Reviewed: Ivan Blatný, The Drug of Art: Selected Poems. Edited by Veronika Tuckerová. Ugly Duckling Presse, $15.
When a mysterious and silent young man began delighting staff with his piano playing at a mental health unit in Kent in 2005, the numerous suggestions as to his identity included a Czech musician called Tomas Strnad. Although Strnad proved a false lead, it wouldn’t have been the first time a troubled Czech artist had turned to the NHS for refuge. In 1954 Czech poet Ivan Blatný (1919-1990) was hospitalized in Essex for mental health problems. He was to remain institutionalized for the rest of his life, in Ipswich and later Clacton-on-Sea, or “Bohemia-on-Sea” as Nick Drake calls it in his poem “Cigarettes for Mr Blatný.” Blatný had achieved fame early back home, with four books of poems before he turned thirty, but on entering hospital his fortunes contrasted sharply with the Piano Man of half a century later. He was ignored and his writings thrown away. Not until a chance meeting in 1977 between one of his nurses and someone who knew Blatný in Czechoslovakia were his tales of being a poet taken seriously. Relieved of his lampshade-making duties, he was given a typewriter as part of his “occupational” therapy, and new work swiftly followed. Opinions vary as to the severity of his condition, with diagnoses ranging from schizophrenia to simple terror that if he ever left hospital he would be returned to his homeland. Pleasingly, he lived to see the collapse of communism, and sent a message of congratulations to Vaclav Havel (a fan) when he visited Britain in 1990.
The early Blatný deals in atmospheric landscapes that might be captions to Josef Sudek photographs (though Blatný came from Brno, not Prague). Behind the Bohemian mists is a clearly audible note of loss and desperation:
Then everything faded in the woods near Brno,
where the scents of mist 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.
Proust and his lost love object Albertine are frequent reference points, but the travails of post-war Czechoslovakia led Blatný to update Proust for the title of his third book, In Search of Present Time. The calmer surface of his early work begins to give way to a swirling turbulence that may remind readers of his great Hungarian contemporary, Attila József. This is ration-book poetry with a vengeance, where a badly boarded window on the poet’s flat cannot keep the rain from leaking onto the “even shabbier boards” inside awaiting conversion to a coffin. Repetitions are hammered home like nails or the “wailing refrains” of a singer in “Fifth,” “Desperately monotonous over, and over, and over / And again and again.”
Blatný’s love of Langston Hughes contributes to the cabaret feel of the long poem “Terrestris,” whose witch-like central figure joins Baba Yaga and Brueghel’s Mad Meg as an iconic figure of mayhem and destruction. In The Game (1947), Blatný mixes poetry and prose in an absurdist allegory reminiscent of yet another prophet of destruction, Franz Kafka. Then comes his epic hiatus, before the appearance in samizdat of Old Addresses in 1979. It is enormously touching to find Blatný rediscovering something like his old serenity in a poem like “Cigarette”:
Blue smoke I blew out and blue smoke now floats
to your Pisarky. I think I’m in the woods.
Once more, a Brno tramcar takes me there.
We’re going through the trees. We’re swinging round
the Expo and beyond the football ground
to the cemetery, and girls wave in the air.
Lives and careers scarcely come more displaced than Blatný’s. As the full scale of his achievement becomes known (and there remains much unpublished work), he can be hailed as the major Czech poet he is, alongside such figures as Vladimír Holan, Vitezslav Nezval, and Jaroslav Seifert. Equally, he might be compared to John Clare, Francis Webb, and David Gascoyne, as one of those rare voices that reach us from the silence of the mental institution. Or just as convincingly, he can be seen as one of those figures lost and found between languages, like Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, and Emile Cioran.
Just how lost and found can be seen from the late poems in which Blatný often crossed over entirely into English. How ought a translator to deal with this? (And speaking of translators, the various hands behind these English versions should not go unnamed: Justin Quinn, Alex Zucker, Veronika Tuckerova, Anna Moschovakis, and Matthew Sweney, not to be confused with the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney.) The solution adopted here is to use gray type for text in English in the original, though a cheekier approach might have been to return this material to Czech in the “translation.” In some cases only a title in Czech separates the “original” and “translation,” as though we had wandered into a Bohemian rewrite of Borges’ great short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In one such poem, “The Road is Sowed with Stars,” Blatný ponders his lifetime of linguistic homelessness: “The bumble-bee may also be called humble-bee / they humbly suck the nectar / without being able to build a hive.” Whether in the original or translation, Blatný’s poetry has the rare and moving power to make us feel we are reading a foreign language—and that language is English.