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Friday, October 23, 2009

City for Failed Acrobats (on Vitezslav Nezval and Milos Sovak)


Nezval


Some spires of Prague

Jerry and Diane Rothernberg and the Sovaks in their Paris apartment

Vítězslav Nezval Antilyrik, translated from the Czech by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2001)

After a couple of years in pre-production, my Green Integer press finally published this July Jerome Rothernberg's and Milos Sovak's excellent translation, Antilyrik, a selection of poems by the forgotten (almost unknown, at least in the US) Czech experimentalist, Vítězslav Nezval.

Nezval, born in the village of Šamikovice in Southern Moravia, studied philosophy in Charles University in Prague at the very time when Czechoslovakia was as the "first real and socially oriented democracy in central Europe" (Rothenberg and Sovak), and like most Czech intellectuals of the time aligned himself with the Communist Party. The artistic counterpart of the political revolutionary spirit of the day was, for Nezval, an alliance with what was called the "Nine Powers" (Devetsil), a poet and artist collective that included some of the major figures of Czech experimentalism, including Jindrich Styrsky, Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, Frantisek Halas, and Toyen (Marie Germinova). One of his first publications with this group was his long poem The Remarkable Magician, published at the age of 21.

From 1923 on Nezval presented his own program of poetics described as "Poetism," which set itself against "literary poetry" and proposed "a new art which will cease to be art." This movement would later ally itself with the Surrealists of Paris, particularly after Nezval's meeting with André Breton in 1932. Over the next 35 years Nezval would continue to publish, despite periods in which his art was banned and described as "degenerate," dozens of audacious works of poetry and fiction, as well as works of drama and art.

Our collection was only the third selection of his work to appear in English, and included several remarkable poems, including "City of Towers," where Nezval mesmerizingly repeats the word "fingers" to celebrate the creative tool that allows his poem itself to bring his Prague into life:

o hundred-towered Prague
city with fingers of all the saints
with fingers made for swearing falsely
with fingers from the fire & hail
with a musician's fingers
with shining fingers of a woman lying on her back
..........................
with fingers of asparagus
with fingers with fevers of 105 degrees
with fingers of frozen forest & with fingers without gloves
with fingers on which a bee has landed
with fingers of blue spruces
.............................
with fingers disfigured by arthritis
with fingers of strawberries
with spring water fingers & with fingers of bamboo

"The Dark City" presents a dream-like ghoulish world a city like a carousel, houses like accordions, streets composed of beds from which the citizens come out like "giant worms" or "A pack of dogs that leaped out of a mirror." As the narrator escapes this nightmare world, the city crumbles into ruins and is left as only a pile of earth and ash.

A similar nightmare world is experienced in "The Seventh Chant" from The Remarkable Magician, in which the sights and sounds of the city are linked to European history:

I heard the secrets in a kiss
the words around it circling like a line of colored butterflies
saw thousands of bacteria
in a sick man's body
& every one of them looked like a spiky chestnut
like a cosmos making war
with a skin of scaly armor

I saw a human break free from his dying comrades
in the pit of history that has no bottom

"Fireworks 1924" consists of 82 directions which Nezval defines as a "cinemagenic poem."

"Diabolo: A Poem for Night" is a longer more narrative work that recounts the movements of a sexually attractive but also a vampire-like woman as she removes her clothing and ultimately "her breasts & rests them on the nightstand / then slips out thru the monastery crypt to take confession." Like the poem that follows, the woman's courtier is represented at times as being an "acrobat," a man caught upon the wire "between his wife's bed / & another woman's." The "nite vaudeville" Nezval describes becomes a story of equilibration, a "marriage halfway station for failed acrobats," presumbably fallen beings from the wires connecting the city's many spires (Prague is commonly known as the city of a hundred spires).

In his 1927 poem "Akrobat," Prague becomes a meeting place of all Europe as the acrobat, both a marvelous shape-shifter and a fallen fool, reveals all the pleasures and tortures of modern life. Like a fairy tale, the poem, Nezval argues, "redeems our happiness," to which, by the end of the poem, Nezval bids "farewell": "I leave you now so I can keep returning."


Jerry Rothenberg, is a long time friend of whom I have written elsewhere. Milos Sovak, who was formerly a physician and now heads up a medical research company in San Diego, also has homes in Paris and Prague, where he grew up. I visited his Paris home on Rue Jacob in 1997, having a beautiful luncheon with him, his wife, and the Rothenbergs. When I told him where I was staying, the Hotel Notre Dame, he claimed he had always stayed there before buying his Paris apartment. On this occasion Sovak also displayed several of the beautiful books of poetry by friends such as Cees Nooteboom and Manuel Ulacia he had published, each accompanied by original art works by noted painters.

In 1999 I visited Milos in Prague.
Milos, who comes from a illustrious Prague family, spent a couple of days touring me through the city, the first night taking me to the Švejk restaurant whose walls carry the drawings by Joseph Lada and George Grosz for famed Czech novelist Jaroslav 's Hašek The Good Soldier Švejk.

The next day Milos was kind enough to take me on a long walking tour of the old town and other parts of the city. At one point he showed me a large building where, during the final days of Nazi control, his father had worked as head doctor. As the German tanks were leaving the city in the early days of May 1945, one gun tank was conspicuously pointed at the hospital; it was clear that the Germans were determined to destroy the hospital (the only one that would accept Jewish patients) as they left. Those at work in the building, including Milos' father, were horrified by their imminent destruction. Meanwhile, as Milos describes it, an elderly woman who worked as the head secretary, sitting at her window and witnessing the scene, carefully took out her pistol from the drawer of her desk, and aimed it at the operator of the tank, shooting him directly in the head. The tank careened around the square for several minutes before finally coming to rest.

That afternoon, Milos and I visited Argo publishers, where I met the publisher and his assistant, who some days later joined me in Frankfurt (in attendance at the Frankfurt Bookfair) for a Japanese dinner.

Back in Prague Milos took me out to a splendid dinner at a lovely restaurant. I believe I ordered boar. On our way back home we walked across the Vltava river, stopping in a small park along the way where he pointed across to the home (more like a lit-up mansion, it appeared to me) in which he had grown up. "What a beautiful city," I sighed.

Prague was in near-complete renovation when I visited, nearly all of the buildings which had not previously been repainted, were enjoying new coats of the bright colors that now identify the Prague sky-line. Milos scoffed, somewhat jokingly I presume, at all the renovation. "I somehow got used to and now prefer the old gray city Prague was for so many years under Soviet rule. Everything now seems so artificially bright!"

A few years later, Milos introduced me in Los Angeles to beloved Mexican poet Manual Ulacia, with whom Horácio Costa had lived for several years before I met him on my first trip to Brazil. Ulacia drowned while swimming in the ocean this year. A good swimmer, he was swept out to sea by undercurrents and was unable to return to shore.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2001


In 2002 Milos and Jerry won the PEN Center USA award for their translation of Nezval's Antilyrik.
On January 26, 2009 Sovak died in San Diego, after a prolonged illness, at the age of 67.


Los Angeles, October 18, 2009

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