Opening space: Light Reading by Stephan Delbos

One of the pleasures of reading contemporary poetry is, for me, the varieties of experience allowed, and the ways each poet and each collection is unique. Most of the poets I read have come to my attention through social media, either via direct interaction, contact with translators, or as publications of publishers I trust. It is not that I don’t have time for classic poets, I have shelves full of poetry collections, but I’m most interested in calling attention, in my own modest way, to newer, short, single author volumes.

I came to know of Prague-based writer, Stephan Delbos several years ago when I read his co- translation of Czech surrealist poet Vítěslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger. But his first full-length collection, Light Reading is my first introduction to his own distinctive verse.

Delbos is a minimalist. Upon opening this handsomely presented volume, the first thing you notice is that placement is critical; words seem hang suspended in empty space. The word “light” in the title of the book and its first section, refers to both tone and openness. The poems are spare, often exceptionally so. One is simply a semi-colon, some a word or two, others a few scant stanzas, but in each instance, the words act in concert with a title set at the lower righthand corner of the page. It is the title that completes the image, renders the impact—offering insight, or humour, or both. Notes at the back of the book illuminate the sources of many of these pieces, adding another level of meaning. But to attempt reproduce any of these fleeting poems can be no more than an approximation given the limitations of  online space. Here are three:

 

.                                                                                 if only
.                                                                                 all life
.                                                                                 were so
.                                                                                 simple
                                                                               here
.                                                                                 hang
.                                                                                 your
                                                                               shells
                                                                               shadows
.                                                                                 shame

 

§.                                                                  §On Coatracks

*

.                                    impossibly

.                                                             yes

 

.                                                                                       §Luck

*

.                                                                              in tiny pieces
                                                                            tiny parts

.                                                                               i whose
.                                                                               bruises

.                                                                               broke pillows

.                                                                               sleep under
.                                                                               paper sheets

 

.                                                             §Fragments (Keepsake)

*

The poems of the second section, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” take the form of poetic riffs on the French term meaning a “trifle,” typically associated with short musical compositions. Dedicated to a variety of figures—political, literary, philosophical, musical—paired with an instrument or two, these poems have the widest sweep, but the imagery is still spare, restrained, and carefully modulated. Here the poet pays tribute to Václav Havel, slips through the streets of Prague, and explores avenues filled with memories, sounds and language. These are the longest pieces in the collection, and yet few fill more than a single page and physical arrangement and space—or silence—is, as in the earlier section, an essential element, imbuing each composition with its own volume and rhythmic energy. Delbos, who has written plays about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, demonstrates an inherent musicality in these poetic bagatelles. Take, for example, the opening of “Bagatelle for Throat Singers, Baton & Player Piano”:

I am a terrible Buddhist
.                                                  my love you are a magnificent adversary
on the anniversary of
.                                                   our first nervous kiss on a sidewalk where
garbage cans held fish
                                                 -bones, failed ficuses, Orangina bottles,
our alcohol the pilot
                                                  light of love; this was supposed to be
about enlightenment,
.                                                    the impossible tightrope possibility.

The third and final part of Light Reading, “Arrangements,” consists of a series of ten sets of ten poetry prompts. The first of these begins:

      1. A poem in terza rima
      2. A poem of 18 lines
      3. A poem containing the phrase coin slot
      4. A poem rhyming beguile and tinfoil
      5. A poem with two mirrored meanings

while another (<V>) prescribes:

      1. A poem that cannot hear itself think
      2. A poem getting on my last nerve
      3. A poem huffing oxygen
      4. A poem title is the last line
      5. A poem with seven monorhymed lines
      6. A poem curing emphysema

In reading this collection I had the feeling that these poems, these condensed, precise evocations of the possibilities—and limitations of language—seemed to be coming into being on the page, speaking to ghosts, alluding to the unutterable, to the moment captured in the empty spaces. Unconfined, open-ended and illuminating, Light Reading is a work that leaves plenty of room for exploration. And enjoyment.

Light Reading by Stephan Delbos is published by Blaze Vox Books.

Cold comfort: The Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval

That terrible fist swings the bell
The blasphemer
Is boxing
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.

gravediggerBorn 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
From afar
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.

2016-10-27-16-12-40The 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
Was gradually
Immersed
Into several drops of blood
Squeezed out
Of different races
And subjected these drops
To analytical chicanery
Whose fraudulent result manifested
As diagrams
Once these drops
Of blood
Hardened into a crust resembling sealing wax

As the drop
Of drying Aryan blood
Turned into a faux jewel
Spectrally depicting
Absolute nobility
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
Drying
Transformed
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.