That terrible fist swings the bell
Hell-bent on knocking out the eye of heaven
That cynically floods desolate white-washed houses
With radial light
With an iron resolution to act
While the knuckles crack
This fist delivers bruises shaped like swallow nests to roofs
In the name of vengeance
(from “The Blacksmith”)
Upon my first read-through of this newly translated collection of poetry by prominent Czech Surrealist, Vítěslav Nezval, I was struck by an eerie sense that the poet was speaking to the present moment. Published in 1937, the poems gathered in The Absolute Gravedigger form a gallery of darkening, disturbing, and frequently grotesque images that capture the mood of the shifting landscape of the years leading up to the Second World War. Some are small, contained, and often bucolic scenes. But others depict expansive nightmarish vignettes of obsession, violence, corruption and decay—evoking imagery worthy of Bruegel, Arcimboldo or Bosch—and closely aligned with the spirit and sentiment associated with the more widely known French Surrealism.
Returning for a second reading, in the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, I cannot help but wonder how quickly the lessons of the last century have been forgotten—and shudder at the thought of what potentially lies ahead.
Born in 1900, Nezval began writing and publishing poetry in the 1920s, but by the early ’30s, he and a number of his fellow Czech writers and artists had fallen under the influence of the French avant-garde. He first met André Breton in Paris in 1933, and the following year he helped found the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, the first such group to receive the Breton seal of approval, so to speak, outside of France. Yet, even though they made important contributions to the movement, the Czech Surrealists have remained relatively obscure, a situation further exacerbated by the artistic restrictions applied under the years of Communist occupation. The release of The Absolute Gravedigger from Twisted Spoon Press should help to ameliorate that situation, and spark further interest in the work of Nezval and his contemporaries.
In his poetry, as evidenced in this collection, Nezval was a stylist who drew widely from the Surrealist playbook. In an interview in The Bohemist, translators Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická describe their decision to work together as follows:
Nezval was prolific and incredibly gifted, so the book is over 200 pages, and contains a range of styles from traditional rhymed quatrains to freewheeling litanies and dense, paranoiac prose. A challenge to translate, to say the least, so approaching it as a team seemed like a good idea.
The diversity of the poems in this collection is difficult to capture in the space of a short review. Suffice to say that they range from the relatively conventional to the decidedly bizarre. For example, “The Windmill” is a section comprised of a series of rural compositions featuring farm and small town scenes. However, the imagery is vivid, sometimes surprising in its unexpected shifts, and an unmistakable darkness seems to wait just over the horizon, as demonstrated in this portion of “The Reapers”:
The birds have flown off
Everything on the verge of tears
Huge carts haul off bales of straw
A cock crows
And wheels squeak
The landscape changes
Brown pitchers peak from under gladiolas
And confusion seized the horses
The mills clatter
As a signal
Like an imminent declaration of war
And suddenly the whole place is holiday empty
Similar bucolic settings return in the later “Shadowplays” section which features tightly rhyming, orderly quatrains which, to preserve the feel of the originals, the translators have chosen to carry into English with as much of the spirit and musicality intact as possible. Because these pieces stand out so sharply against the more open and, at times, unrestrained quality of the rest of the book, this seems to be a wise choice. Coming on the heels of the intense, fantastic and disturbing imagery of the poems in the “The Absolute Gravedigger” section— the title poem, “The Fetishist,” The Blacksmith,” “Milking,” and “The Plowman”—the sudden appearance of a traditional formality catches the reader off guard.
The author has also included several pieces of his own artwork and the poems they inspired framed by two prose pieces in which he talks about the process of decalomania (the creation of abstract images by laying a thick layer of paint on a surface and pressing a piece of paper or canvas against it) and its influence on, not only the directly referenced pieces but other key poems in the book. Nezval explains that the process gave rise to prototypes of “the hybrid creatures” that people his most surreal poems.
There is harsh brutality that runs through the most fantastic and, to put it simply, “surreal” of these Surrealist poems. The characters that are brought to life, resemble the denizens of an adult Grimm’s fairy tale—grotesquely featured, obscenely sexualized, dirty, decaying—and trapped, sentenced to their miserable fates. But the piece that is most profoundly political, and devastatingly timely once again is the final poem, “The Iberian Fly.” Here on the wings and body of a gigantic fly making its way through the skies, a terrifying spectacle is playing out, summoning imagery reaching back to the Spanish Inquisition, but zeroing in on the rising waves of fascist ideology sweeping Europe. Nezval’s original version was apparently more specific, naming names, but increasing censorship stayed his hand before the final version went to print. All the same, the message is clear:
[The Iberian fly’s] proboscis
Into several drops of blood
Of different races
And subjected these drops
To analytical chicanery
Whose fraudulent result manifested
Once these drops
Hardened into a crust resembling sealing wax
As the drop
Of drying Aryan blood
Turned into a faux jewel
In the form of Ionic columns
Under which reflected in miniature
The beguiling image of bathing women
On the sparkling left wing of the Iberian fly
The other drops
Under the touch of the dirty finger
Of the little man with the Chaplin mustache
Into this pictorial relief
The relief that is depicted in the following stanzas incorporates African and Asian features—a chilling echo of the type of racist graffiti, propaganda and attacks that we have seen post Brexit and, now Trump. And these patterns know no borders. In Canada, where I live, the past week has seen a sharp upturn in the same trends. The immergence of this translation, at this time, is uncanny, there is a new chill to these words, almost eighty years after they were first published.
Plus ça change.
The Absolute Gravedigger is published, by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, in a handsome hardcover edition featuring Nezval’s own decalomania artwork on the cover.