Věra Chase: death, strawberries and a dip in the Baltic

Věra Chase is one of the most original voices in contemporary Czech writing. She has just finished putting together a collection of her poetry, both new poems and old, some dating back 25 years, to when Věra was a teenager during the dying days of communist Czechoslovakia. Her writing is intensely physical, full of energy and irony, and over the years has lost none of its freshness, or as one critic humorously puts it – stickiness. David Vaughan looks at the collection and meets its author.

Věra Chase, photo: Michal NovákVěra Chase, photo: Michal Novák Věra Chase’s new book has an unusual title. In English it would be “Thirty Death Point Strawberry” which makes little sense until you imagine it as a temperature – thirty-something-point-something. And this is typical of the author’s playfulness, suggesting the physicality of the body, the sweet sickliness of the strawberry, and the omnipresence of the grim reaper. And the book itself is beautifully produced – the lettering on the cover reminds you of embroidery work and nearly every page is decorated with Věra’s own line drawings. So when I met Věra Chase at her flat here in Prague, I asked her why the book looks as it does.

“I had the idea about this book being like a package, because I remember some books that I read – their feel, if there was something that you could unfold, if there was a little letter included – you know these things. So I had this idea about the book being a package and I wanted a certain look. It has this slightly poisonous feeling, the book. We used a lot of mushrooms, and also I have old books of stitches and embroidery. So we used that and I drew some patterns and then we put it together and it came out this way, like pencil drawing.”

And you mention this sense of poison. It’s a kind of sickly sweet and menacing Grimm fairytale quality…

“Well, you know, in this country we collect mushrooms. In many countries people are afraid of mushrooms, but I don’t think people perceive mushrooms as basically evil in this country, because when there are mushrooms, everybody’s in the forest here.”

Tell me a little about the poetry in this collection.

'Thirty Death Point Strawberry''Thirty Death Point Strawberry' “I have some old poems that I rewrote or that I did not feel ready to publish before for some reasons, and I thought that enough had accumulated for this book. And I decided that I have to do the last editing and then choose. I got a grant from the Latvian Ministry of Culture to come to a nice place, very quiet, for four weeks, which is just enough, I think, to complete a work like this.”

Was it by chance that you went to Latvia or was it a place that you’d chosen to go to?

“I was curious. I hadn’t been there, and I have to say that if you talk about poetry, Latvia is the place. There’s so much nostalgia and there’s what you connect with poetry: all these feelings like sweet sadness and a little bit of autumn and – I don’t know – it’s just there. And the people, they love poetry. Everybody feels very connected with it. People read poetry in their daily lives. You open a magazine and there is some poem. It’s much more present in daily life.”

And you were able to find the space within yourself as well to finish this collection.

“It was the perfect place for it. It’s a resort that used to be very, very busy. It was part of the Soviet Union. They built these beautiful parks there, yet it’s all totally abandoned. They’re beautifully equipped. On the beach you see one swing after another, all just going creak… creak… in the wind.”

It sounds a bit too melancholy for my taste.

“Oh yeah, you just don’t stop thinking about suicide there…”

And you wrote some poetry in Latvia as well. You are going to read us a poem which isn’t in the collection, partly for the reason that you actually wrote it in English (in a previous interview we discussed the fact that you write in both Czech and English). It’s called “To the Beach and Back”.

Věra ChaseVěra Chase “You know, staying in that house with writers… the one funny thing is that you think as a writer you are so unique, because how many times are you surrounded by writers and living with writers, but when you do live with them, you find out that they have similar traits, similar characteristics, and suddenly you feel that everybody is always analyzing and synthesizing, and suddenly you don’t feel so unique. It’s like a congress of bricklayers. That’s what we have in common. ‘You know, this is a really nicely made wall…!’”

So, let’s hear the poem…

“The reason why I decided to say this was because there was one guy who was very different, and he was a judge, an old judge, from Belgium. And I wrote this poem for him.

TO THE BEACH AND BACK

I walked with this girl to the beach the other day/ we merely knew each other/ I guess I could have been her father/ yet asking age would have been inappropriate at that stage

The sea must have been cold!/ The pebbles rattled between her bare toes/ she had taken her sandals off on the wooden path among the dunes

Out of a miniature rucksack she produced:/ a blanket to sit on, a bottle of tasty local water,/ her bikini!

Shyly, she changed while I clumsily sank onto the blanket and pulled my jacket closer/ I was trying to look in a different direction/ fully aware of her abashed feelings

Yes, in spite of the sun’s brightness, even from far the sea was indeed freezing/ The seagulls were shrieking/ none to be seen even close to the water

But she wanted to try it anyway To test herself against the element/ To see how much she could take, I guess/ she was that kind of a limit-testing lass

In principal, I had felt quite neutral about her so far/ but the minute she disappeared under the water I was overcome/ – a deep sensation of chill and admiration/ (every cell of my skin retracted as if going under)

She swam a bit and waved at me/ yet so frozen was I on her behalf it took me a while to return the gallantry/ (Astounding!)

When she walked out: Gleaming! Radiant! Alive!/ I felt as if the dip brought her back from the world of the dead to the world of the living/ There was no more neutrality between us:/ She sensed with every nerve of her body and it reflected on me

I wanted to assist her To wait on her / – so wet and chilled in the breeze/ but soon was to realize she must had brought no towel/ – she just stood above me, in full blossom, salty water beads glistening on her skin

This time I was looking (still stunned) while she changed/ and it was the same shyness as before what prevented her from completing the job:/ Two big wet spots fast spread over her tank top from the undone bra/ and there was no underwear under her skirt

Every step of our walk home I relished this secret knowledge/ bluntly aware of the tiny wet spot at the back of my own bald head/ sweating so sweetly/ as it sometimes, even if seldom, still likes to do

Věra Chase, photo: Michal NovákVěra Chase, photo: Michal Novák What inspired you to write the poem from the point of view of an older man admiring a young girl?

“Well, as I said, there was this retired judge from Belgium. He was a small guy, always dressed perfectly, a complete gentleman…”

… sounds a bit like Hercule Poirot…

“Yes, and we really got along. It was just such a nice coupling. And when we went to some bar, we were by far the oldest people in the bar, because everybody was under 22. It was just a nice coupling and I started seeing things from his point of view. He never talked about these things, you know. But I gave it to him at the end, and I was a little bit embarrassed, and he said, ‘Well, this is really very much like me!’”

Let’s return to the collection. You’ve another poem that you’re going to read us now. Tell me a little about this poem.

“The pieces in this book originated between the years 1986 and 2008, and this poem is from just after the revolution. I used to attend a lot of readings that were organised by ex-pats here. It was a really interesting environment. Some people contact me even now. I have to say that the competition and the quality of the writing was pretty good there – what people presented at those readings.”

This was in the early 1990s, just after the fall of communism, when there were a lot of people coming from all over the world after the borders of Czechoslovakia were opened.

“Yes, exactly, and also these people had something in common. They were not scared to enter a country that had not been surveyed. They entered this unknown territory, so they had some courage. They started newspapers and businesses. So I wrote this poem at the time and I read it. It’s quite a strong poem, and up to now I was not courageous enough to publish it in Czech. But finally, I suppose, the time has matured enough and…”

Věra ChaseVěra Chase … It’s interesting that you’re happy to publish and read it in English, but you’re more cautious in your native tongue.

“Well, the whole context of literatures is different between the English-speaking world and here, and unfortunately, what is well accepted abroad is not accepted here at all. So I think that’s also part of it, and also the fact that, when you speak a different language than your mother tongue, certain strong words don’t affect you as much.”

HATRED CAUSED BY LOVE

You may call me nagging/ after all I am a WOMAN/ And don't worry, I will not forget to make you feel/ Guilty, I really am/ a WOMAN And I don't care one BIT about your feelings today/ I'll do my best to make you feel like a zilch/ (at least until my shell softens and melts just by/ being near you/ and your body)

But now NOW I have no problem telling you/ —since you're not around—/ that there's no will to forget how you left me/ on the very first / Day of My Period/ Yes, the exact day I become fragile as an air-mailed crystal-glass flute / The first day out of the reach of the pill/ one of the only seven left for my pleasure:/ The Days of Desire

So why not abandon me?/ when you heard the hot whispers of my body/ for once clean again for you/ —after three weeks/ when I had exercised with a razor to be as smooth/ as your hands/ which you work your tool with/ in the empty bed/ probably even thinking about me!

But I don't give beans about it!!!/ And I don't care/ that good writers don't use three/ exclamation marks because it's CHILDISH/ I don't care about them/ one BIT!!!/ I care about MY/ hurt feelings/ not more

...and next time when you want to take me in your hands/ I will be thorny as a hedgehog/ causing your hand to swell/ swell so/ you shan't be able to do much/ AT ALL/ not even to massage/ your slimy fat sausage/ (that I love anyway... on my period)

Punishments come/ Call me as you crave/ but I will see you to my door/ The door of my mind/ body and art

What did you run away for?/ To see your FRIENDS who would have just as well welcomed you next week/ Really?/ It might be better then/ if you, for this once, don’t tell them/ how you have skipped your night session with me/ for they might want you do it more/ simply to satisfy/ their dirty whisper-dwarfs / who compensate/ for the empty beds of theirs/ Come on They would like to do it to me themselves so you can imagine/ the kind of pleasure they must feel/ whenever keeping you off of my hill

And tomorrow I won't be horny anymore/ maybe I will strive with my own hand/ maybe I will just break the spine of my desire/ Maybe I won't need to see you anymore/ Every day is not / the FIRST/ day of the period/ and:/ late attentions don't suit a WOMAN/ especially if born in November

and I/ do not forget when someone pushes/ my drowning hand/ away

You wrote that poem nearly twenty years ago. Do you still think you’ve got the same potential for anger and fury in you twenty years later?

“Yes, I think I do, but maybe I would try to regulate it. But it’s definitely there!”

But have you mellowed in some ways, as you’ve got older?

“Well, there is experience, and also some things that you have felt so many times that you don’t feel them as strongly any more. The emotions can become a little bit weaker, because you have dealt with people who are angry with you, who swear at you. You know how to handle it, it doesn’t make you sweat three nights in a row, or something. But falling in love is still strong.”