Bohumila Grögerová (1921–2014)

Bohumila Grögerová with the 2009 Magnesia Litera Prize at the Prague Estates Theater, 2009. Photo by René Volfík.

1967 WAS A YEAR that poetry as a visual art briefly saw recognition in book publishing on a scale that reflected its long influence on writers and artists, with one major anthology of Concrete poetry released in North America and another in Europe. Bohumila Grögerová, the poet responsible for the latter, Czech publication (and with it, European access to the decade in graphic writing), died this August in Prague, leaving behind a body of poems, memoirs, children’s stories, radio plays, and nearly two hundred books collaboratively translated with her companion, Josef Hiršal. Though she continued to write and publish until the end of her life, winning the foremost Czech literary prize, Magnesia Litera, in 2009, it is Grögerová and Hiršal’s 1960s-spanning experiment with Concrete techniques, Job-Boj (Job-Fight), 1968, that remains her work best remembered by English-speaking audiences. (This, due to its excerpting in An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967), edited by Emmett Williams and published by Dick Higgins at Something Else Press, long out of print and crucially reanimated last year by Primary Information.) She is almost completely unavailable in the US, although her visual poetry is often approachable by nonreaders of Czech—a quality that challenges our habit of conceiving ex post facto translation as the sole vehicle of international literary exchange.

Is this the reason that the tradition Grögerová advocated, which mostly originated outside the English language (in Latin America and Europe), has always gotten so much less than its due? Although many insiders know it well, for most it falls in a hole somewhere between the more familiar poetry we think of in terms of sound and meaning (which can thus find its way around the world through sonic and semantic analogues in other languages) and the Conceptual, whose language is abandoned the instant it is created, to be replaced by the language of summary and reputation (a readily portable form that makes translating the work itself inherently pointless). Grögerová’s compositions offer a welcome antidote to this dichotomous way of thinking.

Bohumila Grögerová and Josef Hiršal, excerpt from Job-Boj (Job-Fight), 2013, Primary Information.

One untitled interlingual piece from Job-Boj, pictured above, particularly demonstrates the playfulness that Grögerová’s stripe of Concrete austerity often conceals. A Czech word, “SVOBODA,” appears to translate itself incrementally into its English counterpart, “FREEDOM.” But the procedure is somewhat more intricate: With each successive line, “SVOBODA” shifts to the left by a letter, such that the first replaces the last; after the word experiences spelling orders beginning with each of its letters (SVOBODA / VOBODAS / OBODASV . . .), the initial S is replaced by freedom’s F, and the rotation repeats until the change to English is complete. Evoking a kind of mechanically formal dance—a “freedom” consisting of generative constraint—the piece could easily lead a reader to miss that the last two lines of the transition are omitted completely. It skips from the point the first four letters have been replaced (“FREEODA”) to the end, composing an image of freedom that relies not only on rules but their spontaneous transgression. The omission appears at a juncture in the work at which a reader might expect to have gotten the concept; it is an affirmation of material’s sovereignty that speaks to the heart of Concrete poetry in general.

Grögerová was among the artists whose visual work was displayed on building facades in Hünfeld, Germany, in a 1998 iteration of Gerhard Jürgen Blum-Kwiatkowski’s Das offene Buch (The Open Book), a project that brought the spatial desires of graphic writing to the literal and conceptual vanishing point as well as honored the expansion of the Concrete to other disciplines that took place throughout the twentieth century. Grögerová’s influence as a mover of the graphic word was instrumental for the visibility of a tradition to which the presence of words in contemporary art is profoundly indebted—in the work of Glenn Ligon, Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, and any number of others. Grögerová’s passing is an occasion to consider the reasons this debt has been effaced as well as to revisit more seriously the friendliness of the Concrete. Her exemplary oeuvre is open.

Abraham Adams is a poet and artist based in Brooklyn. He is one of the editors of Ugly Duckling Presse.