drop of blood dries in the dust.

High up above the trees

the billowing blue of the sky,

the white rock of a cloud.

(trans. Alexandra Büchler)

That is a very different kind of poem, because of its religious symbolism…

“… Yes, but also because of the kind of intimacy that is conveyed here. This is something that is very characteristic of Kolmacka’s poetry. He writes very much from his life. He lives with his family in a small village near Brno, and the poetry stems very much from that, perhaps from the fear of the unknown outside, from his relationship with God. And God is someone who can talk to you about everyday things. There is another poem, not included here, about hearing this voice telling the narrator to go and fix the roof which is leaking, with flattened paint tins. It’s about the presence of God in everyday things.”

There are two other poets included in this anthology. One of them is Petr Borkovec, whom we have featured in this programme before and whom you might describe as a nature poet, and the other is Petr Halmay, a poet I had not come across before. Can you tell us a bit more about him?

“Petr Halmay was a bit of a discovery for me as well. I think he belongs to this group of poets in the sense that his poetry is very lyrical. It’s poetry about moments of revelation, again in everyday life and everyday relationships. It’s about the intimacy of relationships. There is a very beautiful poem dedicated to his mother which is included in this collection. So it is very fragile poetry - beautiful, fragile poetry.”

DAZZLING WHITE

Christmas cacti on the white window sill.

A movement behind the pane –

as if it’s the feeling of reality

created by movement, nothing else.

(The view of the back yard though

also deserves attention.

Things continue to live their life…)

How much sharper today is the line of your lips,

as the nickel-silver spoon in your fingers clinks

against the rim of the dazzlingly white cup.

(trans. Alexandra Büchler)

“This poem captures the lyricism and fragility that we find in Halmay’s poetry. You mentioned earlier that some of these poets, such as Petr Borkovec, are associated with nature poetry, but what I tried to do in this collection was to put in several poems which deal more with human relationships. I know that Petr Borkovec is known as a kind of nature poet, but I think he also writes other kinds of poetry. Here is one of those.”

NATURAL CAUSES

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.

(trans. Justin Quinn)