April 26, 2009

Vítĕzslav Nezval

Cover for Karneval

Vítĕzslav Nezval [Czechoslavakia / now Czech Republic]

Vítĕzslav Nezval was born on May 16, 1900 into a family of a village teacher in Šamikovice in Southern Moravia. His father had cultivated an interest in the arts and had traveled long distances to see important exhibitions. He was especially involved with music and his teacher was the composer Leoš Janáček. Nezval's grand-uncle was an eccentric toolmaker and telegraph clerk, a man who knew the world and spoke several languages—"half scientist, half poet," Nezval would later describe him. The young boy's life was profoundly marked by these two men but also by the village culture, close to nature and the vocabulary of those who worked the soil. In 1911 Nezval entered the gymnasium in Trebic, where he also learned piano and began composing music. From 1916 on he was systematically reading and writing his first poetry. In March of 1918 he as drafted into the first world war, but he was sent home soon thereafter for partly real and partly simulated illnesses.

With the war over, in the fall of 1919 Nezval moved to Prague and started studying philosophy at Charles University. This was the time when a newly formed Czechoslovakia (under its philosopher-president Thomas Masaryk) was emerging as the first real and socially oriented democracy in central Europe, and the question of its further political and economic direction was in contention. Like most other Czech artists and intellectuals, Nezval veered toward the left and in 1924 became a member of the Communist Party. As with others also—not only in Prague but throughout Europe—political revolution had its artistic counterpart, and from 1922 on, Nezval allied himself with the "Nine Powers" (Devetsil), a collective of poets and artists that included among its core figures Jindrich Styrsky, Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, Frantisek Halas, and Toyen (Marie Germinova). Written before his twenty-second birthday, Nezval's long poem, The Remarakble Magician, was included in the group's "Revolutionary Collections," a series of books of essays, poems, and manifestos, that accompanied the founding of a new "poetism" as the principal Czech avant-garde movement.

Nezval dated his own "discovery of Poetism" from 1923. As a program and a poetics—developed by Nezval and Teige in the latter's 1924 Poetist Manifesto (contemporary with André Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism)—Poetism set itself against "literary poetry" and proposed "a new art which will cease to be art." In a tension shared by other movements of the time and later, their "poetism" tilted between a rejection of "art" in the named of "a pure poetry...[within] a life [turned] into a magnificent entertainment" (Tiege) and a commitment to political and social struggle taking shape around a nascent and, for them, a still admired Soviet Union. Nezval would later rename the movement "realism" and later still would ally it for several years with the Surrealists of Paris.

In this way Nezval's public career moved between political and literary commitments and alliances. With the onset of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s he engaged directly in labor struggles—those in particular of striking Czech coal miners. In 1932 he attended the first Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow, and in the same year he made an extensive and for him a transformative trip to Italy and to France, where he met with the leaders of the French avant-garde: Breton, Eluard, Péret, Aragon. At the same time his recognition as a poet—the central figure of the new Czech poetry—continued to grow. He received the prestigious State Prize for poetry in 1934 and donated the entire sum to a fund for helping refugees from Nazi Germany.
Nezval's meeting with the French poets and his continuing involvement with Surrealism had a kind of inevitability about it. As early as 1924 the event and content of Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of that year (along with that of Yvan Goll) had been disseminated in Prague. From the early 1920s on, Nezval's connection as writer and dramaturge with Jinrich Honzl's Liberated Theater involved him in the presentation and translation of works by Apollinaire, Jarry, Soupault, and Breton, among others. The painters Syrsky and Toyen, both close to him, emigrated to France and entered actively into the Paris art scene. From 1928 to 1931 Styrsky, along with Karel Tiege, published a number of key articles concerning French Surrealism, and in 1931 three important shows of French avant-garde painting were organized in Prage (an internationally based Poetry '32 exhibition came shortly thereafter), with Nezval intimately involved in their planning and presentation.

It was only after Nezval's 1932 meeting with Breton, however, that a more formal collaboration was set in motion. Nezval came to the Surrealists' defense against attacks by the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg, and in 1934 eleven writers, poets and painters in Prague, published a manifesto, written largely by Nezval and Teige, in which they presented themselves as part of the international surrealist movement and a proclamation of a decision to form a Czech Surrealist group.
The alliance between Prague and Paris led to a period of heightened activity on the Czech side: new books and magazines, art exhibitions, visits from Breton and Eluard and others, the establishment of the Surrealist-oriented New Theater with its productions of Breton and Aargon's The Treasury of Jesuits and Nezval's The Oracle of Delphi. With its balancing act of poety and political absolutes, however, the Czech group, much like is Parisian prototype, began quickly to come apart. In 1938, while Europe was heading into new war, Nezval issues a proclamation dissolving the movement, which for a year or so continued existence under Teige and a group of interested young intellectuals and artists.

For Nezval the war period was a time of withdrawal and holding back. When the Germans took control of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, he was not persuaded to leave the country, although arrangements had been made for him to do so. Most of his books were forbidden as "degenerate art," and he turned his attention to painting and to the writing of plays, most notably Manon Lescaut, based on Prévost's famous eighteenth century novel. In 1944 Nezval was arrested by Germans but was released soon thereafter.

After the liberation in 1945, Nezval returned to poetry and to increasingly recognized publication, though rarely with the avant-garde thrust of his earlier work. For a while he was the director of the film section of the Information and Culture Ministry in Prague, and after the Communist takeover in 1948 he received a number of official prizes and considerable governmental support. His political affinities and international stature made him a prominent member of that network of tolerated avant-gardists/poet-heroes that included Neruda, Brecht, Picasso, Hikmet, Eluard, and Tzara, some of whom he shared pro-forma hymns to Stalin in the early postwar years. In 1945 he again traveled to France, this time to meet Picasso and to see the French premier of his play Today the Sun Is Setting on Atlantis. But by then he had experienced his first heart attack and he had the sense that death was closing in on him.
The last years of Nezval's life were a time of frenetic activity—publish poems, essays, and copious translations of world literature. Nezval died on April 6, 1958.

—Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak


Most (Brno: Bedřich Kočí, 1922); Pantomina (Prague: Ústřední studentské knihkupectví nakladatelství, 1924); Diabolo (Prague: Vaněk & Votava, 1926); Karneval (Prague: Jan Fromek, 1926); Menší ružová zahrada (Prague: Jan Fromek, 1926); Akrobat (Prague: Rudolf Škeřík, 1927); Blíženci (Prague: Rozmach, 1927); Edison (Prague: Rudolf Škeřík, 1928); Hra v Kostky (Prague: Rudolf Škeřík, 1929); Básně noci (Prague: Aventinum, 1930); Jan ve smutku (Prague: Bohumil Janda, 1930); Posedlost (Prague: Bohumil Janda, 1930); Snídaně v trávě (Prague:
1930); Skleněný havelok (Prague: František Borový, 1932); Zpátecní lístek (Prague: František Borový, 1933); Sbohem a šáteček (Prague: František Borový, 1934); Žena v množném čísle (Prague: František Borový, 1936); Praha s prsty deště (Prague: František Borový, 1936); Absolutní hrobař. Básně 1937 (Prague: František Borový, 1937); Historický obraz (Prague: František F. Müller, 1939; expanded edition, Prague: Melantrich, 1945); Pět minut za městem (Prague: František Borový, 1940); Stalin (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1949); Zpěv míru (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1950); Chrpy a měta (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1955); Dílo Vítezslava Nezvala, (30 vols.) (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1950-1990)


Song of Peace, trans. by Jack Lindsay and Stephen Jolly (London: Fore, 1951); in Three Czech Poets: Vítĕzslav Nezval, Antonín Bartušek, Josef Hanzlík (Harmondsworth, United Kingdom: Penguin, 1971); Antilyrik and Other Poems, trans. by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000);


It's on the gazes of the women
that it flickers in the length of mirrors
an indigo adventure
mixes with the midday sleep of soda water breaking free
extinguishing the evening

A cigarette draws off a day that's past
a memory in a box with the geraniums of summer
fragrance fading as the garbage truck rolls past

So when I paint these eyes
it's an enormous still life these eyelashes brushing
the down comforter on which the setting sun
projects a green to pas a cypress idyll

Farewell the grimace from the far side of the lawn
where some great game bird starts up the evening show
but stops short sobbing into her black pearls
in the backwash of a kiss that strips you bare

And now I see her standing naked
where the cafe mirrors multiply her image
until it lets me fall asleep
and I forget my indigo deception

An exchange of gazes
buzzes now like poisons
above the ranunculus's sweet inebriations
united by an icy chandelier

Then there's a letter slipped into a magazine
and later taken out
that I'm now burning in this ash tray

Or there's a handkerchief that some one dropped
and that a waiter picked up eyes fixed on his shoes

And the next day footsteps marking time
were entering the trolley an exchange of greetings
our first rendezvous

What rotten luck
a rainy day three hours talking on the bathhouse colonnade
the indigo dissolved is dying out
in the thin blue opening between the little clouds

Loud ticking of a watch a sash that rustles like a snake's tongue
ironic crunch of chocolates a cry emitted where the makeup doesn't take
a frayed bouquet of peonies small boudoirs of the sun

Pieces of luggage left on desolation highway
deprived of combs and handkerchiefs and photographs and letters
an offhanded wave adieu
out on the platform reading destination: moon
damp and disenchanted

Until one day in an elevator without memories
a meeting with a flash of ostrich feathers on a little blonde
sparks a renewal of the poet's chess board
and oh the games I play on it oh darkest night

Translated from the Czech by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak



How do they seize me these strange beings with no names
All their history as simple as Gibraltar
Bastards of reality and air who wander over Africa
The angelus clangs out

On one of those steamy nights the end of June in 1935
I walked past the Luxembourg Garden
It was just striking midnight
And the streets were empty
With the emptiness of moving vans
Deserted like Ash Wednesday
And I thought of nothing
Had no wishes
No I wished for nothing rushed to nowhere
Nothing weighed on me
Like a man sans memory I walked and walked
A many yes like a box
The way old men walk who no longer need to sleep

I still don't know what caught me maybe my own sigh
The trees out in the garden filling with white bandages
I looked back at those paper bindings
Over an iron hedge
Could I have been singing as I walked?
Just singing
And Paris sold off like a slave
Convulsed and crazy
Paris with your bridges made into your chains
Prague, Paris, Leningrad and all the cities
I have ever walked thru
Now I see a herd of women bound with ropes
The glow in drowning them the sky still free
Like bracelets that a crowd is rushing over
Oh you gates you bridges
Of the one and only city that I see
A cith cut thru by the Seine and Neva
by the Moldau
And a brook where peasant women wash their clothes
The brook I live by

And windows
Thru the first a statue comes in from the Place du Pantheon
The next looks over the Charles Bridge
Thru the third I'm staring down the Nevsky Prospect
And still more windows

How I love the grocer's paper cones
With secrets that lie too deep
That they remind me of an empty changer
With its heaps and heaps of shirts
A shaft that holds the common grave of nameless women
I know a forest with its broadleafed burdock
under which a girl's breasts' hidden
And a tin cross to and these white hands
A sofa stuffed with gauze that reeks of antiseptic

Who are you woman like a sewing machine I stare at
Like the Boulevard Montparnasse that self-same evening
When I was sitting down outside the Cafe Dome
And studying the frieze on that one building thirty
five storeys up
I thought that it was snowing
In my mind I took part in the final new year's eve
of the 19th century before it ended
Under a tree filled up with songs a carriage waited
In vain I tried to find the house the sewing machine inside
its shuttle that held a thread I longed to have
Then walked back to the Luxembourg again
The wonder of those gardeners who care so for their trees
they wrap the fruit in little sacks
Like you who cover up your bare breasts with a shirt
As beautiful as a water pail turned over in a house of mourning
As beautiful as a needle in a birch bark with the year and date stitched in
As beautiful as a poppy head that's shaken by a bell
As beautiful as a shoe out in a flood floats past a window with an oil lamp
As beautiful as a wooden stake on which a butterfly is resting
As beautiful as a baked apple in the snow
As beautiful as a bedboard struck by lightning
As beautiful as a wet rag in a fire
As beautiful as a loaf of bread at midnight on the pavement
As beautiful as a button on a cloister wall
As beautiful as a treasure in a pot of flowers
As beautiful as a psychic's table and the words writ on the gate
As beautiful as a garland in a shooting gallery
AS beautiful as a scissors snipping off a candlewick
As beautiful as a tear inside the eye
As beautiful as a the hairwheel of a clock inside a mare's ear
As beautiful as a diamond in a condotierre's rifle
As beautiful as teeth marks on an apple
As beautiful as the trees in the Luxembourg Garden
the trees wrapped in white linen
stiff with starch

Translated from the Czech by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak

A Duel

When she sent forth her fingers like a swarm of birds
Into the beard hairs of a man bowed down like barley
Her back started to pour down like rain
Over her buttocks flowed like a bidet
An uneven fight it was
Old man and statue slugged it out
Ending with three swipes and a bloody dagger
But the killer
Falling to earth before his victim did
Eyes shut tight could see wild poppies
Which would scorch his beard with fire
Of a never gratified desire

Translated from the Czech by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak



Novel," "Shirt," and Duel"
Reprinted from Antilyrik and Other Poems, trans. by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000). Copyright ©2000 by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

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