Post-Velvet Poetry

Petr Kabes
Tezitka[1] petr kabes

Poet Petr Kabes was born on 21 June 1941 in the eastern Bohemian town of Pardubice. After finishing secondary school in his hometown, he moved to Prague to study at the Prague School of Economics, where he graduated in 1963. Following his military service he worked in the Institute for Technical and Economic Information in Prague. In 1966 he took over as editor-in-chief of the literary review Notebooks for Young Literature, a position he held until 1969, when the magazine was closed down. He was charged with publishing pornographic texts; this was a mere pretext to isolate the whole group of non-conformist writers. After that he worked as a lifeguard, waiter and nightwatchman, and from 1973 was employeed at the meteorological station on Milesovka in northwestern Bohemia. He lost his job there after signing Charter 77. Since 1989 he has been a freelance writer. In the 1970s and 1980s he was active in editing samizdat books, collections and periodicals, among them the Dictionary of Czech Writers - An Attempt to Reconstruct the History of Czech Literature 1948 - 1979 (together with J. Brabec, J. Grusa and J. Lopatka, 1991; originally published in Toronto in 1982 as The Dictionary of Banned Authors). In 1995 Kabes was awarded the prestigious Seifert Prize for Literature. He lives in Prague with his wife, the eminent translator of French literature, Anna Kareninova.

Jirí Grusa remembers Petr Kabes
The following text is an excerpt from an article on Petr Kabes by the writer and poet Jirí Grusa, currently Czech Ambassador in Vienna, written for the German magazine Die Neue Gesellschaft Frankfurter Hefte.
This text has been reproduced with the kind permission of The Heart of Europe.

In those years during the Communist regime there existed something like Kabes high tides and Kabes low tides, Prague weeks without Kabea and weeks full of Kabes, since the meteorological station at Mileaovka swallowed him up at regular intervals. All this happened due to the workings of the law that governed us all. We, the children of postwar Czechoslovakia, were doomed to happiness. We were told that it was our duty to sell our souls to that happiness.

Every young person, of course, has a difficult time of it. When he wants to break away from 'the old folks', he does it rashly, cunningly, rebelliously, peacefully. And we too, the Czech Kabes generation, were a generation of rebels. We too wanted to be different from our fathers, who were collectivists - at least most of us did.
But of course unlike, for example, the 'West German 1968ers', who as randomly scattered individuals had to join together from below in order to toil at what was exposed to the common view - the res publica - our deep thinkers were defenders of the res exclusiva. And that was to be imposed from above, defined in advance as a miracle, and so limited to a small circle of initiates and connoisseurs of miraculous words.

A revolt in favour of sobriety

Like all of us, Kabes refused to believe this. Not out of conviction or ill will. Only on the basis of physical experience. The paradise that they promised us, without even asking us first whether we wanted it, turned out to be rather impassible terrain. First we stepped on stubble. Kabes's second book was called Barefoot in the Gardens. A description of an ordinary day in that heaven on earth. A sober acceptance of what causes pain - underfoot. No, this certainly wasn't political poetry, these weren't aphorisms struggling to save the world.

Kabes was interested in creating a language that could not be appropriated in the service of any particular flag. Of course he knew that it was possible for there to be better times, better places and better people than our time, our place and our people. And quite certainly a better society than that 'very best' society in which we lived. We too longed for some kind of somewhere-nowhere, sharing the utopian mood common to all young people. Our utopia was called TOPOS. It said: do what can be done, find what can be found, express the expressible. In a world that was seeking what couldn't be found, realizing the unrealizable and presenting the unmentionable as a talk-show, this was revolutionary.

Although freed from the illusion of the messianic role of poetry, it is only with sorrow and, fortunately enough, only imperfectly, that we are parting with the idea of the mutual correspondence between the poet and a compact, entire world, or to put it more simply, with experiencing what continues to be this civilization, this culture. In this sense I would run the risk of claiming that the successive generations that emerged from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s are in fact a single generation, the last generation.

I have no doubt that we are witnessing the unavoidable end of a civilization, an end that is organic, and not necessarily catastrophic. Poetry today and fifteen years hence will fulfil its task if it remains what it has always been in our culture: a form of address. A prayer, an appeal, a beseeching - these are all forms of address. A testament - that is, a summing up, a coming to terms and a bequest - is also a form of address. I find the individual sentences of such a shared testament in the verse of George Seferis, Octavio Paz and Czeslaw Milosz as well as in the verse of my Russian contemporary Joseph Brodsky and the Czech poet Ivan Wernisch.

From a written communication for the 14th International Biennale of Poetry, held in Liege in 1984 on the theme of 'Poetry in the Year 2000'. Petr Kabea was not present at the event, having been prevented by the Czechoslovak authorities from leaving the country.

Weighty words

During the almost quarter of a century of punishment, which was planned to last forever and cost many their lives, Kabes produced a series of works that in the era of the mass media were examples of self-medialization. He wrote A Pedestrian Matter, to use the title of a book from this period that makes this self-medialization quite clear. One would almost like to say matter/non-matter, words as values, creative words, linking images.

Those words were like the man himself. Brisk, but never belated. Tender, fragile, but never without weight. Melancholy, but never without a smile. The meteorologist from Milesovka once wrote 'Every word must be christened', and so he christened his words. 'I can't offer a tooth for a tooth of time down below/but I would give an eye for an eye/as I rummage for weather via spiral steps/of stone as I write my name/in the blank space marked observer.' And in truth he was nearer to many, on that distant hill, than we who thought that nearness was better. And this is perhaps the reason why Kabes never shared our happiness fully and purely when the time came that we were able to leave the cellars, guard-rooms, prisons and countries that had granted us asylum. From the top of Milesovka it was clearly possible to observe deeper geological layers than from the euphoric layers of euphoria at the time of change. There exists something like an archeology of the future. In connection with Europe, he said to me, a Western European, 'It's a scar dreaming of its wound.' I admit that this baffled me. For it was a time of rejoicing, and even I - otherwise given to mockery - displayed a tendency towards overreacting. But since that time, the more I see ethnocrats instead of democrats, the more I think of Kabes, friend and poet rebel. He, who I listen to sadly in Prague as he stutters and mumbles when reciting his poetry, was more political than those of us who thought that politics does not slay poetry.

Books of Poetry by Petr Kabes

Palmlines (Mladá fronta 1961)
Barefoot in the Gardens (Mladá fronta 1963)
Dead Season (Czechoslovak Author, 1968)
Deferral of the Countryside (1970, pulped; Rozmluvy, London, 1983; Mladá fronta 1992)
Inhabitable Bodies (samizdat 1977; LIT 1991), Open-air Museums (samizdat 1977; Atlantis 1991) A Pedestrian Matter (Obrys PmD 1987, Czechoslovak Writer 1992)
Paperweights (Atlantis 1998)
A Pedestrian Matter and Other Antechambers (Atlantis 1998).

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