If one has come across any English translations of modern Czech poetry, it is likely to have been something by a member of the Devětsil group, perhaps Jaroslav Seifert, or maybe Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of young leftist artists and authors primarily living in Prague, Devětsil paradoxically embraced a raucous Epicureanism alongside the socialist ideals of Marxism-Leninism. With the end of the First World War, the group made an ethos out of play, celebrating Charlie Chaplin and circus clowns, cabarets and cocktails, in its various publications. It is far less likely that the present reader will have heard of the radical Catholic Stará Říše community, which formed in the early twentieth century around the publisher Josef Florian in a village of the same name a few hours southeast of Prague, or the poet Bohuslav Reynek, a representative figure of the collective. Stará Říše put out beautiful editions typically dedicated to translation, a shared interest with Devětsil, but in this case the end goal was rather more morose: to preserve something of European culture against the inevitable flood and fire to come. So it was that in the decade of the Roaring Twenties, while Seifert was writing about sticking his head up women’s skirts “in our all-electric age,” Reynek took a more existentially somber approach: “we’re all drunk with grief. / Where we wander we don’t know.”
These lines, from the 1925 poem “A Fool,” open a new collection of his poems in English translation, The Well at Morning, out now from Karolinum Press. This most recent addition to the Modern Czech Classics series offers a selection of poems and prints by Reynek—who worked as an author, translator, and graphic artist—that spans five decades, from the early 1920s through early 1970s. The translator of this new volume, Justin Quinn, rightly states that these deeply religious poems are “untimely,” but he likewise notes that for many readers (like myself) the church is not what will be central here.
Reynek took the pastoral as his great theme, and Quinn’s deft translations alluringly echo the environmental emphasis of some of his own poems. Reynek lived the majority of his life at his family’s farmstead in the village of Petrkov on the Bohemian-Moravian border, and many of his poems included in this collection center around the details of rural life. Dogs and cats and goats and geese roam the pages. There is a “white ox in the yard” and one finds “cobwebs wound round the empty swallows’ nest.” Even at the site of hearth and home, the day of rest requires a cat for comfort, a Sunday’s stillness complete only with “a book and kitten grey / beneath my hand.” (Reynek’s evident love of feline companionship is echoed in the etching “Still Life with Artist” from 1954, which pictures the artist/poet seated with mug and kitten, and also in one of the beautiful black and white photographs included in the book, by Dagmar Hochová. The artist-with-cat motif also conjures an association with the great Czech writer of a later generation, Bohumil Hrabal.)
Images: “Still Life with Artist” and photograph of the poet-artist. Used with permission.
Although the poems are largely depopulated of people, man occasionally emerges in Reynek’s poetry, most notably to do violence to the natural landscape. In “Carpenters in the Wind,” we do not have the good Joseph but “these men / with their axes. // I’ve lost one of my own. / I’m more and more alone. / These men have finished chopping.” So it is, Reynek would seem to suggest here, that Earth’s destruction might come not through any apocalyptic grand finale but rather as a result of the banal, everyday actions that human beings act out upon their lived environment.
Similarly, the earthly element that often rears its head in vengeance in these poems is not the Pentecostal fire one might expect in the work of a poet associated with an “obscure apocalyptic sect” (as the scholar Martin C. Putna describes Stará Říše in an essay at the end of the book) but rather, snow. In a late poem, titled “Saint Martin,” Reynek details the more sinister aspects of the winter tableau:
Snow on the fence. Snow on the cape.
Ice in the hair and on the skin,
on hope, on the bare body’s shape,
across the fields, the days’ chagrin.
Snow falls on human hunger, spreads
on stones as cold as burnt-out coals;
falls on this dog’s unbarking head,
on sparrows perched on odd bean-poles.
An earlier standout beauty of a poem—“Advent in Stará Říše” (from Reynek’s post-World War Two collection, itself titled Snow at the Door)—opens ominously: “In the first snows / you see the print / of the last geese.”
Two poems entitled “November” (one from Snow at the Door and another in Swallows Flown, a collection of poems written between 1969 and 1971) mark the month as the true coming of cold. In the first, November is “a sorrel horse with a white blaze” that looks in upon sleepers restless in their grief but safe inside for the moment. In the second, we are warned that “beyond the fence it’s cold. / Death wants some warmth to keep.” November as a harbinger of loss would seem to be a fascination for Reynek, a month that is also depicted in one of the prints included in The Well at Morning. In a monotype drypoint from 1967, two dark figures beside a farmstead are foregrounded by a gaggle of geese who appear to be about to make their exit stage right, bright white against the overwhelming darkness of the rest of the image. They are as though the earliest flecks of snow, which will fall steadily with their departure.
The sixty-odd pages of poems included in The Well at Morning are followed by twenty-five graphic works by Reynek—all expressionistic drypoint etchings, occasionally hand-colored—that maintain a similar preoccupation as his poems, with farm animals and snowy, still landscapes. Some of the selected images are also more explicitly biblical, with several renderings of the Crucifixion and the Pietà. In a particularly interesting version of the latter, “Pietà with Train Stop” from 1968, the biblical scene is situated within the modern-day setting of Petrkov, where a train in the background pulls into the station and tiny bodies mill about, as Mary grieves alone. A burst of red in the direction of the train station is portrayed in an adjacent description as “glowing autumnal trees,” but it is tempting to interpret the color as the final coming of the promised fire.
Image: “Pietà with Train Stop,” used with permission.
The jacket text of The Well at Morning proclaims this volume to be “the first comprehensive book on Reynek to be published in English,” and this is largely true—only one other publication, a dual-language edition of Reynek’s prose poems Fish Scales from 2001 has been dedicated to the author in English. But the supplementary materials in the book—the explanatory texts accompanying the print works, inclusion of four poems by Reynek’s wife, the French poet Suzanne Reynaud (whom Reynek himself first brought into Czech translation), and three essays on Reynek as poet, artist, and translator—risk weighing down the lightness of the bright white sheets of poems that occupy a mere third of the book’s pages. If a major goal was to assert Reynek’s as a powerful voice in twentieth-century European poetry for an English-reading audience, a larger portion of the available space might have been given over to that work, rendered as these poems are so well by Justin Quinn. At the same time, the inclusion of the four bucolic poems by Reynaud (translated here not by Reynek but by David Wheatley), feels a somewhat inadequate gesture, when one considers that not a single volume in the Modern Czech Classics series is dedicated to a female author.
Overall though, this new book marks a unique and welcome addition from a publisher that has done much to bring the works of Czech authors to a wider readership through its thoughtful and attractive editions.