Ivan Blatný, The Drug of Art

Peter Demetz

Peter Demetz, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Yale, is the author of many volumes of translation, literary theory and cultural history, most recently Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-1945.  Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War (forthcoming).

Edited and with a introduction by Veronika Tuckerová.
Ugly Duckling Presse, East European Poets Series # 15.
2007,  175 pages.

Ivan Blatný’s The Drug of Art is not a publication easy peruse yet in its intricacies, of the poetic and philological kind, loyally reflects the terrible vicissitudes of his life at home and in exile, and the nearly chaotic history of his verse collections. He could have been one of the many talented young writers ( * 1919) dwelling in Brno, the bright Moravian capital, where Milan Kundera, František Halas or Leoš Janáček lived for so long, but it was not tso be. Blatný left the country on an exchange fellowship awarded by the British Council a few months before the Stalinist take-over of February of 1948, and after a few years as writer in exile occasionally contributing to the BBC and Radio Free Europe, was confined to various English mental institutions where he continued to write poems until he died in 1990 (nevertheless, it appears that the Czech secret police was preparing to send an agent to convince him to return, undoubtedly to use him in their propaganda schemes). It was fortunate that Frances Meacham, one of his nurses, had an inkling of Czech, saved most of his scribblings and handed them over to reliable Czech friends who published collections of his verse in samizdat at home, in Canada, and elsewhere. I am reminded of the curious fate of exiled Kurt Schwitters whose avantgarde collages were rescued, when he was old and sick in England, by a nurse, and were later appreciated by the New York art world and in his native Germany.

Veronika Tuckerová, essentially responsible for the shape of The Drug of Art, rightly suggests that "very little of Blatný' s poetry has appeared in English translations to date," and insists that the selections offered are not exhaustive or even representative but rather "provide an introduction to the poet's work for the English-speaking reader." However, it is an introduction (if that term is still fitting) by a chorus of voices, editors, translators, philologists, and commentators, and it is necessary to concentrate, at least at a first reading, on the poems themselves as if every reader were an American New Critic of yesteryear, eager to listen to the poet himself rather than to his many friends. Or (I am far from being dogmatic) we have to start with Veronika Tuckerová’s richly informative and analytical Preface, proceed to the poems, and only later read the remarks by the individual translators (Alex Zucker, Justin Quinn, Matthew Sweeney, the editor­- translator, and Anna Moschovakis), and the philological commentaries anticipating a historical-critical edition of Blatný's Collected Works, a complicated job yet to be done in the future. Just an example: Blatný's collection Bixley Remedial School first appeared in samizdat in 1982 but Antonín Brousek's nadian edition of the same collection (1987) includes twice as many poems as the samizdat volume-- not to speak of the thousands on pages found in the poet's estate.

Blatný has never written in a uniform style (though we best remember his brittle fragments of memories) , and the valiant translators face different textures, above all when approaching the earliest Brno verse of four-line-stanzas, regular rhyme schemes, and tightly compressed imagery. Yes, "Jiskřící kouhouti" are exactly "glittering roosters," and yet, in the same poem, the translator intent upon the regular rhyme, has to ignore an essential simile ( krajina ...překrásná jako šedí vrabci z hejna, a landscape very beautiful like gray sparrows from the flock) and invent the jarring image of an " airborne bazaar," all of his own. Matthew Quinn does not face similar difficulties when he turns to the post-war Blatný of 1947 and in his version of "Song” (Zpěv) with charming ease handles the surrealist incantations, "thousands of kilometers away from me ... ", deliberately sounding like quotations from André Breton, if not Vitězslav Nezval, or admirably handles Blatný's self-ironic celebration of " Venus Terrestris," the malevolent witch that infects the dreams of countless young men, "perhaps, this night! you are coming to me/for the last time,! with soldiers speeding back to the barracks, with a drunk, a rag, a crow in the bones of ruins/with youth returning from the Grove of Those-in-Love/with bloody lips, with smashed teeth, infected by the larvae of Gypsy moths and dark beetles/with the taste of leaves ... "

It is the great virtue of Veronika Tuckerová's selection that it includes verse written from the beginning to the end of Blatný’s poetic travails. Once again, we have a chance to return to his "Old Adresses" (" Stará Bydliště ") and go back in lucid elegies to Brno, the river Svratka, the adjacent soccer fields, and the waving girls. Yet the editor does not hesitate to present to the English and American readers the more difficult later fragments relying on two or three languages and, ultimately, a number of poems written in English entirely, before Blatný died. The traditional question of whether he was a late surrealist or belonged to the Group 42, insisting on the sober realities of civil living, will inevitably have to be suspended because the usual categories of literary history do not suffice anymore to classify the rich metamorphoses of a poet, invisible for many decades to his readers’ gaze - unlike his emigré fellow-poets Karel Brušák, Jaroslav Dresler or František Listopad. Perhaps even the results of Jiří Trávníček's more recent investigations will have to be revised because the new publication makes it nearly impossible to believe that Blatný, as Trávníček suggests, relied on his Czech mother tongue to explore the dense ground of existence while in his English he just followed the linear and superficial schedules of institutional living (French, German and Esperanto being mere parts of poetic collages), "the will to life is remorselessly exploding all eternity/there is no death/we must acquiesce/ there is now and then the yes/we want it so/ we can't choose the absolute nothing". His English poems have their own importance and dignity, and we have to confront the possibility that Blatný, in the end and against all patriotic assumptions, chose not to write in Czech alone.

Peter Demetz (New Brunswick)