I first came across the poetry of Ivan Blatný (1919-1990) several years ago, and was immediately struck by the remarkable circumstances of his life. One of the leading Czech poets of his generation, he defected to England in 1948, becoming a non-person in his own country – all references to him were expunged, and his poetry was black-listed. Life in exile was not easy for Blatný – he suffered a mental breakdown soon after his arrival, but recovered sufficiently to work for a time as a journalist for the BBC and Radio Free Europe. From 1954 until shortly before his death he lived in mental institutions and care homes in Essex and Suffolk, spending the last 5 years of his life in a nursing home in Clacton-on-Sea. He was not so much mentally ill as paranoid about being kidnapped and returned to Czechoslovakia. For about 10 years he stopped writing, but then began to fill dozens of notebooks, most of which were simply thrown away by his carers. In 1977 a nurse discovered his identity and began preserving his work; a collection of his writing eventually found its way to Prague, where it was published in samizdat in 1982. His poetry began to be published openly in Czechoslovakia in the year of his death.
I have set, for baritone and an ensemble of 12 players, poems from the 1940s in translation as well as some of his later poetry, much of it composed in English as well as in a polyglot mixture of English, Czech and German. The title, ‘As time returns’, is taken from a line from a poem in the collection ‘Old Addresses’, published in Canada in 1979.
‘To go here and there, slow to return,
as time returns, as distance returns too,
nostalgic like stamps on a letter.’
(translated by Matthew Sweeney)
As Time Returns was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, Library of Congress, and the London Sinfonietta. The first performance will be given at the Purcell Room on December 7 by George Humphreys with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Jessica Cottis.