"THE FRIGHTENED FAWN OF SENSE":
MIND AND NATURE IN THE POETRY OF MIROSLAV HOLUB
The poems of Czech poet Miroslav Holub, now readily available in two volumes of the admirable Field Translation Series, are complex, meditative, fable-like, and prolific of idea and allusion. Without attempting to cover his full range of concerns (or the problem of translation), I want to focus here on his handling of an age-old problem of poetics, one which was examined with exemplary thoroughness by Robert Pinsky in The Situation of Poetry. In oversimplified terms, this problem concerns the human desire to employ imagination and language to attempt the literally impossible work of engaging the natural world, in all its mute otherness. What Pinsky terms the "romantic persistence" is part of the heritage of all modern and contemporary poets, and involves an acceptance of (or rejection: we define ourselves as much by what we avoid as seek) certain romantic premises: "a mistrust of abstraction and statement . . . and an ambition to grasp the fluid, absolutely particular life of the physical world by using the static, general medium of language" (47, 3). Of course, as Pinsky admits, this conflict is ancient, and goes by many names; we could usefully make a list on our blackboard of opposing pairs of terms, such as mind and nature, generality and particular, word and thing, realism and nominalism.
Holub's poetry is an intriguing response to such issues in that, like most of the poetry Pinsky praises, his work demonstrates an acute awareness of the romantic writer's attraction to mute nature, without ultimately endorsing such a naive desire. Unlike the sort of wittily discursive poetry favored by Pinsky, however, Holub's work employs many stylistic devices Pinsky associates with mannered or naive poems: surreal juxtaposition, imagistic association, and a tone he describes as "enigmatic, slangy, fey, tough, idiosyncratic, darting between the plain and the daffy with a mock-naive, teen-age sort of detachment" (3-4).
This problem of reconciling mind and nature goes to the heart of poetry, for it raises the question of the effectiveness of all language to render experience. In other words, it questions the value and communicative power of figurative speech. Insofar as language is metaphorical, it is playful, irrational, even "surreal"; yet insofar as it is, as Pinsky insists, an abstract medium, it is inevitably metaphoric: all words in a sense "stand for" things, even if these "things" are other words or ideas. What characterizes much contemporary poetry, and Holub's in Sagittal Section especially, is the incorporation of these ideas directly into the fabric of work which is not obviously "discursive," in Pinsky's terms.
How old and persistent such ideas are may be seen by a brief digression into medieval history, followed by a poem by Holub which seems a sly comment upon it. Legend has it that the 11th-century King Canute was so swollen by courtiers' flattery that he had himself carted to the seashore, where he might command the advancing tide to recede. At least that is the way the story is most often told today; Canute has become emblematic of royal arrogance, a type of the power-mad ruler. His story was first recorded by Henry of Huntington a century after the actual Canute died, and was probably an invention of the historian based on oral legend. As Henry told it, however, the moral was not Canute's pride but the evils of sycophancy: Canute had in fact grown so weary of being agreed with that he needed to go out into raw nature for the pleasure of being defied (Burnam 44).
A fiction told about a real king, thereupon misinterpreted: the ironies accumulate. And for a modern mind, the gist of this fable alters again, because Canute before the sea is obviously neither obeyed nor denied. We suspect that the ocean has nothing to tell us, not even Whitman's "low and delicious word": death. When humans address nature, eloquent bluster meets mute power. And the very inconclusiveness of the exchange is likely what makes us nervous. So we dispatch helicopters to preside over erupting volcanoes; so we tame hurricanes with Christian names. And unless, like Robert Frost, we are "versed in country things," we descend inevitably into the pathetic fallacy.
Miroslav Holub seems to delight in flirting with the pathetic fallacy, seriously exploring its attractions without, finally, endorsing its irrationality. Sagittal Section, for example, opens with this characteristic performance, "Man Cursing the Sea":
just climbed to the top of the cliffs
and began to curse the sea.
Dumb water, stupid pregnant water,
slow, slimy copy of the sky,
you peddler between sun and moon,
pettifogging pawnbroker of shells,
soluble, loud-mouthed bull,
fertilizing the rocks with your blood,
dashed to bits on the headland,
hydra, hydrolizing the night,
breathing salty clouds of silence,
spreading jelly wings
in vain, in vain,
gorgon, devouring its own body,
water, you absurd flat skull of water--
And so he cursed the sea for a spell,
it licked his footprints in the sand
like a wounded dog.
And then he came down
the tiny immense stormy mirror of the sea.
There you go, water, he said,
and went his way. (13)
This sounds like Canute speaking, though with typically modern, layered ironies. The poem is no more about the sea than Stevens's "The Snow Man" is about cold weather; and, to borrow one of Stevens's formulations, Holub's poem has "the essential gaudiness of poetry," by which I think Stevens meant the tendency of language itself to usurp meaning from "subject matter," just as, in a similar way, abstract painters have insisted that we recognize their work as, fundamentally, paint on canvas. Although Holub's poem is indeed a sardonic jab at the pathetic fallacy, it is also a celebration of its own invention in employing such personification. If there is nothing fertile in arrogance (and equal comedy in the anger and solicitude of this poem's speaker), nonetheless there is fertility here. For the sea itself is not dumb, pregnant, pettifogging, and the rest: the brilliant bluff of this speaker is its own message and justification.
It is not just that we love to project our own qualities, good and bad, outward into nature; more significantly, this man is simultaneously describing, lamenting, and enacting the mysterious collisions of mind and matter, utilizing the endlessly self-propagating strategies of language to bridge, or try to, that unbridgeable gap. Much of Holub's work circles around this paradox. Looking into "the tiny immense stormy mirror of the sea," therefore, he describes primarily a stormy selfhood. Yet it is a self far from mere egotism, as careful attention to the tone shows. Seamus Heaney, writing of "Man Cursing the Sea," describes it as
merry and profound, as immediately winning as a strip cartoon and at the same time olympian in its long view of human aggression and human need . . . At first [the poem's] conclusion might seem just coy but it is not so because its good humor is not evasiveness but a true psychological twist. It implies that man must and naturally can 'accept the universe'; that attempts by the will or the ego or even perhaps the ministry of truth to pervert man's indigenous, genetic at-homeness in the world are sooner or later doomed to cave in to his stronger, submerged sense of belonging. (7-8)
As has been widely noted, Holub brings to poetry the distinctly rational intellect of an experimental scientist. Like William Carlos Williams, whom he admires, the late Holub maintained two full-time careers; he was both a poet and a distinguished clinical pathologist in Prague, where he did research on the lymphatic system. Moreover, as A. Alvarez notes in his introduction to the poet's Selected Poems, Holub maintains "a resistant, decent, unbelieving sense of the realities of people and their troubles" (13). If Holub mistrusts and resists the sort of faiths that many romantic minds are attracted to, nevertheless he has the decency and intelligence not to dismiss the romantic impulse; in fact, he often seems, as in "Man Cursing the Sea," to relish it.
Holub's scientific career is significant to the issue of mind and nature in at least two ways. First, unlike many recent writers, Holub does not use the abstractions of science in order to satirize the modern age, but in order more accurately to understand it. In his poem "The Dam," he asserts that even though "the earth is made of concrete" and "cranes have eviscerated the sky," we manage to survive, and do so "not just on memories / --on high voltage, / not on teardrops / --on drum armature" (Sagittal Section 25-6). Likewise, Holub has quoted with approval these lines by William Carlos Williams: "We / have / microscopic anatomy / of the whale. / This is reassuring"; of them he comments: "I don't think that this poem is so ironic. For Williams has written too: 'So much / depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow...' and this is taken seriously by everybody" ("Poetry and Science" 51). Holub will have none of the blindly anti- technological spirit of much recent poetry, although he is decently intelligent enough not to ignore the ravages of industrial technology on nature.
But a deeper significance of Holub's scientific training shows itself in his epistemology. His peculiar contribution is best seen in his seen in his most playful pieces, such as "Geese":
Week after week
one after another disappears
and white feathers
whirl in the kitchen . . . .
Week after week
each of them believes
in a last gasp,
this time for sure
our goose earth will change:
the waddling resurrection
in the feather heaven range.
(Sagittal Section 15)
What is noteworthy here, as in "Man Cursing the Sea," is the tone. Like Aesop, Holub anthropomorphizes his birds in order to comment on human irrationality. Yet Holub is not exactly mocking our persistent belief in a "waddling resurrection"; or if he is, the mockery is most gentle and aimed as much inward as outward. In "Autumn," similarly, he concludes with a description of burying beetles, that "with their creaky love will try / to make all corpses / rise from the dead, / Amen" (Sagittal Section). Whenever Holub takes aim at irrationality, he also notes the "creaky love" that fuels it. Ultimately, though his poems are rich with humor, hyperbole, surreal juxtapositions, and an emphatic fondness for the pathetic fallacy, he takes his stand beyond irony.
His final judgment is often simply to note what one poem terms "the unabashedly gray, impudent / frontal bone of fact" (Sagittal Section 74). For example, in "Dreams," after noting various fantastic occurrences (a swan hatching from a stone, a rope growing out of the head), he concludes by dreaming that "three times three is nine," and that grass persistently grows: "Yes, grass. / Grass with no double meaning. / Just grass" (Interferon 30).
In his strongest poems, then, Holub displays a firm allegiance to the scientific method, rational and endlessly provisional. As David Young notes in his introduction to Interferon, Or On Theater, the "scientific method has shown Holub that metaphor can be used as hypothesis, an instrument for testing experience through conjecture and experiment" (15). Thus, for Holub all figurative language, indeed all his various paradoxes, surreal dislocations, and fairy tale situations serve as analogues to the endless, serious play of the laboratory. In fact, he has cited his poem "Ode to Joy" as one of the few in which he "could really render something from the laboratory experience": "You ask the secret. / It has just one name: / again" ("Poetry and Science" 53). Thus, we always need new metaphors for the same reason we need new scientific experiments: to test, confirm, and explore the world and our place in it.
In his essay "Science in the Unity of Culture," Holub complains of the tendency of the general public to "operate with two opposed images of scientific activity: either that it is routine, technical laboratory work . . . or that it is represented by the great over-all theory, such as Einstein's relativity or Darwin's natural selection" (151-2). Between these two extremes, he reminds us, "lies a tremendous body of imagination" (152). Holub's project in his series of "Brief Reflections" is precisely to inhabit this body of imagination: he uses both logic and exaggerated figures in order to test their own limitations. In "Brief Reflection on Cats Growing in Trees," he equally enjoys and satirizes a crude understanding of the scientific method. A committee of moles sets out to describe the upper world, and each mole generalizes from a different particular: it's dark up there; it's light; there are birds; there are cats. The results of such investigations are as various as those of the blind men describing the elephant; Holub underscores the peril of theory based on partial knowledge, as of course all theories ultimately are. The final hypothesis the scientist-moles agree on is the most appealing of all, perhaps because it is the most misleading: "up there nothing is different / from down here, only the earth is thinner and the roots on / the other side are whispering something, really quietly" (Sagittal Section 54). Such work exemplifies David Young's comment that "experiments in comparison serve to test the validity of the familiar emotion: they are a kind of critique of it, acknowledging its power but questioning its validity" (Interferon 16).
In an early poem Holub declared that "The root of the matter is not / in the matter itself" (Selected 98), a remark that could stand as a fair summary of his philosophical stance. The root of the matter is plainly in the mind, and is only approached through language. For Holub believes, adapting Werner Heisenberg's famous Principle of Indeterminacy, that "the object of poetic research is no longer nature object of poetic poetic research is no longer nature itself, but man's use of words" ("Poetry and Science" 47). He notes that in the world of modern physics, "the material world was found to consist of entities basically different from anything we can experience by our senses" (44): thus it is reasonable to pay attention to the shaping act of imagination itself as equal contributor, along with "the impudent /frontal bone of fact," to our sense of reality. "Entities basically different from what we can experience by our senses," of course, could easily describe metaphor.
The final value of Holub's stance lies in his willingness to consider any idea at all with a skepticism which is not damaged by arrogance or self righteousness. For example, although in "Wisdom" he maintains his distance from romantic belief, he does so in a curiously ambiguous manner: "Never let let poetry be a thicket," he admonishes, "not even paradisically, so it won't / devour the frightened fawn of sense" (Sagittal Section 69). Poetry, that is, should never be deliberately difficult: an attitude quite natural to a laboratory scientist. Yet the metaphor Holub chooses is a faulty one. Reason, the "frightened fawn," is threatened, however delightfully, by the thickets of the irrational. But the possibility of a fawn being devoured by a thicket does not itself make sense. A fawn may seek refuge there, and perhaps become entangled, but no thicket will do any devouring. The beasts which threaten to consume the fawn come from elsewhere. Holub's sly ambiguity here is surely deliberate: without leaving any question as to his ultimate preference for logic, he dramatizes well the magnetic pull of the irrational.
Holub's is a self-effacing poetics, then, for all its challenge and charm. The poet's recurrent concern is for the way in which meaning is processed, and the nervous or self- confident drift toward abstraction by which human actions must increasingly be described. "Brief Reflection on the Butchering of Carp" begins with these plain instructions: "You take a mallet /and a knife / and hit / the right spot so it doesn't flop because / flopping causes causes complication and lowers profit" (Sagittal Section 55). If there is any doubt that we are reading a poem about the uses of language, about poetry, it is soon removed:
But I wonder, is the carp really the right animal?
Because a much better animal would be one
which--stretched out--kept flat--pinned down--
fixed its blue eye
on the mallet, the knife, the money, the paper
the people and chimneys
said something. For example
These are my best days, these are my golden days.
Starry skies above me and the moral law in me.
And it is turning.
Or at least
Galileo, whose stubborn refusal to give up his theories is noted here, is obviously a type of hero for Holub: the scientific intellect besieged by irrationality, which is almost to say, by history itself. Note, however, what else this imagined "much better animal" says: statements of ethics, poetry, and religious belief. A human being is a much better animal than a carp, he suggests, not merely because we are capable of rationality, but primarily because we can "quickly / [say] something" in the face of our tor mentors. I do not think Holub is being ironic in poems such as this, for after Einstein and Heisenberg, King Canute is increasingly distracted, for good and for ill, by the sound of his own voice.
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