Beginning with his earliest poems, Miroslav Holub was clearly affected by what he viewed as the absurdities of life in a socialist regime. In his essay “Poetry Against Absurdity,” he declared that following the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia there could be “No more words. Just sharp, concrete, viable, bleeding images, partly inherited from the surrealist imagery of the thirties.” In an interview in The Economist, Holub indicated that lyrical poetry would have been impossible for him to write given the psychological conditions under which he lived:
When you live in a time that forbids you to say anything that you wish to say, when you are obliged to conceal part of yourself, it is better not to speak about the self at all. It is better not to express inner feelings because, frankly, you cannot flow about your feelings. The conditions are so terrible that the only thing possible is plain statement.
Therefore, from his earliest days as a poet, Holub rejected the Czech lyrical and romantic tradition. He regarded American Imagist and physician William Carlos Williams, another scientist/poet, as a major influence, but most critics note that Holub moved beyond the simplicity of Williams’s verse to write complex, intellectual poems with layers of meaning. Holub’s poetry reflects his incisive mind, his scientific bent toward detailed examination, and his rational, analytical approach toward a subject. Scientific metaphors dominate, even in Holub’s definition of poetry as “some sort of infection.”
Holub’s poetic style, with its closeness to prose and with its terseness and objectivity, made his poems extremely well suited for translating into English, and these translations brought Holub international acclaim. Nevertheless, some critics have bemoaned the “nightmarish mesh of translations” that exists. In English, for example, significant variations occur in different translations of the same poems. Still, as readers repeatedly confirm, Holub’s poetry communicates effectively even in translation.
In his first collection of poems, Denní služba (day duty), Holub set the tone, subject matter, and style that he was to follow with only limited expansions and variations throughout his career. Although this work has not been translated in English as a collection, many of the individual poems are available in one or more of the English collections.
“In the Microscope” functions as a metaphor for all his poetry, with its implicit comparison of the poet and the scientist and its emphasis on getting to the essence of life. Holub the poet chooses to examine life in the same way as Holub the scientist—through a microscope. Under the microscope, what first appear to be “dreaming landscapes,/ lunar, derelict” turn out to be full of “tillers of the soil” and “fighters/ who lay down their lives/ for a song.”
Holub explores another of his major concerns in the form of a modernized version of the traditional fairy tale “Cinderella.” The heroine spends her life dutifully, resignedly, solitarily carrying out her work of sorting peas, knowing that “she is on her own./ No helpful pigeons; she’s alone./ And yet the peas, they will be sorted out.” On one level Holub comments, as he so frequently does, on the repression of totalitarianism, but the poem moves on to comment on the mundaneness of life in general.
The first collection of Holub’s poetry to be published in the United States, Sagittal Section had a bisected skull as its cover illustration. The...
(The entire section is 1492 words.)