Ryan Scott reviews Petr Borkovec

13 July 2009

From the Interior: Poems 1995-2005 by Petr Borkovec
Seren Books, 2008

Petr Borkovec has been referred to as the leading poet in the next generation of Czech poets. But who are this next generation? How do they relate to the old? And what is Borkovec's place among them? The most general answer to the first two questions, which the translator Justin Quinn addresses in his insightful introduction to From the Interior: Poems 1995-2005, is that Borkovec differentiates himself from earlier poets in that he is not obviously political. There are 'no oblique parodies, no message-in-the bottle ironies'. Without a totalitarian regime to strike against, Borkovec's imagination and language, at least as it is represented in this collection, weave through the quotidian: train rides, new apartments, wildlife and natural scenes; and it is in these seemingly light topics that Borkovec's artistry as a poet takes flight.

Before looking at Borkovec's poetry, it would be worthwhile considering him in light of earlier poets. The generation, who wrote under communism, weren't all dissident firebrands. Something of Jaroslav Seifert's contemplative moments or Jiří Kolář's's minutiae can be found in Borkovec's works. However, Borkovec does not have to be bottled along with all the poets of his country because nowadays the notion of a single national poetry is becoming more difficult to identify. Borkovec, Seifret and Kolář may all share a common language, but these and many other Czech poets deploy it in ways as varied as our own. Furthermore, Borkovec acknowledges an important debt to the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose work he has translated. If we are going to place Borkovec's poetry anywhere it is within the transnational even humanist tradition where the local is used to touch upon the universal.

Borkovec tests the limits of figurative expression through subject matter common to poetry, trees, flowers, birds, moments of quiet solitude. However, his language is restless and dramatic in a way that is more than mere description. Colours have a particular prominence in Borkovec's poetry and he gives them active roles, moving through his poetic landscapes and informing the world we see. He doesn't just write of a moon, but a moon 'as yellow as the dreaming page at night', or 'dragonfly shapes put on / grey-blue battered jackets.' Similarly, in the delicate and graceful poem, 'For J.K.' colour expresses the speaker's condition as he lies in hospital:

my body all awry

with chamber pot of urine
amber, settled, cold.

The colour dominates the image and so informs the mood. The syntax and rhythm elevate this adjective to a substance which feels as though it fills the ward and imprisons the speaker.

A common medium for these colours are ribbons which streak through several of his poems. The use of such an image justifies accusations his work is decorative. After all ribbons are mainly used to dress things up like gifts and little girls, to create and prolong illusions of innocence and mystery. Borkovec's ribbons are rarely that. In an untitled poem, he likens brief respite to 'a ribbon fluttering through the stomach and lungs'. The image is neither decorative nor comforting when you think about it. In another untitled poem, the ribbon is the tantalising treasure that we fail to grasp, 'and words look back to catch a voice, even still / or catch a ribbon, loosened, grey and blue.' The colours are placed after the ribbon and so are again made distinct. The characteristics of the ribbon are as elusive as the ribbon itself and the treasure it represents.

Colours can come to the forefront of poems and be the very issue on which the verse's emotional drama turns. On learning of her husband's death, a woman sits down in an armchair which she and her husband couldn't agree on the colour.

… it was blue, I saw that it was clearly blue,
and repeated to myself: it's blue.
Blue. Anyone could see that.
Because from the day we brought it home
we could never agree about its colour.
George always talked of a particular green.

The obvious interpretation is to see the colour as a manifestation of her sorrow, except that she thinks the armchair is blue before George dies. It is the disagreement which brings her to tears at the end. Perhaps, the blue could represent the freedom of the sky or the serenity of the ocean. Maybe the sound of the word brings her joy. Ours is to speculate. What Borkovec does do for certain is make colours actors between the speaker and her husband. Their slippery nature intervenes in the relationship of these two people, so it is the difference of opinion she recalls most of all.

Given that Borkovec is such a visual poet, it is unsurprising that a window in some form or another features in his poems. It serves as a frame for as well as a door into his lyrical vistas. We are also tempted to imagine the moment of creation, to see Borkovec looking out onto the landscape as he wrote the poem. In the case there is nothing wrong with the temptation. The poems feel a part of their location and Borkovec doesn't try to hide himself. However, the windows do much more than that. Like the colours, they are not passive components of the world. They take part in and are affected by the scenes which they show:

Early at the white school,
its industrial blue windows,
its cherry blossom
in a lawn clamped by false granite.
The wind plays with one pane –
glass like a wave, like foil.

The opening is typical of many of these poems in that it is lucid with exacting detailed. But in this case the window isn't permitting us this view onto the world. It is removed from him, fixed up and in the school and instead of being transparent and brittle it is likened to 'foil', soft and reflective.

In another untitled poem, the window is not the entrance but rather the outer limit of a new apartment. A 'sunset … fills the pane of glass' but only the interior is revealed. Once again the room is disassembled into its fixtures and furnishings:

Matt panels, wardrobes built into the wall.
I fold new words away around the hall,

behind the mirror (some postcards from the sea).
And nothing really,

except a heavy blanket, it's patterned swirl,
as I doze off, blends with my mute withdrawal.

Borkovec is not observing remotely. He's part of the interior of what sounds like a typical Communist era panelák: the large rectangular apartment blocks built to provide affordable housing, which dominate much of the Czech skyline. His words, his body and his mood meld with physical setting. The poet becomes connected to the subject, just as his windows can remain a mere portal.

Underlying Borkovec's vivid colouring of the world is the very problem of seeing and what it means to represent. It is this unnerving quality of sight which ultimately lifts his poetry above the decorative. Such concern is expressed directly. In the poem about the apartment cited above, Borkovec says of the two people that their 'eyes range widely, then lock in mid-air.' Not even the eyes remain outside the text. They also become part of the poem's drama and consequently become tangled up with each other. In the poem 'Statue' the speaker – who is never referred to in the first person – doesn't just look at their bookshelf, rather eyes are said to be 'chewing over bookshelves and the patterned murk'. Apart from expressing the torpor brought on by being in a flat in the rain, Borkovec expresses what it means to see that is to think over as ruminate as well as to digest and take apart. So while he might be directing us to look he's well aware that his poems are not simply representation. As he says to the unnamed audience of 'Mehwa', 'All that you write is like / nothing that is before your eyes.'

In a sense, he could also be addressing himself because in Borkovec's eyes the world changes. 'Monstrous tentacles' of briars assault the lower parts of the forest or 'split trunks all chicken flesh' are found in the forest. Or in the poem 'Frost' a 'pavement glimmers with its own weak charge / stretched drying like a skin rich with hairs.' These images are not casual analogies. Through his imagery Borkovec presents a world which is alien, even extraterrestrial, but which possessed of its own intentions.

This quality is especially effective in the domestic piece 'Kitchen'. A couple are at a table after some unspecified dispute. All that it clear is a quiet welling animosity from the side of the speaker:

Don't touch me. Don't try to see
the point. Just lift your cup.
Regard me over tea.
I'm here. From the waist up.
No walls. A screen that tenders
branches, blossoms and nest.
Don't look down. I'm a centaur.

The speaker is of course referring to the four legs of the chair, which combined with his torso, has made him into this mythological creature. Apart from the pithiness of the image, it works because it takes a being associated with abandon and savagery and uses it to express the speaker's inertia. He has become all mass and no movement. He is not just sitting, not just two legs rooted to the spot, but four.

These descriptions would fall flat if it weren't for Borkovec's lyricism. While Borkovec's poems are very visual and descriptive, dealing with precise, almost static moments, he uses the language in such a way to give these poems verve and potency. So he's found a fitting translator in Justin Quinn, an Irish poet based in Prague, who has published widely and to considerable acclaim. Quinn brings a poet's sensibility to the works along with his intimate understanding of the language. Quinn sees how these poems work in the original and his translation strives to convey this, so staying true to Borkovec's work. The efforts of Quinn should be mentioned for always trying to retain the rhythmic mellifluous quality of Borkovec's poems. In many of the poems in the original Czech, Borkovec employs rhyme, alliteration and assonance. The latter is a pronounced feature of the Czech language because of its comparatively limited yet distinct range vowels. This does not mean that Czech is inherently more poetic than English, rather the language presents its own unique limitations to poetic expression. It's easy to imagine the phonology of Czech leading to something trite or gimmicky.

One example is the line from this untitled poem. In the original Czech Brokovec writes 'Nad poln?? zem?? let?? havrani' which has been translated by Quinn as 'The rooks delight and fly above the land'. A pedant would point out that the word 'delight' does not appear in the original. I would argue that Quinn had to import this word to give the line its lift which Borkovec was able to achieve through the repetition of the vowel i, pronounced as 'ee', which makes the words sound open and light and evokes and not only describes the flight of these birds.

In another example from the poem 'Frost', Quinn has been more successful in approaching Borkovec's attention to language. The line 'spolu se zámkem odmyká kolena a lokty' repeats both the o and the a which simply gives the line a rich open texture. Quinn has attempted to maintain this texture through the use of alliteration 'you have to unlock leg joints with the latch', which I think he has succeeded in achieving. From the same poem, Quinn comes even closer to Borkovec's poetic effects. 'Předtím si ještě stáhne svět, až ke škrtnutí' is rendered as 'The world shrinks, so much so, that the corners cut'. Quinn to his credit has maintained the sibilance of the Czech line as well as its abrupt stop. And it is lines like this which gives Borkovec's work its resonance.

Politics didn't disappear after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Issues of race, class and gender, the subject matters which are often at the forefront of much current poetry, still persist in Czech society. I cannot claim to know why Borkovec has eschewed these topics. Whether it was deliberate or 'natural' is not the point. What is significant about these poems is that whether in English or Czech, they show that the descriptive faculties of language remain potent despite trends and changes.

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About Ryan Scott


Ryan Scott lives in the Czech Republic. His poems have appeared in journals and on websites from Australia, USA, UK and Switzerland.

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