Miroslav Holub, Intensive
Care: Selected and New Poems.
Oberlin College Press [Field Translation Series]: Oberlin, Ohio, 1996.
and the poet can both be healers. They share a common goal in
their efforts to maintain light and order against the chaos of
darkness and disease, and to create or restore the beauty and
harmony of health: in this quest, medicine serves the body, poetry
back far enough, to where history fades into mythology, and
all the creative arts are the province of
the Egyptian "Ibis-headed
Thoth, 'the lord of writing,' from whom we also received astronomy,
mathematics, philosophy, music, and the healing arts."(2) As
Shelley points out in his "Hymn of Apollo":
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself, and knows it is divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine, is mine,
All light of art or nature; — to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.
human psyche had completely cleaved its unique consciousness from
progenitors, shamans, the first physician/poets,
imagined themselves as
therianthropes. Through the agency of breath (spirit), perhaps
with the aid of hallucinogenic
they sang in a "secret language (that) is
actually the 'animal language' or originates in animal cries," as
part of a practice for recovering the souls of the ill. (3)
(4) Their visionary
journeys also inspired
images painted on the walls of caves and the surfaces of rocks
a landmark in the history of human creativity.(5)
people if there were no evolutionary pressures from diseases
and loss of function,"(6) not
only wouldn't Homo sapiens have evolved without the challenges
illnesses presented, our compulsion for the arts may not have
arisen if it hadn't
Holub was born in Plzen, Western Bohemia, on September 13, 1923.
His father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher of German and
By the time he was old enough to enter college, the Germans occupied
Czechoslovakia and had closed its universities. The
young man worked as a laborer until the end of WWII; then he enrolled
in the Faculty of Medicine of Prague's Charles University, specializing
in pathology and immunology. Earning an M.D. and Ph.D.,
had caused among intellectuals in Prague between the two
world wars drew him into also becoming a poet.
centuries before Holub was born,
Czech Protestants were
defeated by the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II in the Battle
of White Mountain. Although a few arts,
continued to thrive,
parts of their culture were lost. It
was only in the late 18th Century that they began to regain
which had been replaced with Latin and German.
Even though recodified, the "new
written language had little in common with the vernacular
or even with the rich written language of Czech baroque poetry
of the seventeenth century which had embraced many of the
linguistic forms of the spoken code of the period."(7) Even
into the 1930s, the poetics of the Czech language was
being hotly debated.
fertile years between the two world wars, Czech artists were
acutely aware of what was happening in other European countries;
in particular, Italian Futurism, French Cubism, and Surrealism.
Like the later postmodernists, the Czech avant-garde
called for the interweaving of "high" and "low" art
across genres. The cafés
of Prague were vibrant with discussions and debates between
poets and visual artists—until
March 16, 1939, when Hitler's Wehmacht goose-stepped in.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia fell
within the sphere of the Soviet Union, and was
by an ultra-conservative Communist Party.
we've been struggling through snowdrifts,
from portal to portal, from left to right.
at the very end,
breathless, thoughtless, and therefore
weightless, in all that silence
an ember of music. Toot,
music itself. (8)
stopped publishing poetry in 1948, when the Communist dictatorship
took over his country. By the late 1950s some freedom
of expression was allowed, and he began publishing again.
The thaw lasted until 1968 when, led by the Soviet Union,
other Warsaw Pact countries invaded
Czechoslovakia and cast a deep Stalinist shadow over
the country for the next 20 years. Harassed by the
Secret Police, fired from the Microbiological Institute,
his books banned, his travel abroad restricted, Holub
made a humiliating public statement of apology.
Although it kept him working—degraded to a junior position—,
he was vilified by
fellow intellectuals, many of whom never forgave him. It
was not until the so-called Velvet Revolution, in late 1989,
that Czechoslovak People
gained their freedom.
his fellow physician/poet, William Carlos Williams,
about ordinary life in a direct syntax, although the subject
may veer into the surreal. "I
prefer to write for people untouched by poetry....I
read poems in
such a matter-of-fact manner as when they are reading
the newspaper or go to football matches." (9) Unlike
Williams, who didn't write many poems about his medical
practice, Holub was interested in proselytizing
science. "Wings," begins
by quoting Williams: "We have / a microscopic /
anatomy / of the whale. / This / is/ reassuring," then
a map of the universe
we have a map of a microbe
for the universe.
Amy Ling wrote
of Holub's favorite poetic techniques is the juxtaposition
themes is the macrocosm with the microcosm and vice versa."
a Grand Master of chess
made of electronic circuits.
This poem was
published thirty years before May 11,
1997, when IBM's chess-playing computer, Big Blue, beat
the Russian World Champion Garry Kasparov. When
Kasparov, who had beaten a previous version of Big Blue,
accused IBM of cheating, the company dismanteled the computer.
continues: "But above all / we have / the ability / to
sort peas, the cup water in our hands,
the right screw
under the sofa
gives us wings.
to Holub's poetry in general, Ling addresses these lines
succinctly; writing that "he revels in the
of actions which we are capable of,
the patience with small detail which he sees as the special quality
which will enable man to soar over constricting circumstances."(10)
In an essay
titled "Poetry and Science," Holub's
engagement with both these fields is eluciated by his stating
that "the common denominator of quality, of goodness,
is in both cases the notion of a little discovery, a discovery
that is going
to stay and attract our attention also in the future, in
other situations, and in different contexts."(11) This
is an interesting insight, until he gives as an example three
scientists who, in 1979, published a
predicting that Jupiter's gravity tugging at one
side of its satellite Io would cause "the interior of
Io to yield and create friction and heating, the accumulated
heat being sufficient to melt the core, so that widespread
volcanism can be expected."(12)
days thereafter Voyager I reached Juniper and transmitted
pictures of Io's yellow, orange, and white surface shaped
by recent volcanic activity and, later, clouds rising from
a giant volcano. The
human satisfaction one obtains from this episode equals
the satisfaction from a great poem; the poetic quality
is in the elegance of the prediction and in the conincidence
of timing of the publication and the Voyager I success."
which Holub added: "No poetic qualities could be found
in the paper itself."(11)
equal to that of a great poem is found in a technical
article published in a scientific journal, Holub's
humanity is a minute slice of the world's population. Predication
itself is an actualization
of what the psychologist C.G. Jung called "one-sidedness,"
and necessary characteristic of the directed process, for
direction implies one-sidedness," which
Jung is defining as an aspect of the neurotic personality.(13) Holub
goes on to say that "no poetic qualities could
be found in the paper itself." Although a good poem
predictions, as oppossed to the scientific methodit
doesn't attempt to describe reality. It is reality.
It stands for itself.
many of his poems
is the beauty of a narrative that is committed to "down-to-earth
and wide-open" clarity, something either missing, or abused,
in much of contemporary poetry. The
distinguished Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, also said that Holub's
poems "brim with inventiveness and are driven by a logic
out of the friction between two contradictory, equally
annihilation is certain and therefore all human endaevour
is futile—annihilation is certain and therefore
all human endeavour is victorious."(14)
Fly," an exemplary poem of Holub's absurdist genius,
we are privy to the carnage of war as seen through the eyes
of a female fly
on the willow
bark / watching
/ part of the battle of Crécy."
of the French cavalry
with a brown-eyes male fly
her legs together
sitting on a disemboweled horse
on the immortality of flies.
"on the blue tongue / of the Duke of Clervaux," when the
"silence / and the whisper of decay / softly circled the
she began to
lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armorer.
And so it
came to pass—
she was eaten by a swift
from the fires of Estrés.
almost 40 years of Miroslav Holub's poetry, instead
of the usual chronological order of such collections, Intensive
generous offering of 126 poems translated by eight scholars,
including the author, is grouped by
pathology and tautology.
By the time the book was published, Holub was approaching
the end of an extraordinary
life that had survived two cruel dictatorships and several
professorships in American universities.
physician/poet died in Prague, on July 14, 1998.
a poet dies, deep in the night
a lone black bird wakes
in the thicket
and sings for all it's worth." (15)
1- Jones, A.H. (1997) "Literature
and Medicine." Lancet. 349: 275-78.
2- Weishaus, J. (2006) "The Physician as Poet." Journal
of Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine.1:8. http://www.peh-med.com/content/1/1/8
3- Eliade, M.(1964) Shamanism. New York: Pantheon Books.
4- On a more contemporary note. "What the Yaminahua shamans (of
the Peruvian Amazon) do, above everything else, is sing. Songs are
a shaman's most highly prized possessions, the vehicles of his powers
and the repositories of his knowledge. They are usually sung under
the influence of a hallucinogenic brew..." G.
Townsley, "'Twisted Language,' A Technique for Knowing." In, J. Narby
Shamans Through Time. New York: Penguin, 2001.
5- Clottes, J. and Lewis-Williams, D. (1998) The Shamans of
Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry
6- Holub, M. (1997) Shedding Life: Disease, Politics, and Other
Human Conditions. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
Winner, T.G. (2009) "The Czech Avant-Garde Literary Movement Between
the Two World Wars." http://www.thomasgwinnerczechavantgarde.com/uploads/5/8/4/3/5843028/tgwinnerczechavantgardedec2010.pdf
8- Holub, M. From, "Scene With Fiddlers."
9- Holib, M. (1963) "The Evening Prague." This reminded
me of the American poet, Lew Welch, who told how the great Chinese
poet, Po Chu-i (772-846), used to engage an "illiterate yet very
very smart" peasant lady in conversation, in midst of which "he
would dump the poem on her and if she didn't recognize that he had
just said a
figured that he had written it right. If she had a little 'huh?' about
it or something; if it seemed awkward to her or wrong, somehow ungraceful,
then Po-Chu-i would go back and fix it." In, D. Meltzer, Editor,
The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.
10- Ling, A. (1974) "The Uni(que)verse of Miroslav Holub." Books
11- Holib, M. (2001) "Poetry and Science: The Science of Poetry
/ The Poetry of Science." In, K. Brown, Editor, On Poetry
and Science. Athens:
University of Georgia Press.
12- Peale, S.T, Cassen, P.., Reynolds, R.T. "Melting of Io by
Tidal Dissipation" Science, 2 March 1979
13- Jung, C.G. (1969) Structure & Dynamics
of the Psyche. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8: Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Heaney S. (I1989) "The Fully Exposed Poem." In, The Government
of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
15- Holub, M. From, "Interferon."