This selection of Miroslav Holub's poems is organized around five major topics--genealogy, anthropology, semiology, pathology, and tautology--rather than chronologically. The poems, some of which date back to his first collection in 1958, were translated into English by a number of different persons, but mostly by David Young, who has had a long-term collaboration with Holub.

Holub states his major preoccupation in "Bones," the very first poem in this collection: "We seek / a backbone / that will stay / straight." (p. 13) The search reaches its fullest expression in "Interferon," a long poem about messages, messengers, and interference: "Cells infected by a virus / send signals out . . .

And when a poet dies, deep in the night / a long black bird wakes up in the thicket / and sings for all it's worth." (p.159) The first step in the search is to learn to interpret the signals, and to understand the black bird's song. To do that, one has to ask questions. Yet, in the face of enormous "Suffering," we are drawn to passivity: "But I ask no questions, / no one asks any questions, / because it's all quite useless." (p. 147) How to overcome the inertia and proceed, even in the face of likely failure?

Holub reminds us that even "In the Microscope" we find "cells, fighters / who lay down their lives / for a song." (p. 149) In fact, there may be something worth fighting for, although perhaps we can only see it under extreme circumstances, as in "Crush Syndrome," where a concrete mixer snaps up the hand of a man cleaning it: "The finger bones / said a few things you don't hear very often...In that moment / I realized I had a soul." (p. 174). But perhaps what we call the soul is really just our deep yearning to survive, as in "Heart Transplant": "It's like a model of a battlefield / where Life and Spirit / have been fighting / and both have won." (p. 179)


See annotations of the following individual Miroslav Holub poems in this database: Animal Rights, Death in the Evening, Heart Transplant, In the Microscope, Parasite, Suffering, and Vanishing Lung Syndrome.

Holub was one of the finest Czech poets of the 20th century. He was also an immunologist and clinical pathologist. His poems are generally spare, intellectual, precise, hard hitting, and loaded with irony and wit. The doctors, scientists, and other speakers in these poems are non-heroic, selfless and mostly anonymous searchers who move one step forward, only to be kicked two steps back. Their testimony is effective because it is laconic and exact. Holub said about his poetry: "I prefer to write for people untouched by poetry. . . . I would like them to read poems in such a matter-of-fact manner as when they are reading the newspaper or go to football matches. I would like people not to regard poetry as something more difficult, more effeminate or more praiseworthy." (Vecerní Praha, 1963).


Oberlin College Press

Place Published

Oberlin, Ohio



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