The experience of reading the Czech poet Ivan Blatný in English is strangely reminiscent of watching Peter Weiss’s 1963 play Marat/Sade, set in the Charenton Asylum, with its astounding collision of intellectual brutality and insane gentility. Blatný, who defected to England shortly after the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, spent most of the subsequent four decades in mental hospitals, where he suffered from a number of ailments, particularly paranoia. Which, as the old quip goes, does not mean that they weren’t out to get him, whether “they” were the authorities who publicly declared him dead on Czech Radio, the agents who kept trying to enlist his service for the Communist regime or the doctors and nurses who appear to have thrown out a substantial body of his work written before the late 1970s. They had learned, as Josef Skvorecký puts it, “that Blatný was a real poet, not just a madman who believed that he was a poet.” We would be hard pressed to find a more fitting allegory not only for the struggle to write these poems but also for the act of reading them.
The Drug of Art thus represents a curious literary event: the first major foray into English letters of a foreign-born poet who spent most of his life in England and who even wrote a great deal in English. As an event in book form, it has a fine orchestration that is not without some hint of theatricality. Editor Veronika Tuckerová enlists four additional translators, a Blatný scholar for the afterword and a cameo appearance (in the foreword) by Skvorecký, author of such novels as The Engineer of Human Souls and Dvorak in Love, which have made him one of the few big-name stars in contemporary Central European literature. All of this, combined with the brilliant visual design of the book itself, helps ease us into the madhouse that will follow.
And it is a madhouse. The poems written during Blatný’s first productive period, from World War II until his 1948 exile, bear the strong mark of his connection to Group 42, a loose association of writers, artists and literary theorists who advocated the use of expressionistic, sometimes surrealistic techniques to portray life as it is happening. The most influential of Group 42’s members was the poet Jirí Kolár, best known internationally as an innovative collage artist. While Kolár sometimes splices a familiar image onto an alien background–one of the more basic compositional techniques in collage–he more frequently reshapes the mundane, offering it in a state of unsettling displacement or disarray: a Dutch oil painting becomes a tin can, a crucifixion scene takes on the outline of a pear. In one image from the mid-1980s, which appears as the front cover of The Drug of Art, a photograph of a woman standing before a mirror is crumpled and flattened so as to fracture the glass and the woman alike.
These organizational principles of collage apply to Blatný’s poems as well, with their mishmash of seemingly disembodied images. Indeed, his best work from this period consists largely of Adamic gestures of naming, slippery attempts to identify those things that have entered his psychic and physical spaces, even as his attention and the things themselves are constantly changing. In the middle stanza of “This Night” (1942), from the poetry collection of the same name, Blatný presents this struggle to label and tag his world as an event always occurring in real time. Here is the opening, in Matthew Sweney’s lively translation:
This night As I say this night
Now for example And what is that little spider called
I get up, I take my old notes
Rouault’s painting I think about
When I will recognize you, I dreamed of you
This day Arising unceasingly everywhere,
on the tracks, in cities, in the woods, on the fronts
Suddenly Ringing from below Embarrassing memory
Insect between the lines
With a thin, yellow ringed abdomen