I've discussed & posted before on how Crow by Ted Hughes is one of my favourite all time single collections of poetry, but there are others that over the years have sat like milestones marking my path through poetry. In time becoming part of the sacred pantheon of poetry this bloke likes. What I would like to do is every now & then highlight one, to reread what were at one time, a book, that I would spend hours, days or months with. A book that I would pour over and read to myself in quiet moments or that was declaimed out loud to all who would listen, whether a lack of sobriety or just the enthusiasm for the work providing the lubrication necessary to let my world know about this new collection. One such collection was Vanishing Lung Syndrome by Miroslav Holub, a writer I became aware of through another collection, The Rattle Bag, one of whose editors (Ted Hughes) claimed that “Miroslav Holub is one of the half dozen most important poets writing anywhere”. This was enough for me to find out more and on a trip back home from Germany, where I was working out the time, I picked up Vanishing Lung Syndrome from my local bookshop and the first poem I read was:
That year Diderot began to publish his Encyclopaedia,
and the first insane asylum was founded in London.
>>>So the counting out began, to separate the sane, who
veil themselves in words, from the insane, who rip off
feathers from their bodies.
>>>Poets had to learn tightrope-walking.
>>>And to make sure, officious types began to publish
instructions on how to be normal.
This is one of my favourite poems – ever. It hits me emotionally, it hits me logically, and it is just this book’s opening volley.
Vanishing Lung Syndrome, is a radiological syndrome in which the lungs appear to be disappearing on X-ray. The syndrome is characterized by a progressive decrease in the radiographic opacity of the lung. Causes include the accelerated progression of emphysema destroying the lung or the rapid cystic destruction of the lung by infection. It’s use as a title for a collection of poetry, declares it’s authors scientific vocation,
Miroslav Holub was born in 1923 in Plzen,(Pilsen Czech Republic) western Bohemia, the only child of a lawyer and a high school teacher of French and German. He attended a gymnasium specializing in Latin and Greek. After the war he studied medicine at Charles University, Prague, working in the department of philosophy and the history of science, and also working in the psychiatric dep’t. He became an MD in 1953. In 1954 he joined the immunological section of the Czechoslovakian Academy of Science and obtained his PHD.
It was in his student years that he started writing poetry, and also became an editor of the scientific magazine Vesmir, New Scientist. In 1954 he obtained his PHD and also published his first collection of poetry establishing what would become the twin paths of his life & going on to become the Czech republic’s most important poets and also one of her leading scientists, publishing many short essays on various aspects of science, particularly biology and medicine (specifically immunology) and life, as well as poetry.
After an hour
there’s an abyss in the chest
created by the missing heart
like a model landscape
where humans have grown extinct.
The drums of extracorporeal circulation
New World Symphony.
It’s like falling from an aeroplane, the growing
cooler and cooler,
until it condenses in the inevitable moonlight,
the clouds coming closer, below the left foot, below
the right foot,
a microscopic landscape with roads like capillaries
pulsing in counter-movements,
feeble hands grasping for the king of blood,
“seek the Lord while he may be found”
ears ringing with the whistles of some kind of cosmic
an indifferent bat’s membrane spreading between the
“It is unworthy of great hearts to broadcast their own
It’s like falling from an aeroplane
before the masked face of a creator
who’s dressed in a scrub suit
and latex gloves.
Now they are bringing, bedded in melting ice,
the new heart,
like some trophy
from the Eightieth Olympiad of Calamities.
Atrium is sewn to atrium,
aorta to aorta,
three hours of eternity
coming and going
And when the heart begins to beat
and the curves jump
like synthetic sheep
on the green screen,
it’s like a model of a battlefield
where Life and Spirit
have been fighting
and both have won.
Vanishing Lung Syndrome is divided into four sections
Syncope = Episodic interruption of the stream of consciousness induced by lack of oxygen in the brain.
Symptom = A sign of physical or mental disturbance leading usually to a patient’s complaint.
Syndrome = A group of symptoms and objective signs characterizing a disease or a defect of a structure or function.
Synapse = 1)The region of communication between two neurons. 2) The linkage between parental chromosomes preserving their individual identities.
It is through these that he asks what poets are, or what poetry means, using the language as a scientific instrument to discern and dissect it’s value, constantly stretching and challenging our conception and our assumptions about poetry. It is this rigour combined with an eloquence that just stuns, that makes this a collection of poetry that I constantly return to.
Written whilst Czechoslovakia was still under communist rule and before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, through these poems Holub uses a humour as sharp as one of his scalpels to record the blunt, brutal absurdity of the modern world, and yet, although dark, and at times despairing, they are not without hope, it shines with a warmth and benevolence, that breaks the heart.
When I grow up and you get small,
(In Kaluza’s theory the fifth dimension
is represented as a circle
associated with every point
-- then when I die, I’ll never be alive again?
Yes, but never never never?
***********No …. not never never never,
**********just never never.
So we made
a small family contribution
to the quantum problem of eleven-dimensional