Czech environmental poetry – declarations of love for houseplants, trees and wrens
Author of the Week: Czech Republic
Jan Škrob was born in Prague in 1988. He is the author of three books of poetry, Pod dlažbou ("Under the Paving Stones", 2016), Reál ("Real Life", 2018) and Země slunce ("Land of the Sun", 2021). His poems have been translated into multiple languages. His debut book was nominated for the 2017 Magnesia Litera Czech literary award in the "Discovery of the Year" category. In 2018, Škrob won the Czech-German Dresden Lyric Award. For his second book, Škrob was nominated for the Jiří Orten Award, given for the best book of the year by an author thirty years old or younger. His poetry teeters at the intersections of the personal and the political, the fictitious and the real.
Jan Škrob is one of the major recent discoveries of Czech poetry. The poet, translator, and musician has so far published three collections of poems, Pod dlažbou (“Under the Pavement”, Eman, 2016), Reál (“Real”, Malvern, 2018) and Země slunce (“The Land of the Sun,” Viriditas, 2021), which have resonated well with both literary critics and readers. He has received numerous nominations and awards for his work, including the DILIA Award nomination for his poetic debut and the Jiří Orten Award nomination for his second poetry collection. Abroad, he has also received the prestigious international Dresdner Lyrikpreis in 2018. As a poet, Jan Škrob is recognized primarily as author of engaged poetry, reminiscent of the great poetic traditions of the 20th century while remaining surprisingly current through its incorporation of contemporary themes.
The latter can already be seen in his poetic debut Pod dlažbou, which belongs, both formally and structurally, to traditional lyricism with such verbal figures as word-repetition and poetic strings, alliteration and other procedures, while also emphasizing the issue of religion by opposing religious sentiments with the current societal and individual problems. Everyday reality, disagreement with the arrangement of today’s world, difficulties in communicating with external actuality are associated with the experience of the inner lyrical subject. In four poetic sections the subject seeks solace in spirituality, turning to those rare points of certainty that still represent assurances and solid ground under his feet in a disintegrated world of uncertainty, frustration, and eradication. The result is a sensitive mix of intrusions of everyday life and deeply intimate reflections, love and hope on the one hand, and disgust and sadness on the other, with religious, political, social and romantic motifs freely interwoven. In them we recognize the image of the shamanic poet who masters his poetic craft, but also develops unique and fresh metaphoric imagery and effective sound properties, powered by the heritage of the American beatnik tradition, resisting unambiguity with its references and offering deep reflections of the present moment through its exploration of a world of alternate possibilities.
The motif of the tension between the subject and the world is also evident in the author's second collection, Reál, whose title hints at the gap between reality and fiction. As in his debut, the poet again combines an engaged poetic position with spiritual insight, the latter acting as contrast and antithesis to the modern world, which appears to the reader an apocalyptically hostile and inhospitable environment. Step by step, the collection becomes a conceptual poetic battlefield with strong agitational overtones that answer the state of the world with a critique of global capitalism and its social problems. Considering his past work, in Real Škrob speaks more directly through the realm of spoken-word and performative poetry, his poems acting as loud oaths that expose some of the essential issues and global pains of the world, using a mix of reality and fiction with suggestive details bordering on magical realism. The latter form the basis for a new reality, which exposes a conceptually interconnected and layered world, an attempt at generational confession, but also a poetic, spiritual and social manifesto, which instead of escaping from the world shows an engaged moment of changing its form and problematic practices, presenting the struggle against a dystopian new reality, catastrophic visions of the future and the spiritual rebirth of man and his habitat.
The enthrallment with the outside world and a delicate balancing of personal and global equilibrium also continues in the author's recently published third collection of poems Země slunce, which goes a step further in bringing a vision of a “world after the world”. In twenty-eight intertwined, mostly longer poems, Škrob abandons the hitherto recognizable urban environment, bringing anxiety over the environmental crisis even more decisively to the fore, with view toward changing the system and its controls. In doing so, the author immerses his reader in partly fantastic, partly familiar, realistic poetic landscapes with blurred boundaries, anxious dreams or virtual digital reality, while offering prophetic visions of the world at the end of its power, a world which will fail unless humanity changes the system. Nature receives anthropomorphic features and reclaims what was taken from her. Life continues even after the imminent extinction of the human species, featured as one of the members of the devastated landscape of poetic reality and visions of our common future. However, Škrob also suggests a path towards the future, based on love for the Earth and the chains of relationships forged within the community. Individuals of the collective, members of the community have archetypic characteristics, and by exchanging data and relationships, a symbolic system is being built that could be compared to the Cyberpunk universe or a dystopian world of tomorrow. At the same time, reference points and identification with the main characters, which intertextually remind us of heroes from video games, film and popular culture, partially indicate a possible solution. It is based on rebuilding the world and finding alternatives to the current system of life, with the idea of the possibility of constructing a significantly different world while transforming dystopian visions into possible alterations of ourselves and people around us through battle.
Jan Škrob is one of the most expressive and recognizable Czech poets of the younger generation. His distinct style is extremely appealing to critics and readers, bringing forth a strong ethical and semantic dimension alongside its aesthetic value.
Essay written by Aljaž Koprivnikar