Treasures from afar: Vanishing Lung Syndrome by Miroslav Holub

In Vanishing Lung Syndrome, Czech poet Miroslav Holub’s vision is both microscopic in focus (as fitting for an immunologist) and geographically wide-ranging. I recommend this collection, translated by David Young and Dana Hábová, as much for its imaginative scope as for its alertness to surprise and paradox. Holub’s poems embrace the publishing houses and madhouses of Diderot’s Paris (‘1751’), ‘Nineveh’ and the free world that must have seemed dizzyingly foreign to this quiet dissident, who lived under the political straitjacket of Communist Czechoslovakia.
Typical of Holub’s feeling for the interplay between multiple strata of human experience is ‘Los Angeles: Haemophilia’. The colon in the title invites an equation of personal and political, of the disease stricken body with LA’s dysfunctional body politic. Repeated imagery of circulation suggests first traffic congestion along an imagined landscape of freeways, and then the disturbing progression of haemophilia through nightmarish bodies. The repetition, indeed circulation, of the phrase ‘And so it circulates’ – with its Biblical tenor – anchors Holub’s surrealist flights of fancy in a reassuringly ritualistic framework. Holub shows us, then, how the stability offered by poetic form can help us to come to terms with personal and civic decay, providing a ‘prophylactic function’ in the words of Michael Swanton.
‘Animal Rights’ is also based on repetition but with a whimsical twist characteristic of Holub’s wit. After the repeated liturgical invocation ‘Pity for…’ becomes stultifying, the speaker explodes into a very personal rant:
‘Patients/with progressive amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/can just fuck off’
In a playful sonic switch, the initial plosive ‘p’ turns from altruistic pleading into the forceful release of a doctor’s pent-up professional frustrations. Holub gestures, then, at how poetry can move seamlessly from the seriousness of prayer to the comic and bathetic.
Consider the distinction which Holub draws in ‘1751’ between ‘the sane, who veil themselves in words’ and ‘the insane, who rip off feathers from their bodies’. The value of Holub’s poetry lies in his understanding of words both as comforting ‘veil’ to protect against loss and as ‘feathers’ for unexpected imaginative flight. Holub appreciates the peculiar mix of sanity and insanity in a poet. And it is because his poems never threaten to anaesthetize the reader to the constant possibility of the unexpected that they circulate, a vital force in the bloodstream of European poetry.