Risks

Tom Paulin

  • On the Contrary by Miroslav Holub, translated by Ewald Osers
    Bloodaxe, 126 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 906427 75 4
  • The Lamentation of the Dead by Peter Levi
    Anvil, 40 pp, £2.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 85646 140 7
  • Collected Poems by Peter Levi
    Anvil, 255 pp, £12.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 85646 134 2
  • Elegies by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 64 pp, £7.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 571 13570 6
  • Poems: 1963-1983 by Michael Longley
    Salamander, 206 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 904011 77 1
  • Making for the Open: The Chatto Book of Post-Feminist Poetry edited by Carol Rumens
    Chatto, 151 pp, £4.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2848 8
  • Direct Dialling by Carol Rumens
    Chatto, 48 pp, £3.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2911 5
  • The Man Named East by Peter Redgrove
    Routledge, 137 pp, £4.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7102 0014 5

Recently I received a somewhat smug letter from one of the editors of PN Review asking me to contribute to yet another symposium on the state of critical chassis which still persists in Great Britain. The editor enclosed a statement entitled ‘A New Orthodoxy’ which listed certain ‘imperative tasks’. The sixth task was this: ‘To expose the absurdity of using literary criticism as an outlet for political frustrations.’ This paradoxical call for inactive action issues from a familiar form of conservative quietism, but it is important to remember that in certain other societies quietism and political frustration are not opposed attitudes or states of mind. In Miroslav Holub’s Czechoslovakia; the poet and the critic know that the act of writing is both necessary and absurd. This is the sharp, precise point of ‘Swans in Flight’, where the swans circle ‘and that means that Fortinbras’s army is approaching. That Hamlet will be saved and that an extra act will be played. In all translations, in all theatres, behind all curtains and without mercy.’ These lines allude both to Pasternak’s ‘Hamlet in Russia’ and to Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, and they wryly describe that fixed and determined social reality which constrains the poet who writes from inside the Eastern bloc. The laws of the state are like the rules which govern a tragic masterpiece – only naive optimists believe they can be changed to allow for a happy ending. But the irony is that in suggesting this Holub’s fatalism takes on a political edge and relevance. By expressing a frustration, the writer has taken a risk.

This type of poetry resembles an elegant, ironic, highly sophisticated scrimshandering – it is the art of a prison-camp society, of a closed world where poetry is written without hope but with an obstinate integrity that negates as it creates. Holub’s scientific landscape is clean like a hygienic laboratory-bench: it is also, of course, a political landscape which is crossed by fences and filled with ‘Cyclopses, olms, informers’. Olms are a type of blind salamander which are found in caves in the Carpathian mountains and they are kin to one of Holub’s favourite symbols – ‘Minotaur’. Often his poems slip out of the rational daylight into a mythic cave-world where Minotaur (i.e. the state) reminds the reader that there is no private life, no possibility of the trapped poet writing a timeless lyric that will fly up like a swan or an Icarian dream of transcendence. For Holub dawn is simply ‘the naive light of songbirds’ brains’ and dusk is the moment when

The Icaruses were caught
somewhere in spiders’ webs.

These images acknowledge the pointlessness of art, but Holub persists in writing poems and in holding strictly to the idea that the poet in his type of society can perhaps effect a minimal change in its ruling consciousness. His poems all possess a scientific mode and style which is deliberately depersonalised and apparently inhuman, so that the poet can acknowledge European history and suffering without sentimentality or self-regard.

Thus in ‘Distant Howling’ Holub describes how in 1885 Pasteur saved his first patient, the nine-year-old Joseph Maister, with his new vaccine:

Pasteur died of ictus
ten years later.
The janitor Meister
fifty-five years later
committed suicide
when the Germans occupied
his Pasteur Institute
with all those poor dogs.

Only the virus
remained above it all.

Those laconic closing lines are aimed at the idea of disinterestedness, and they remind Holub’s readers that there are no imaginative exits from history. Rereading these lines on a damp day in May, I reflect that Keith Joseph is poised to close down a dozen tutorials on Matthew Arnold and that Holub speaks also to this society. He is a magnificent, astringent genius and this volume sings with an oblique and cutting candour, a tubular coolness we must praise and praise again.

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