The Drug of Art: Selected Poems by Ivan Blatny, Edited by Veronika Tuckerová
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2007)
Ivan Blatny's story is strange. You wonder how you don't already know it. An acclaimed poet visiting the UK on an Arts Council exchange in 1948, he denounced the new Czech regime, was excommunicated, and soon disappeared into treatment in the British mental healthcare system. A chance encounter between one of his nurses and an old poet friend from Brno verified he was indeed a great poet, as he had claimed in the hospital. He was granted access to a typewriter, and he eventually published two more books before his death in the hospital in 1987.
Veronika Tuckerová's decisions as editor in The Drug of Art: Selected Poems honor the conflicting views on his exile. It is hard to say if he was persecuted, paranoid, or both, and contributions by Matthew Sweney, Justin Quinn, Alex Zucker, and Anna Moshovakis lend objectivity. Translations of selections from the first few books are generous and include the longer poem, ''Terrestris'' and the fable-like prose piece ''The Game.'' Later works showcase his use of English, with all untranslated text preserved in gray font.
A train wheezed in just now, your train. You're back
in the old country from traveling about.
The inrush left boats bobbing in its wake
and drizzle on the clouded station-mouth.
And drizzle... drizzle on the gasometer's drum,
on the moving van, on a soft grey scarf wound round.
Blatny is at his best as city naturalist, working with the materials of Brno – bricks and wires, furnishings, ridiculous wildlife. Marcel Proust and Langston Hughes are major touchstones and he clearly shares their lullaby sense of man-made domestic environments. Here, repetition both suggests the austerity of city space and opens the lines as they begin crowding:
Was it after the war already? Was it autumn? Was it Spring?
Someone accompanied me outside on guitar
And I strummed upon the strings.
It was that famous empty Sunday,
It was that famous empty Sunday,
Bouquet, chair, ribbons, and more.
Your flat was empty: She's taken a lover's leave.
Some gentleman in black struggled with a wreath.
In the masterful long poem ''Terestris,'' the city is haunted by its own surplus of inhabitants,
... above the rooftops, dreams
great one another,
and speed criss-cross
to the bedrooms of their dreamers, tipping their hats,
chimneys, stars, weathervanes of smoke.
And even higher than dreams,
among the towers and hills. . .
the witch Terrestris
This clarity moves into surreal description, to ignite the dream-idea:
behind the town to Bitch's Grove,
here kittens and moths fly through the boughs, where
bees carrying earwax fly down
hither and thither into the curly hives of beautiful Terrestris
Thousands, millions of youths
falling face first
into those dull rough hairs, which resemble
matted horsehair sticking up out of old mattresses,
. . . .
In the later, shorter poems, we see more English and sense the pressures of the hospital compressing and mincing the lines. To be fair Blatny's work is abstract, not autobiographical, but the brief lines and seeping languages raise questions about stimulation, deprivation and mental freedom as creative axes. The unsupported repetition reads as a chilling echo of restricted life, and expanding into English brings only sterile hospital language:
''Poetry is a panacea for all illnesses'' (106)
''Perhaps it is macaroni cheese / I'll go for dinner''
''always under pressure of the moral institutes,'' (107).
There are some good lines about bumblebees, and history, but mostly these last ''poems'' are murky fragments.
Still, where the present trend toward firmly controlled, wry projects cleaves wit from realism, where discussions of a poet's work refer constantly to the poet's explanatory prose, this is a good read. Blatny refreshes ideas of poetry as sibylline utterance, of the sublime confusion of negative capability and of giving an open yes to all contradictory things. Consider the last stanzas of ''Above the wooded quarry'':
Loud songs rose from the drinking halls,
steps squelching by, the dark spread up the hill,
the clink of glass and hoarse refrains gone still,
and shadows crowded from the railway tunnels.
Then everything faded in the woods near Brno,
where the scents of mint and mushroom flow,
and smoke dispersed in clearings near the river.
Amidst the grasses, blood-red petals quiver.
But we push on, push on, which is our will.
No. No joy. And hurt by it. And still.
Denise Dooley lives in Rogers Park, Chicago. She writes poetry and fiction and works in science outreach at Northwestern. Website: http://www.tacks.freehostia.com