A Poet in Death Valley
It was Easter Sunday, the white dunes of Death Valley glowing in the new day, the air redolent with the resinous scent of damp creosote bush. Miroslav Holub and I navigated the dunes, he in his grey leather, single-tie shoes and I in battered Nike Lava Domes, searching for the best way to move sideways across the shifting sands. Did I miss being in church? he inquired, perhaps recalling my late father, who’d been a minister and whom he’d met briefly. No, I replied, waving my arms toward the dunes, this beats it. On we climbed. But our dune-side progress slowed in the warming day, until eventually our up-the-down-escalator steps made it easy to land at the bottom. As if to mock our clumsiness, a zebra-tailed lizard sped by, tail curved forward, its slender, clawed toes just skimming the sand.
In the afternoon, after a stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to pose a few questions about the locals—Holub’s deadpan reference to the lizard population—we drove through the dry vastness of the Valley, the vault of blue above.
“What do you think about angels, Miroslav?” I asked. “Do you believe in some kind of spiritual creature?”
I imagined the plentiful side-blotched lizards listening in.
“Angels, they are present in the poems. But,” he said, “they are not required to save anyone.”
“And the ‘so-called’ soul?” I asked, as I’d heard him phrase it. Though the two entities existed hand-in-glove in my upbringing, I could hear in Miroslav’s pause that we’d made a distinct turn of subject. Yes, the soul, too, was present, at times connected to painful situations.
In “Crush Syndrome,” as translated by David Young and Dana Hábová, the soul is connected to the body but is not of the body. After the speaker’s hand is crushed, he recognizes that he indeed has a soul, that it’s “soft, with red stripes, / and it want[s] to be wrapped in gauze.” The soul is attended to at the clinic, grasping with its “mandibles” and then appearing as a being of “whitish crystal” with a “grasshopper’s head.” By poem’s end, the soul rests as a “scar, scarcely visible.” Here, as in other of his poems and essays written over four decades, the soul has its own desires and abilities. Similarly, at the close of “Creative Writing,” composed in Holub’s last year, and as we translated it, the aging woman who aspires to permanence possesses a “fluid soul.” In Holub’s cosmic verse, the individual soul is a changeable entity, unpredictable and as vulnerable to experience as its host.
* * *
I’d flown into Ontario, California, the closest airport to where Holub was a writer in residence for a semester at Pitzer College in 1985. A former student, friend, and sometimes translator, I’d come to visit the Czech immunologist and poet. But when I arrived, he wasn’t there at the gate to greet me. So I waited. Nearly two hours later, he rushed in.
“Why are you still here?” he half demanded, half apologized.
I told him I’d decided to wait, in case something had happened. If he didn’t show, I’d take a taxi to his house.
He nodded in approval; then his mouth grew tight. “My Gott. I messed it up. Sorry.” The “my” was elongated, “sorry” was clipped. “Messed” received the greatest emphasis. For one who caused a mistake, including himself, Holub had little patience. He had gone to the wrong airport. We walked to the rental car.
During that April week in Southern California we logged two thousand miles: from Venice Beach with its roving hucksters and rollerbladers in short-shorts to Joshua Tree National Forest and its yucca, its fire-topped ocotillo, and views of the San Andreas Fault. Back in Claremont midweek, Holub taught his poetry seminar and I sat in, jotting down many of his pithy observations: “the adjective is not key; it’s simply an ornament.” And, “a poetry book is not a bag containing poems, just like the body is not a bag containing bones. The book has a structure. You must be aware of it.”
I was assembling my own collection, and Holub carved out time to comment on my ripening poems: too much description here. You’ve avoided overstatement at least. What’s your point? Indeed, as poets, our own work was radically different. As Holub characterized our styles in those days: “I want poetry to be a knife; yours is a caress.”
I can see Miroslav that first Sunday in the Valley—and this fading photograph in my hand helps me to do this—looking pleased and vigorous in his sage-colored, button-down shirt, neatly tucked into PermaCrease slacks. Behind him, afternoon shadows cover the scrubby hills partway while clouds gather on the horizon. He’d been many places in the world, and still he had revolutions and revisions of the map before him. Earlier that weekend in Death Valley, his interest lay with the algae and invertebrates that inhabited the Badwater Pond and had adapted to the extremes of temperature and saline. Surrounded by miles of crusty salt flats, we craned our necks at the SEA LEVEL sign high in the rocky cliffs. For those few moments, as we perspired in the heat and fought the sun’s glare, we considered our world from -282 feet.
* * *
Did he know of the Death Valley spadefoot toads—not true toads, he would have ferreted out—that wait underground in a dehydrated state for months, popping up after sufficient rain and bleating like sheep? The “real deep surprises,” he’d offered, “come in the sciences.” In the mid-sixties, as part of a collective project, Holub discovered that the lymphocyte is the key cell of the entire immune system. The path to that discovery was forged by something beyond the working hypothesis, exacting methods, and repeatability of the results. It included, as he recounts in his essay “The Discovery: An Autopsy,” as translated by David Young and Catarina Vocadlova, a feel for his material—“the lymphocyte, with its ability to transform itself, and with its limitations.”
Many years later, when I returned to Death Valley I thought of Holub in the last years of his life, as travel became increasingly difficult for him because of a degenerative hip condition and unpredictable bleeding from the eye. Receiving awards and giving readings, he pressed on, to Pescara and Wellington and Hong Kong and beyond, his urge to ask, to see: unquenchable. As I stared across a wooden borax wagon at the sweep of the land, the cool wind picked up. A sudden, barely discernable moisture was present in the air. A few people scurried toward their trucks and suvs. I scanned the sky. There it was, a rose-gray moving mass—verga, the rain that is visible above but never touches the earth.