Ivan Diviš’ The Old Man’s Verses


oldmanFor our first in an intermittent series of book reviews on our Sycamore blog, I’d like to introduce you to the work of Ivan Diviš (pronounced Divish), whose recent book (released in September by Host Publishing) is the first collection of his work to be published in English, nine years after his death at the age of 75. For those unfamiliar with Host Publishing, they’ve been doing a great job of issuing literature from all over the globe in attractive volumes, often in parallel translation, as this collection is.

A prisoner of war during the Second World War, Diviš, a Prague native, worked in the postwar years as an editor and was one of a group of visibly active elements in Czech literary culture until the Soviet invasion in the late sixties.  After that, he, as with all artists behind the Iron Curtain, if they didn’t write pieces that would tow the party line, had to “write for the drawer,” for later publication in kinder political climates, or to publish and be distributed in the Underground as Samizdat literature. He defected to Munich until political conditions had thawed enough for him to return to Prague to write.

The “Old Man” of these poems can be seen as both a fictional character as much as Diviš himself–these are among the last poems he wrote.  Political commentary certainly can be found here, as well as a religiously-inflected worldview:  “So you interpret your life/ based on the fact a father/ abandoned the son he sent to earth/ in the decisive moment./ How do you explain it?/ The explanation spoils the mystery/ the way a word does a thing.”

There are more piquant moments here as well, including a rather potty-mouthed phantom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who comes to visit the old man in one greatly enjoyable poem. Scepticism abounds, such as one poem (all are untitled) from 1996:  “How ironic that technology acts as our go-between,/ the very thing that one day’s bound to destroy us.”

There are quiet moments here, and ruminations, reminiscent of Adam Zagajewski at times.  It’s nice to see a publishing house attempting to spread the word of writers that need to be heard beyond the borders of their home countries.

The Old Man’s Verses:  ISBN 978-0-924047-56-5  $15. 171 pp.