“As in an Obituary”: Ivan Blatný’s Songs of Muteness

March 25, 2018   •   By Jonelle Mannion

The Drug of Art

Ivan Blatný

THUMBING THROUGH The Drug of Art, the first major publication in English of the poetry of Czech modernist Ivan Blatný (1919–1990), provides for a rich visual experience. The poems expand and contract, sometimes spreading into prose, sometimes remaining clipped and brief; they are peppered with the accents of multiple languages, inflected with lines of gray text; and some appear alongside images of typed or handwritten originals. The collection, edited by Veronika Tuckerová, spans Blatný’s oeuvre, and much of the book’s stylistic innovation responds to the task of presenting the work of a writer whose motives are difficult to determine, and of translating poems that are precariously perched within the Czech language to begin with.

Particularly in Blatný’s later poetry, and the collection originally published as Brixley Remedial School (1979 and 1982), language is a thing worked like putty, molded into the slippage of meaning between tongues. Written mostly in Czech and English, the poems also contain fragments — lines or words — of German, French, and Spanish. In order to preserve the impact of Blatný’s linguistic insertions, translators Anna Moschovakis and Veronika Tuckerová devised a two-toned method of “translation” — non-Czech portions in the original appear in gray text in the translation, of which the non-English phrases remain untranslated, lest we miss Blatný’s meaning by “understanding” everything.

Blatný’s linguistic nomadism reflects a life spent mostly in exile. He was a well-known poet in Czechoslovakia by the late 1930s, where he was involved with the artist collective Group 42, but fled his country after the communists took power in 1948. He arrived in London on an Arts Council exchange grant that year and promptly made a speech on the BBC denouncing Czechoslovakia’s new regime. His Czech citizenship was revoked and he settled in England, working as a journalist for six years before being hospitalized for mental illness in 1954 and spending the rest of his life in a series of institutions in Suffolk and Essex, including Clacton-on-Sea, where he died in 1990. He wrote prolifically during this time, but only a fraction of the thousands of pages he churned out ever saw publication. His hospital staff refused to believe that he was a respected poet until one of his nurses happened to meet Josef Škvorecký, a Czech novelist living in Canada who knew of Blatný’s work. Blatný was given a typewriter, and his nurse made sure that his writings reached Škvorecký, whose press, 68 Publishers, issued a selection in 1979 under the title Old Addresses (translated in The Drug of Art by Justin Quinn and Matthew Sweney).

One can speculate from his poetry that Blatný never came to feel fully at home in England and that his linguistic inserts act as gestures of estrangement. Critic David Wheatley writes, “Whether in the original or translation, Blatný’s poetry has the rare and moving power to make us feel we are reading a foreign language — and that language is English.” Although “Misspelled,” from Brixley Remedial School, is written entirely in English, it sits warily here, reflecting upon its discomfort: “So restoration is not spelled au / I spelled it so thinking of the czech word restaurace / to restore / and go with a lady to the Room / like a unicorn in the mirror / all naked in the mirrors / so that I could see the blood trickling.”

Apparently matter-of-fact musings are suffused with nostalgia and loss. “Anarchy,” also from Brixley, is written in English except for the final line: “Choc-ice is in czech called Eskymo / I used to have three on a bench at Felixtow Road / every Saturday and Sunday // I weigh myself, but net.” (“Vazim se jen netto.”) Blatný’s pointed failure to capitalize the names of languages, consistent throughout, treats them as porous materials rather than distinct systems. Far from being self-sufficient, they frequently come up short even in combination.

Critic Barry Schwabsky writes of Blatný’s output during and after the years of World War II:

War turned out to be a good collaborator for Blatný: The intimate ache that made his perceptions of the natural world and daily life so poignant found a larger echo in the atmosphere of a continent tearing itself to bits […] Blatný’s poems of this period unwind in stubborn, uneasy repetitions, continually turning back on themselves and reusing phrases as if language itself had to be rationed out frugally like any other needful possession in difficult times.

He quotes “Small Variation” from This Night (1945, translated by Matthew Sweney):

Thursday 8 pm. On the table:
Matches, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
My tools.
You already know my music from five or six things,
You already know my music from five or six things,
My little song.
As it sizzles on the stove, as it bubbles in quietude
The song of the interlude,
Which happens only once in history.

While Blatný’s economical use of language could indeed be read as frugality — as precious words sparingly doled — at times it seems that the care Blatný took with language arose not from a sense of its value, but out of mistrust for its ability to go the distance toward meaning, to deliver his impressions intact. Words are thrown and caught over and over in one hand like a small ball. A stanza of “Song” from In Search of Present Time (1947, translated by Matthew Sweney) reads:

I often walked there later
With Youki the dog
Beneath the heavenly bowers of the four-laned avenues,
Chestnuts fell sharply and in fistfuls,
leaves, leaves, leaves, leaves,
Autumn came,
Autumn came, Autumn came, Autumn came,
The smothered tracks remembered the tram.

Within the traceable outline of Blatný’s life, the details are less tangible. The clamor of voices and conflicting interpretations collected in The Drug of Art (there are seven, including Josef Škvorecký and Antonín Petruželka, the authors of the book’s foreword and afterword) befits a poetry that is itself so diffuse and polyvocal. Petruželka, one of the publishers of the samizdat version of Bixley Remedial School, considers Škvorecký’s selection for Old Addresses to be misleading. Petruželka also maintains that Blatný, “a bright, joyous, sensitive man,” was not truly mentally ill, while Škvorecký recalls, from his one meeting with Blatný, a man whose illness was obvious.

Such unresolved biographical details chafe productively alongside Blatný’s ever-defiant verse. As critic Denise Dooley writes, “Blatný refreshes ideas of poetry as sibylline utterance, of the sublime confusion of negative capability and of giving an open yes to all contradictory things.” In his poetry, silence sings: “A copper tree sparked and the earth was lit, / I went to wash my lips with rain. And yes, / you once said: ‘We are mute, mute, mute’ / So listen for a moment to my Song of Muteness” (from Brno Elegies, 1941, translated by Justin Quinn).

The final section of The Drug of Art collects 15 of Blatný’s thousands of unpublished poems. Written almost entirely in English, each is printed facing a reproduction of its original typed or handwritten manuscript. While the language in these poems is abrupt and casual, the originals appear clean on the page in a neat script, almost devoid of markings or corrections. We feel we are seeing not the jottings of a mad man, but the polished poems of a precise mind convinced of their enduring relevance, written for some future audience:

Come on you lazy censors
confiscate my poem
put a dark oblong in its place
I wanted to say black
black jako na úmrtním oznámení.
(Untitled, undated)


Jonelle Mannion is an Irish writer living in Brooklyn. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB Magazine, and Art Monthly Australia among others.