Miroslav Holub: The Fly

July 11, 2019

She sat on a willow-trunk
watching
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shouts,
the gasps,
the groans,
the trampling and the tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
as she sat on a disembowelled horse
meditating
on the immortality of flies.

With relief she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and only the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and only
a few arms and legs
still twitched jerkily under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer.

And thus it was
that she was eaten by a swift
fleeing
from the fires of Estrées.

I’ve always found writing that tries to look at human events from a non-human perspective fascinating; it often says as much about the writer as the subject. Here (in a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub) we have a nasty and insignificant fly observing nasty and insignificant humans killing each other in battle.

We’re back in the fourteenth century. Yes, it’s the battle of Crécy, but the fly knows nothing about that; probably not watching the battle, not having any conception of what’s going on – we humans think everything is about us. She does fly things: copulates, sits on carrion, lays eggs and gets eaten by another creature who doesn’t know what is going on in the world of humans either (although she is affected by it).

Holub uses the innocent creatures – flies, horse, bird – to put a different perspective on the human events, which he skilfully locates using names, times and places, all human-only aspects of the world.

We see flies as repellent creatures, but what is actually repellent here? There are the gross images of what the fly does, and yet the grossness – dead horse, dead armourer, burning villages – is all human-created.

Even through translation, the horrors of the battle and its consequences come over vividly: the actions of battle in three nouns and two participles; the disembowelled horse, the blue tongue of the armourer. Limbs twitch jerkily as the whisper of decay – what a marvellous image! – softly circles (notice the alliteration there) the bodies…

And the poet is not only alert to the irony of the humans’ situation in all this, but to the fly’s too: moments after apparently reflecting on her species’ immortality, she is eaten… and yet flies are everywhere, omnipresent, and after any war will no doubt abound, for a while.

Not a great poem, not brilliant in terms of technique or use of language, but clever enough to make a reader pause, see something from a perspective s/he would otherwise never have thought of using, and reflect briefly before moving on: for me that’s the essence of a poet’s art, something I can’t do and the poet can.

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