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This poem is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.

Ten Poems (translated by Justin Quinn) Petr Borkovec


Petr Borkovec was born in 1970 and belongs to the youngest generation of Czech poets. His first book appeared in 1990 and four collections followed, the most recent of which is Polní práce [Field Work], which was published by Mladá fronta in 1998, and from which the ten poems below are taken. Any attempt to place his work in the context of Czech poetry of the last ten years is difficult, not only because he is so young, but because the decade has been one of such great change. After the Velvet Revolution, most regime poets disappeared from the shelves, print-runs for poetry in general dropped from generous four or five figures to scanty three. Important bodies of work were brought back into print, or even discovered for the first time. Such was the case of the senior playwright, Josef Topol, whose collected poems were published in 1997. This was a body of work hardly anyone had suspected of existing. It was as if Brian Friel had suddenly announced that his true calling was poetry and produced 400 pages to back up the claim. Among other resurrected authors was the lavishly talented lyric poet Ivan Blatný, who died in a mental asylum in Britain in 1990, having emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1948. His macaronic work moves through Czech, English, and to a lesser extent, German. As with Topol, most of Blatný's poetry after the mid-century was unknown to Czech readers. For the most part then the decade has been one of retrospect and restitution. And yet, despite the changes, the old divisions of dissident and regime poet remain strong. If proof were needed, some years back the Czech national newspapers carried a report on the Bítov poetry festival, which attempted to bring poets from both sides together for dialogue. One photograph said it all: on a low stage were three men naked to the waist brandishing their substantial stomachs in the faces of a group of men sitting at a table just below them trying to appear composed. The latter had been regime poets, feted in the '80s, with print-runs in the tens of thousands. The former had been dissidents and at least one of them had spent many years in jail suffering great hardship. Humiliation was the only dialogue they were interested in at Bítov and it is hard not to sympathise with them. In order to convict dissident writers, the authorities often required an expert's report, which in such cases was often provided by official poets.

However, as Borkovec's date of birth indicates, his work stands apart - in fact, after - such divisions. It is devoid of all the characteristics which made Eastern European poetry so alluring and influential in Britain and Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. No oblique political parodies, no message-in-abottle ironies to the Western world. Also different are his formal choices. Although he will write in free verse occasionally, he seems most comfortable in rhyme and regular metrical patterns. The tone is intimate, the dramatic situations for the most part domestic. One would get no idea from the poems that the poet lives in the Wild East of the overheated novels of the Russian writer Victor Pelevin. But Borkovec does turn to a different Russian poetic tradition and has translated Joseph Brodsky's poetry into Czech. Something of the English tradition of half-rhyme and voicing seems to have entered his poetry through Brodsky, although he does not read English poetry in the original.

When I first encountered his work in 1994, the year his third collection Ochoz was published, I was immediately struck by these English sounds in a Slavic echo-chamber - it was like nothing else on the bookshelves. Also striking was his use of Christian imagery: without Lowell's stridency he makes devotional imagery collide with the everyday. Such elements are part of a larger nexus between Christianity and Czech literature in the 1990s. Having come from Ireland where the clercs had all been busy escaping Catholicism, I found myself in a literary culture completely engaged by it. (Borkovec himself is editor of the Christian literary journal Souvislosti.) But his use of religious imagery raises more questions than it resolves - and in some cases adds a level of evenhanded surrealism to the imagery.

A final remark on the locale of some of the poems. Borkovec lives in Cernosice, which is a small satellite town linked to Prague by commuter train. Scattered about it are the dilapidated summer villas of the rich professionals of the first republic of Czechoslovakia, which thrived between the two world wars. Given Borkovec's Russian interests, it is hard not to be reminded by these buildings of the White Russian emigration, one of the centres of which was Prague (Nabokov's mother and sister, among others, lived here). A fact like this makes the mention of Fet and Bunin all the more eerie and fitting in 'For J.K.' The sense of endings and afterlives is strong in Borkovec, as it was for Russian writers of the emigration, the sense that in his intimate love poems and observations, as he has it in 'Great heavy peartrees', he is facing some 'last space' or 'final precinct', 'impossible to remember, impossible to forget'.


Lighter than light, a lyre weighs nothing.
October in one night comes down.
The train screeches into the station -
then out, a fifteen-minute zone

of passing away. So beautiful:
green clouds, a poplar in blue shadow,
outlying fields - Arles for a moment.
And when the tannin sun falls low

against the town, and a Bethlehem scene
appears an instant along the line,
the lyre is so light that I reach for it
as for my change, as for my ticket out.
...


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