“A Single Wand of Rusted Quince”: On the Visionary Poetry of Bohuslav Reynek

By Michael TateJanuary 15, 2018

“A Single Wand of Rusted Quince”: On the Visionary Poetry of Bohuslav Reynek

The Well at Morning by Bohuslav Reynek

BOHUSLAV REYNEK was born in 1892 in a tiny village in what was then Austria-Hungary and died in 1971 in the same tiny village, in what was then Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic. As those dates and shifts in national domain indicate, Reynek’s career as a poet, translator, and artist spanned and transcended the most horrific political turmoil in modern European history. Now his poetry and art are celebrated in a handsome volume titled The Well at Morning, published by Karolinum and distributed by University of Chicago Press. His poetry is translated into English by the Irish poet and academic Justin Quinn, whose lyrical renderings delicately dismantle many preconceptions of how a Central European poet ought to sound. The result is beautiful and revelatory.

From the three essays at the end of the volume, we learn that Reynek was always a rural farmer but began his creative life contributing translations of contemporary German and French poetry to the Czech Stará Říše publishing house, based near his home in the Czech-Moravian Highlands. He began his career, as did so many of his Eastern and Central European contemporaries, as an epigone of the Symbolists, but he soon found his own voice — a voice that was spare and humble, at times proto-absurdist, and also capable of wielding powerful biblical imagery. It is a voice that, according to Quinn, “insists on broader continuities with the European poetic tradition, which glide easily past temporary glitches like communism.”

Consider “A Fool,” which is wittily self-effacing but also philosophically and spiritually profound, drawing on both the Ancient Greek tradition of cynicism (from kuōn, or “dog”) and the Christian tradition of fools for Christ’s sake:

In my village, I’m the fool.
Sad dogs know me — sad white school
of sleepy dogs that drift away
into the distance. They don’t bay.
They keep me happy from afar —
cloudish dogs is what they are
that run about the sky’s massif.
And we’re all drunk on grief.
Where we wander we don’t know.
Ancient shepherd, as I go,
bless my soul with your great gifts
of moon and these long wakeful shifts,
heavy, gashed time and again
like a bleeding heart. Amen.

Like the poetry of Boris Pasternak’s imaginary Dr. Zhivago, Reynek’s work seems to avoid political realities, focusing instead on living, on bearing witness and celebrating what seems small and inconsequential but, to the poet, reflects deeper and more lasting spiritual truths. For example, here is the poem “Quince on the Table,” written in the late 1940s, when Czechoslovakia was emerging from a bloodless communist coup d’état and heading toward political show trials, lengthy prison sentences, and executions for dissenters:

A single wand
of rusted quince,
furred red-blonde,
wonder of scents

Forehead fragrant.
A cordial kiss.
Perfume flagrant —
the heart feels this.

Warm of a palm
beyond all scents,
a downy haulm
the sun extends

The bees and wax
gave us this fruit.
Our lips though cracked
it won’t bedew.

Hard fruit to bite.
A foodless feast.
A bitter spite
slowly released

A magic stone
among the thorns.
Wise virgins’ own
pale green lanterns.

A hand pours
oil to the lees.
A nape flares,
as do knees

The oil now cool.
The fire burns white.
Kindly and tall
they go with lights.

One may strain to read the first lines of “Quince on the Table” as covert political commentary on idealism turning to tyranny, with the “rust” serving as a dangerous, poisonous analogue to the deepest red of the new communist flag. But to Reynek, the quince is a wonder of God. In the midst of political turmoil, the poet takes the time to observe His miracle and share it with others in lines made more wondrous by their apparent simplicity. Both the poem’s imagery and its implications are spiritual — and only in that sense are they political, hinting that “this too shall pass.”

Though he worked on the same farm all his life, Reynek was no ordinary rustic. His home village of Petrkov was close to the large regional town of Jihlava — or Iglau as it was better known then — which enabled the talented Czech farmer’s boy to be educated at the German High School and, while there, perfect his French. He met his French-born wife, Suzanne Renaud, while translating a volume of her poetry into Czech. Before World War II, they would spend winters at her family’s home near Grenoble in France and summers at his farm in Petrkov. Suzanne Renaud also has a voice in this volume; four of her poems are skillfully translated from French by David Wheatley.

Indeed, Reynek’s first substantial contributions to the Czech poetic canon were his highly regarded translations of French and German poets: Paul Valéry, Francis Jammes, Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Adalbert Stifter, Victor Hugo, Marcel Schwob, Charles d’Orléans, Georges Bernanos, Léon Bloy, Jean de La Fontaine, and Paul Verlaine, among many others. It wasn’t until 1925, and the publication of his collection Lip by Tooth — which featured “A Fool,” the poem quoted above — that Reynek came into his own. He had established the manner that would characterize his poems till the very end of his life. Consider the unity of tone that marks “A Fool” and “Quince,” as well as “Match in a Puddle,” which was written sometime between 1969 and 1971:

One black half, one half white.
A fly’s barque and its pyre.
The match a soul on fire.
Gone out now, it might

have taken hours, thus drowned
among the guilty shadows.
When? And whose? Who knows?
Maybe homeward bound.

Black foam, and foam that’s white,
a pang that poppies hone.
A feather. Its bird has flown
just where? Match thrown aside —

the Reaper’s one small bone.

The Well at Morning is also richly illustrated with color plates of Reynek’s art. The poet first turned his hand to drawing and painting after Lip by Tooth was published. Initially, he was heavily influenced by Josef Čapek, the much admired artist brother of Karel Čapek, author of War with the Newts and R.U.R. But in the 1950s, his art took on Christian motifs. Like his poems, his graphic work reflects a deep Catholic faith and, with it, a rejection of contemporary politics. Some of it is reminiscent of Marc Chagall, some of Paul Klee, and some of William Blake, another of Europe’s great poet-artists; it too, like his poetry, insists on broader continuities with the European tradition. Blake wrote of wrath and painted monsters. Reynek wrote of miracles and worked painstakingly to represent them in monotype drypoint. Their eras may be separated by hundreds of years, but their inspiration remained the same.

Reynek’s drawings and paintings were not exhibited publicly in any formal way in his lifetime. His art, like his poetry, became more widely known in his own country after the political changes in 1989, nearly 20 years after his death. Though his work in all genres and media has spawned what amounts to a Czech cottage industry of academic and popular writing, his poems and visual works are now presented together to the Anglophone audience for the first time. Reynek’s huge contribution to Czech poetry and art from the 1920s to the present day is described in three thoroughly engaging essays.

Justin Quinn’s rendering of Reynek’s poems appears effortless, but it has in fact been a labor of love for many years. The result feels more like transubstantiation than translation. The methodology of this mystery is revealed in Quinn’s essay toward the end of the book: he “tried to naturalize Reynek,” not “resisting the temptation to make him echo Frost or Edward Thomas.” In so doing, Quinn has given an authentic English voice to a rural Czech poet whose work is as fresh and revelatory today as it ever was.


Michael Tate is the founder of Jantar Publishing.

LARB Contributor

Michael Tate is the founder of Jantar Publishing, a small press devoted to releasing English translations of Central and Eastern European literature. He studied Czech literature at Univerzita Karlova in Prague and is a graduate of the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


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