The Eurekist

Posted on April 10, 2008


By Darran Anderson

“And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…”

It’s one of the cruel ironies of life that diseases, so debilitating and corrosive, can be stunningly beautiful when viewed under a microscope. At an ultra-magnified level, viruses, bacteria and parasites can appear as swirls of tropical islands, microbe galaxies, kaleidoscopic in colour and pattern. Look at anything close enough, it seems, and its uniqueness will be revealed.

It was a phenomenon that Miroslav Holub, the late great Czech poet, was familiar with both in a scientific sense (he was leading immunologist) and in terms of his artistic view of the world. A Czech by birth, Holub was born in Pilsen, West Bohemia. During his life, his country metamorphosed through invasion and war, suffering the successive tyrannical rule of the Nazis and the Communists. Conscripted as manual labour under the Third Reich, he was a censored “nonperson” under the Soviets and finally something approaching a national institution in the free Czech Republic. If ever there were a witness to history, it was Holub.

“I prefer to write for people untouched by poetry…I would like them to read poems in such a matter-of-fact manner as if they’re reading the newspaper or at a football match,” he once wrote, outlining his own personal creed. His was a simple but surprisingly rare quality in an artform whose practitioners are too often seen, and see themselves, as gatekeepers of some obscure bastion of knowledge. Sure he dealt in fairly esoteric subjects with a great deal of symbolism but he did so in the most free, reachable way possible. Holub was one who opened the backdoors and ushered the world in, one of the ones who might just have saved poetry from the poets.

During their occupation, the Nazis had forcibly closed all the local universities and the young scientist-in-waiting had been conscripted onto the railways. Following the Red Army invasion, the thaw of the Prague Spring and the resultant refreeze of ’68, he was thrown out of his job at the Microbiological Institute with his writing being banned from publication (leading to a diverting side-question, what poetry did the authorities allow to be published? And where is it now?). Forced to first slave then denounce himself, Holub knew the evils of both the authoritarian right and left, the deadening political monochrome in stark contrast to the palette of art. With a touch of Auden’s miscellany and his beloved William Carlos William’s concreteness, Holub wrote inspite of, and to spite, the governing system and ideology. Told to think within the boundaries of the official Socialist Realist thought (or unthought), he dissented by thinking about anything and everything. In his mind, escape was a form of subversion and vice versa.

His earliest collection Day Duty (1958) contains the modern secular mysticism and the diverse allusions (from Cinderella to the common housefly) of his later career but it’s notable for its singular fierceness. It is a wild debut, burning incandescent with the rage of one forced to stand by and watch, in both the ominous ghostly ‘Graves of Prisoners’ and the visceral ‘Pathology’ that recalls a time when dissection of the body was something forbidden, mysterious and magical – “I leaf through Old Testament slices of liver / in the white monuments of brain I read / the hieroglyphs / of decay.”. By the time of ‘Casualty’ his observations of man’s inhumanity to man have reached a Goya-like crescendo, a near-violent pacifism driven to point of eruption by the senseless queues of “burnt out eyes / hounded owls of hearts” brought to him by “idiots” to mend.

Times had certainly changed since Uncle Joe’s demise with the dread Beria long since liquidated and Khrushchev’s secret speech (temporarily) promising change in Central and Eastern Europe. But it was simply a lesser hell Holub and his countrymen inhabited and accidents could still befall those who got themselves noticed. With Achilles and the Tortoise (1960) and Primer (1961) the anger still abounded but it’s less exposed. He still launched volleys towards the ruling caste but they were veiled enough to keep the Black Maria’s from the door. Less than twenty years previous Osip Mandelstam had proved, terrifyingly, what happened to those who did it head-on, his ‘Stalin Epigram’ being essentially a suicide note in verse. In totalitarian states, the poet is given the chill blessing of being important enough to be disposed of.

Thus Holub’s attack on the secret police (the Czech variety were the plainclothes Státní bezpeènost) was delivered via Shakespeare, the prying father-in-law of Hamlet— ‘Polonius’ (eavesdropping behind curtains etc) becomes a metaphysical embodiment of the secret police, a “boneless” entity, a disease even that “oozes from the ceiling…floats through the door.” The poem finishes with the hopeful prospect of liberation when the snoop’s finally tossed “arse-first to the stars” and “the whole continent will be lighter / earth’s axis straighten up.”

‘Five Minutes after the Raid’ is the most (rightly) famous and resonant piece from this period but there are other treasures. ‘The Corporal who Killed Archimedes’ remains one of his most hard-hitting political poems, set in Ancient Greece but dangerously applicable to Holub’s present, a jab and a hook thrown in the regime’s direction. It relates the downfall of the Greek thinker at the hands of a Roman soldier who had treaded into his sand circle and rudely interrupted his attempt to discover the end of Pi by running him through with a sword. Told through mathematics (“with one bold stroke / he killed the circle”), Holub relates the eternal folly of the militarist who tries to impose his will, banning doubt and all numbers from three up, ensuring a thousand years of nothing more than “one two / one two / one two.”

Initially prevented from travel (though he did finally spread his wings abroad in the Sixties), Holub defied the imposed limits by transcending the Iron Curtain in his mind, visiting far-flung countries and travelling back long before the birth of Marx in his writing. ‘The Fly’ is the supreme example of this, the battlefield fly perched “on the blue tongue / of the Duke of Clervaux…on the single eye / of Johann Uhr / the Royal Armourer,” as much a witness to history as Holub, as deluded as mankind in believing that it is immortal.

Not all of Holub’s poems in those days were dictated by his opposition to Soviet rule and to say he developed a style is something of a misnomer. Certainly he kept a lean prose but it was one that roamed anywhere in space and time (“a bay leaf from Baghdad / pepper from Zanzibar / marjoram from Casablanca”). Look at everything so closely that it appears alien. His was a world where Napoleon is a starved dog, where “trees parade through the town / like prophets,” where the gaps between letters of the alphabet are “empty as the prairie at night…deep as the eyes of the sea.” Holub was nothing less than a Grand Central of ideas, for all sorts of arrivals and departures.

There are wise lessons imparted – we can build “a Grandmaster of chess / made of electronic circuits” but still all of us are shown as just masters of wasting time. Even then, especially then, our inefficiency is political, our incompetence akin to dissent, a flawed humanity versus the Stakhanovite productivity of Stalinism and its Five Year Plans. There’s scant explicit mention of politics in ‘Go and Open the Door’ (his most anthologised poem in the West) but it’s there in the space between every word, the suffocation of life under the heel and the need for change or “at least…a draught.”

Write about what you know seems sound advice but at times it’s a straitjacket. Holub was one of those writers who encourages write about what we don’t know, an advocate of the powers of the imagination. We’re creatures of dreams and myths he acknowledged, never approaching a subject the way you’d expect, instead coming at it from the most obtuse angles. What separates him from surrealists like Hans Arp (an unquestionable influence of his) is the anchor he trails in reality, one that prevents him (and the reader) from drifting off.

Holub can juggle (the Jester being a favourite symbol of his); the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, dissolving black cats, bull cadavers and Hamlet’s teeth in a kind of sugar-free magic realism. Chief among such poems is ‘A Boy’s Head,’ a glorious evocation of the limitless imagination of youth, not yet spoiled or corrupted by age (“in it there is a space-ship…Noah’s ark…an entirely new bird…a river that flows upwards”). Less well known are his testaments to the power of poetry in ‘Poem Technology’ (“tatters of words fly through the universe…Hell, something’s happened!”) and his celebration of ‘The Prague of Jan Palach’ (“here stomp Picasso’s bulls / and here march Dali’s elephants on spidery legs”).

By viewing life through the prism of science, astronomy, folk-tales or simple compassion, Holub painstakingly created an extraterrestrial world that just, somehow, happens to be the one we inhabit. The cult of reason had mournfully led to the door of Joseph Stalin, the cellars of Lubyanka, the monasteries of Solovki. In opposition, Holub delights in the irrational, the social and cultural ambiguities that cannot be easily explained by dialectic materialism or any other ism. Every word he wrote came in opposition to the mundane and deadly politics of turnip headed bureaucrats. For it’s the moments that don’t fit in, when we fuck up as humans that are the very symptoms of freedom.

The Prague Spring was the great Czech-Slovak epic of the era, its fall as dispiriting as its rise had been inspiring. After it, Holub was censored for the crime of writing liberal articles, refusing to sign up with the official Quisling Writers Union and having signed a petition that fell into the hands of the authorities. Sacked from his job at the Microbiological Institute in 1970, he managed to cling onto a junior position at the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine. To all intents and purposes, he was a marked man.

The change in his writing was the opposite of what might be expected. There was a time of, in Joycean terms, silence, cunning and forced internal exile. Instead of becoming angrier and more zealous or more timid and safe, he chose the third way, his verse becoming more absurd, more lampooning (pre-empting and echoing Vaclav Havel‘s brand of Theatre of the Absurd). The dilemma was how to respond to a system so grimly serious and doctrinaire. To fight fire with fire would insinuate some treasonous unpatriotic alliance with the decadent West or necessitate matching communism on its own stark monolithic terms. Forsaking these routes, Holub dissented with a cocked smile, learning how to dodge and outwit the censor through riddles, disguising his assaults so his adversaries barely knew they’d be struck.

Thus came Holub’s Brief Reflection series of parables on human folly, ridiculing those who cannot face reality (‘On Cats Growing in Trees’) and the faithful who absurdly believe they are right against all evidence to the contrary (‘On Accuracy’). These poems are more guarded than previous efforts but there’s still sharp-witted digs against authority (‘On Charlemagne’) and the all seeing eye of the state (‘On Eyes’) as well as a radical relativist assertion that we can never truly see the truth (‘On the Sun’) and an exposure of violence in the cracked spine of ‘On Cracks.’ Whilst alluding to the fragments of Western pop culture that seeped through the cracks (William S Burroughs], Twiggy etc), Holub was still aware that he was laughing even if the joke was ultimately on him.

In his latter years, his verse grew in scale, his reflections becoming more classical in the face of official philistinism, the figure of the Minotaur alone and as lost in his maze as his victims became as much a recurring obsessive theme to him as it had been to Picasso. Some said he lost the gravitas of old, that he’d backed down or failed to develop or progress. His silence, his riddles were rebranded as guilt, some kind of collaboration. It was bullshit of course, he owed no one anything and had done much more than could ever be expected but it left a wound.

When he returned from his long enforced absence, his writing remained impressive, if not as strident than certainly just as imaginative and memorable; whaling crews bobbing down streets hunting houses, mites eating their way out of their mother’s cadaver and considerations of how viruses remain aloof to human affairs. Poems like ‘Interferon’ grew to be mini-epics whilst his mini-plays from his Puppet Theatre onwards perhaps alienated more readers than they impressed. Maybe the zeitgeist had changed in the interim and magic realism was passé or perhaps his translators did him an injustice (“chitinous vaginas” anyone?) He still had the resources though to induce shock and awe as the poem ‘Collision’ proves.

It was with the incredible renaissance Vanishing Lung Syndrome (1990), published just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, that Holub reclaimed lost ground, the fire of old reignited with poetry blazing at “five hundred centigrade.” Certainly few writers could have created the anarchic ‘Night Calamities’ with its unforgettable terrible visions (“in a burning plane, before the explosion / a little boy walks down the aisle and says / Are we there yet, Mum?”), a reproach of power as grisly as ‘Fish’ (“The Emperor…reigned for nine months posthumously / embalmed and seated / on his throne”) or indeed craft a collection that touches upon parasites, skeletons, Maxim Gorky], Hernan Cortes and Goya. It is simply the sound of sharpness regained, a pen being substituted for a sword, poetry at it’s most dominant and essential.

Post-liberation, his poems shrugged off the barbs. With the pressure eased, Holub, and his nation, were finally able to breathe and in his work there’s a real feeling of relief present. He’s free to explore the quirks of humans, history and science. In the liberated capitalist Czech Republic, his status as a poet may not have him hounded or killed but it may well have spelled the alternative oblivion of being ignored.

In Supposed To Fly (1994) (Holub means “pigeon” in Czech), he crafted ostensibly a tribute to his native city of Pilsen but it’s a telling piece, his reflections on the town reflecting back on him. Rarely has there been a more hilariously acerbic assessment of any location. From the suicide tower of St Bartholomew from which “you could see / the edge of the world” to decapitated stationmasters, public executions and the corpses of kings, it’s customary of his black humour and mischievous instinct that he included such macabre fare in what was supposed to be a civic celebration. You can almost picture the bemused faces of the mayor and dignitaries.

With The Rampage (1997), his last collection, Holub initially seemed to mellow, reflecting on his mortality (“At two o’clock in the morning / I hear my mitral valve / from the depth of the dim, blood-filled tunnel / which is me”) alongside a wonderful touching wide-eyed view evident in ‘My Mother Learns Spanish’ and an obsession with time (the ‘Anatomy Of…’ series), perhaps running out. More gentle and contemplative than before, the same obsessions are there, it is after all a place where Hamlet, Bosch and red blood cells meet. But there are stings in the tail; the missing of ‘The Journey’, the headless stag of ‘A Moravian Castle’, the etched in the memory ‘The Earliest Angels’ and ‘Anything About God,’ all the miracles, the horrors and the mysteries of existence.

If there is anything Miroslav Holub represented, it was the need for questioning, the freedom of those who proudly doubt in contrast to those who claim to have all the answers. And it’s fitting with his final poem ‘The Birth of Sisyphus,’ the very last thing he wrote was one final eternal question mark.

Related: Andrew Motion on Holub / New York Times Obituary / Creative Writing / Brief Reflection on the Sun.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Essays