Saturday, December 24, 2005


Miroslav Holub

Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was a Czechoslovakian microbiologist specializing in cellular immunology as well as a poet who often drew upon his scientific background for poetic material, inspiration, and outlook. His outlook (perhaps exacerbated in part by his run-ins with Communist authorities and subsequent loss of position and privileges) is often bleak, as are the outlooks of many of his contemporaries, but, unlike many of those, Holub also retains both a strain of humor and at times a cautious and limited optimism.

Holub's poems often focus on clear images, precisely observed, as in "The Fly":

She sat on the willow bark
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shrieks,
the moans,
the wails,
the trampling and tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
sitting on a disemboweled horse
on the immortality of flies.

Relieved she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and just
a few arms and legs
twitched under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armorer.

And so it came to pass --
she was eaten by a swift
from the fires of Estrés.

(Translated by Stuart Friebert and Dana Habova)

By focusing on the fly and its actions, Holub shifts our perceptions of the killing ground where the feudal aristocracy of medieval France was slaughtered so that it becomes -- in terms of the fly -- virtually an Edenic setting as the fly fulfills her fundamental urges and passes on her genes to a new generation. Her death afterwards comes as an ironic, almost offhand occurrence as the perspective shifts again from that of the fly to that of the swift who devours her. Holub thus establishes the human action of the Battle of Crécy, and of warfare more generally, within the broader context of biological nature and thereby reveals its inevitability and, perhaps, questions whether such events as Crécy are, when seen from a broader perspective, any more a "tragedy" than the death of the fly. At the very least, the perceptional shift asks us to question our anthropocentric view of the world.

But, as was mentioned, there is at times an element of whimsical optimism in Holub's work, as in this poem where, in addition to "wide-eye bunnies/ dropping from the sky," at the end, the beetles ensure a kind of resurrection for the dead:


And it is all over.

No more sweetpeas,
no more wide-eyed bunnies
dropping from the sky.

a reddish boniness
under the sun of hoarfrost,
a thievish fog,
an insipid solution of love,
and crowing.

But next year
larches will try
to make the land full of larches again
and larks will try
to make the land full of larks.

And thrushes will try
to make all the trees sing,
and goldfinches will try
to make all the grass golden,

and burying beetles
with their creaky love will try
to make all the corpses
rise from the dead,


(Translated by Stuart Friebert and Dana Habova)

There are also moments when the whimsy is more obviously satirical:

"The Teaching of the Master"

He spoke
and the shirts of penitents
fell to the ground, impregnated.

It was the Caesarian section of thought,
plush dolls were born, jubilating.
It was a profile of Everyman,
cut out of black paper.
Ladybugs crawled out from under our fingernails.
Trumpets were heard at the walls of Jericho.
Our genes sizzled.

It was magnificent, as he spoke.
It's just that I can't recall
what he was talking about.

(translated by David Young and Miroslav Holub)

I suspect that, in satirizing religion here (and in a few other poems, as well), Holub is actually disguising satiric thrusts at the Communist government of his country.

Thanks for that excellent post on Holub. I knew The Fly, but not the other two poems you quoted.

I've read a collection of English translations of Holub, "Poems: Before and After", published in 1990. It had an enormous effect on me, both as a reader and writer. I still love his work.

Andrew Motion wrote a fine article in the Guardian about Holub, but I can't seem to make the link fit in this message box. I'll try posting the link to my own Blog. It also discusses The Fly, and makes some very interesting points on that poem.
Thanks,Rob. I'd like to see Motion's article. I've only just discovered Holub myself, and his Intensive Care: Selected and New Poems (Field translation Series22, Oberlin College Press, 1996) just arrived today; I'm looking forward toworking my way through it.
the poem fly i think does even suit to conditions that are relevent many flie are in fleet in war zones of srilanka?are is there any censorship in wars where flies are crushed?
holubs works are of the mind that deal with bodies.the images of bodies in his work are brimming with a lot of palpitation and warmth.
r balakrishnan tamil writer ,translator
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