In the Puppet Gardens

My friend Jonathan Bolton has edited and translated (and written an afterward for) a selection of poetry from the long career of the Czech poet Ivan Wernisch, In the Puppet Gardens: Selected Poems, 1963-2005.

I was immediately drawn into these strange & memorable poems. Sometimes they reminded me a bit of Marianne Moore, perhaps because they are filled with eerie animals (a “dead frog-mouse,” a “blind lioness” who “will snatch anyone who shouts”). They also contain quite a number of puppets and other uncannily animate objects that made me think of the stop-action animation of the Svankmajers.

“I Arrived at Nangah Sibau at a Bad Time” describes the arrival of a hair-growth tonic merchant in a small riverside town in Indonesia. “Who knows who was shooting whom/ Beyond the shadow of a doubt/ I wouldn’t be selling much hair-growth cream in this place.” He is writing to his lover, describing the “floating flowers, ilong-ilongs with blue-violet calyxes.” Someone keeps filling up his glass; “I fell asleep for a moment and dreamed that I was dreaming all this.” He decides to stay, but in the final lines we hear no more of our protagonist, just his wares: “Further on they say there are people with tails and horns/ And a suitcase with ten dozen jars of hair elixir stayed behind in Nangah Sibau.”

Several poems describe an uncanny moment in which a speaker doubts he still inhabits his own life. “Is this the continuation of someone else’s story, or am I finally returning to my own life?” In another poem, a man is handed a message which is then snatched away: “Go where you are going, go, this message is not for you.” The message, it is implied, was to mark his own death, which he has for some reason been spared, for the moment. Wernisch is drawn to images of death, or of freeze-frame stasis, within life. In another poem about a group shipwrecked, thankful that “the natives are letting us live,” “not a single leaf has moved from the time the last people were here.” One poem reads in its entirety: “They are still waiting,/ The fish frozen in the ice,/ to see when it ends.” The title “Death is Waiting for Us Elsewhere” [click link for this poem] could have named the entire collection.

“When the old man, marching, steps in the water, the branches start swaying and the little mechanical animals on them come alive Aha, now I know: this is a shooting gallery from which we can hit a different world”