There have been many, many poems about the art, craft, and process of creative writing since, well, the practice of creative writing itself. I’ve featured one such poem before, ‘The Joy of Writing‘ by Wislawa Symborzska.
Yet writing, as an act, has always meant different things to different people. For some, it is about creating a record of something they consider important enough to share or to pass on as a legacy. Or it might be simply about self-expression or self-creation through words. Or, perhaps, a way to bear witness to the things that move them the most (whether as observance or, as is often the case, as exultation, protest, or resistance). Or self-communion and self-conversation (which is how the youngest writers and poets often start.) And let’s not forget: that ancient urge to tell a good story. There are as many such compelling reasons to write as there are writers in the world.
But what about those who feel all these urges to write and have to put them away? The first time that I really explored this thought was when I read, as a teenager, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where she urged women college students to write seriously, to become professional writers. She began by asking them to imagine a fictional character: Shakespeare’s sister, Judith. Woolf then walked through how, even if Judith had Shakespeare’s literary talents, she would not have flourished like her brother had because the odds were stacked against her gender so heavily. I remember reading it carefully that first time and thinking how, despite the strides made since Shakespeare’s time and, indeed, Woolf’s time, we have not really come through to that ideal place that she had envisioned for creative women. Decades later, things are better, but still difficult for women writers.
Today’s poem explores, although, not quite so strongly, the same theme. Here, the Czech poet, Miroslav Holub, gives us the story of an older woman, who, at some earlier time in her life, had aspired to be a creative writer of some significance. However, she had locked her desires and hopes away in a drawer, only opening it on rare occasions to add the odd scrap or fragment of writing that she was unable to resist committing to paper sometimes.
Let’s start, first, with a quick introduction to the poet. Holub was one of those rare poets who managed two vocations quite beautifully. He was a full-time research scientist (specializing in immunology) and poetry was his all-consuming pastime. In both areas, he was prolific.
As a twentieth-century poet who had spent his early years living through the wars in Europe, his early poems had a bit of a Stalinist influence. However, by the time his first full collection was published at age 35, he had moved on to write rather differently. [Note: This delay was mostly due to the communist coup of 1948 that had placed all sorts of restrictions on freedom of speech till at least the late-50s.]
Holub’s poetry was steeped in realism and, because of his scientific bent, composed with a precision of language. He used science-related metaphors, images and concepts rather heavily. His interests in mythology, and history also shine through in many poems. Yet he often chose simple, plain, everyday themes because he wanted to reach people who had been untouched by poetry.
He wrote mostly free verse, which helped to translate his works into many languages quite easily. It is believed that he is the most widely-translated Czech poet to date. In many cases, he would translate his own work into English as a first pass and then a professional translator would polish it up. This was the case with this particular poem, which was translated by Rebecca Bloyd. That said, there is no single, dedicated translator and, because of the many different translators’ styles, there is a bit of a lack of consistency (at least, in the English-translated poems.)
Well-regarded across Europe and the US, Holub is believed to have influenced the poet, Ted Hughes, among others. He had also been frequently shortlisted for the Nobel Literature Prize. In one of the many glowing obituaries that came after his sudden death in 1998, the Czech translator, Ewald Osers, wrote this in the New Statesman:
His wry humor was, paradoxically, eminently serious. He may not have been out to improve the world – he probably did not believe in the perfectibility of man – but he was entirely serious about showing up human frailty and folly.
Let’s now look at the poem. We are introduced to a woman traveling on a train to Vienna. From a few lines later in the poem, we know that this must be a visit because her home is in Maryland in the US. We also know, from the first few lines that she has already been to Rome and Naples, so she must be on a kind of European tour. In this opening scene, she is writing in her diary about her time in those earlier-visited places.
The second stanza is interesting because the ink marks that her words make are described as parthenogenetic aphids. Bloyd, in her translator’s notes, tells us that these are females that procreate without male fertilization. An interesting choice of simile, don’t you think? Implying, I suppose, that the woman’s words, her thoughts, her writing is almost an act of self-procreation. By the way, this is another reason why I was reminded of Woolf’s essay that I mentioned earlier. In it, Woolf too wrote about the creative writer’s mind having a male and female component that need to come together and procreate, as it were.
Holub uses a second simile to describe how the woman’s words are on paper: “like blood smears of homing pigeons.” This one sounds more bizarre than the first. Homing pigeons always return to the one mentally-marked point known to them as home. In the course of their travels, however, particularly when they were used during war-times, it was often the case that they returned home rather bloodied. But their every instinct was to make their way home. In referring to the woman’s words like the blood smears of homing pigeons, Holub may well be saying that, no matter how damaged her thoughts and ideas might have become, the instinct to write, to put words to paper, had not deserted her.
Then, we get a more physical description of her. She is “gray, reconciled”, implying a woman who is, possibly, in her twilight years. And the next two metaphors reinforce “reconciled”. She is “a Leda long after the swan’s departure.” This is an allusion to Greek mythology, where Leda, the Queen of Sparta, was seduced by the God, Zeus, who came disguised as a swan (to avoid letting the jealous Hera know he was cheating on her again.) After their consummation, Zeus left Leda in a state of near-exhaustion, as has been depicted in many famous works of art, with all her passion and energy spent. The allusion to Lotophagitis (Island of the Lotus Eaters) refers to a story about how Odysseus’ men ate the lotus fruit of the island and, becoming intoxicated, lost all thought/desire to return home. In The Odyssey, the hero did eventually rescue his men and they journeyed on. Holub’s reference here is to an alternate possibility of Odysseus himself retiring at the island, thus, giving up the thought of returning home. So, with these two powerful references, Holub shows us that the woman has reconciled with the thought of having spent all her passion and energy like Leda after the swan and has given up on the thought of returning home, like Odysseus retiring at Lotophagitis.
The next three stanzas tell us what will happen to these diary notes she has been writing. How they will be “interred” in the drawer — as in, buried forever — with the other older, decaying memorabilia of yellowed love letters, the infant curls of her children and the dried flowers that she had preserved. Even the few physical aspects that surround this ill-fated drawer are ominous in their symbolism of powerlessness: a castrated cat that can do nothing but dream of potency and the beautiful, immortal music of Mahler choking in the green-papered walls.
The final three stanzas imagine various probabilities of what these diary notes and other keepsakes mean to the woman. A message to her children or a way to belong to the club of other great writers perhaps? But those “deathwatch beetles” suggest that her time will, sadly, be coming to an end soon. And, given that is the case, perhaps all those drawer contents, all that writing, will be her legacy, what she leaves behind before she disappears completely — the very essence of her soul, no less.
It is a sad poem with dark images at the end. But consider the countless women — and men, for that matter — who have had to reconcile themselves to burying their creative impulses, letting their lives go on by for whatever reason, so that they are always left with this one never-quenched soul thirst. It could be that there aren’t enough hours in the day, or that they lack the courage to put down what they really think or, simply, that they don’t know how to find the right words/images. Whatever the reason that stops them from being creative, from making something that lets that voice from deep inside speak up, the longer they keep it buried, the harder it becomes to even get started, to even take a small step.
But, of course, it does not have to end like this for some of us. To end on a positive note, I encourage you to go and open that proverbial drawer, reach for those put-away and half-finished thoughts, ideas, images and words. If you are compelled to write or make music or paint or draw, then don’t stop doing it and don’t put it away — even if it never gets you into the club of great writers, musicians, or artists. Create simply because it is the nourishment your soul asks for.
On the express train to Vienna
she writes in her diary
notes about Rome and Naples.
Ink marks like parthenogenetic aphids,
pages like blood smears
of homing pigeons.
She is alone, gray, reconciled,
a Leda long after the swan’s departure,
Odysseus retired at Lotophagitis.
Back home, in Maryland,
the notebook will be interred
in the archetypal drawer,
among the yellowed love letters,
among the infant hair curls,
among the dried adult flowers,
near the cushion where the castrated cat dreams
while Mahler’s forever forever forever
chokes in the green wallpaper.
It is her message to imagined little sons;
it is her membership in the club
of Swifts, Goethes, Rimbauds, Horatiuses and
It is her monument outlasting bronze,
five-dimensional reality, the last engraving
of primeval man on reindeer bone,
the last drop
of the fluid soul
~ Miroslav Holub, Translated by Rebecca Bloyd in Poetry Magazine, The Translation Issue (April 2008)