Lines on a poet and a scientist

Miroslav Holub (via Bloodaxe Books)

The poet was a scientist
The scientist was a poet
The one always saw the world with the eyes of the other
‘In the microscope’, for instance

Here too are cemeteries,
fame and snow.
And I hear murmuring,
the revolt of immense estates.

It is the view of one who understood the puzzle and the paradox
of what it is to observe
or to imagine observation, as in ‘Brief Thoughts on Cats Growing on Trees’

In the days when moles still held their general meetings
and were able to see better, it happened
that they wished to know what existed
And they elected a commission to investigate.
The commission delegated a sharp-sighted, quick-footed
mole. Leaving his bit of mother earth
he sighted a tree and a bird sitting in it

From this the moles determine that birds grow on trees. But a second mole
notes that cats screech in trees
hence screeching cats grow on trees
A third mole goes out at night and concludes

Birds and cats are optical illusions caused by the refraction of light. In reality, above
is the same as below, only the earth is thinner and
the upper roots of a tree whisper something,
but only a little.

Such is understanding

He was a poet, he was a immunologist, both of whom
investigate through
He was born in 1923, in Czechoslovakia. He ceased to be born in 1998
Miroslav Holub was the name on the label
The surname is a poem in itself
its two parts each
the complementary other

His poems are mysterious and clear
Like thought

There are minotaurs and trilobites
Cat and clowns
Prince Hamlet and Cinderella
Angels and gorgons
Arthropods and subway stations
Diseases and puppets
Teeth and ‘Wings’

But above all
we have
the ability
to sort peas,
to cup water in our hands,
to seek
the right screw
under the sofa
for hours

gives us

The poems are inviting to read, they make the reader
look again
On visiting ‘The British Museum’, for instance
(from which these are extracts, separated by ellipses)

According to the rules of the fugue,
any ark
will be ruined
once, the trilingual
Rosetta Stone will be broken, stelae of Halicarnassus
will turn to dust, sandstone Assyrian spirits
with eagle heads will shyly take off…

Only genes are eternal,
from body to body,
from one breed to another breed,
on Southampton Row …

So the British Museum is not to be found
in the British Museum.

The British Museum is in us,
in our very hearts,
in our very depths.

Appropriately enough, it is poetry that translates well
(or so it would seem)
No rhymes, no demanding metres
Some have wondered whether it is poetry at all
But the poetry is in the translation

At any rate, it is easy to read, in that it falls
comfortably on the eye
And it is quite easy to imitate
If superficially so

He looks at past and present, the animate and the inanimate, at
the body and the mind. Hence ‘A Boy’s Head’

In it there is a space-ship
and a project
for doing away with piano lessons.

And there is
Noah’s ark,
which shall be first.

And there is
an entirely new bird,
an entirely new hare,
an entirely new bumble-bee.

There is a river that flows upwards.

The poetry is comical and serious
For such is how we find things, looking through our microscope
as others look through theirs at us
and wonder

It can be oddly beautiful too, as we learn from ‘Love’

Two thousand cigarettes.
A hundred miles
from all to wall.
An eternity and a half of vigils
blanker than snow.

Tons of words
old as the tracks
of a platypus in the sand.

A hundred books we didn’t write.
A hundred pyramids we didn’t build.


as the beginning of the world.

Believe me when I say
it was beautiful.

It is Czech to its bones, the mind we see in
Hašek, Čapek, Hrabal, Menzel, Passer, Forman, Chytilová
The words of a land so much invaded down the centuries
Victim of an ever-repeating folly
This we see in ‘The Fly’,
perhaps his best-known poem
(the fly is feeding on battlefield corpses at Crécy)

She rubbed her legs together
as she sat on a disembowelled horse
on the immortality of of flies …

And thus it was
that she was eaten by a swift
from the fires of Estrées

What is a poet and what is science?
Holub wonders continually about his role
As well he might
In ‘Interview with a Poet’ he asks himself

You are a poet? Yes I am.
How do you know?
I have written a poem.
When you wrote the poem, it means you were a poet. But now?
I shall write another poem some day.
They you may again be a poet. But how will you know that it is
really a poem?
It will be just like the last one.

It that case it will certainly not be a poem. A poem exists
only once – it cannot be the same again.
I mean it will be just as good.

But you cannot mean that. The goodness of a poem exists only once and does not depend on you but on circumstances.
I imagine the circumstances will be the same.

We are all seeking that which is unique and true
and expressible
In that respect, we are all poets
and we are all scientists, experimenters,
turning the microscope on ourselves

Curiously, however, Holub never questions his science
as such
Only his poetry

If that is your opinion, you never were a poet and never will
be. Why then do you think you are a poet?
Well, I really don’t know…
But who are you?

This is the seventh in an occasional series of posts on favourite poets of mine


  • Miroslav Holub’s collected English translations are published by Bloodaxe Books as Poems Before & After, with translations by Ian Milner, Jarmila Milner, George Theiner and Ewald Osers
  • There is information on Holub, with sample poems, at the Poetry Foundation
  • Some of Holub’s non-specialist prose writings on science and other topics are printed (in English) in The Dimension of the Present Moment and Other Essays. It includes the illuminating essay ‘Poetry and Science’


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