In Milada Součková’s epic poem, Mluvící pásmo (roughly translated from Czech as Talking Zone), an unnamed male narrator, who uses language related to printing, details pervasive anxiety over the collapse of European civilization. The poem was first printed in the fall of 1939 in Czechoslovakia, and responds in real time to the onset of the Second World War. It was published as a spiral-bound book with a carton slipcase, circulated privately among friends in an edition size of 100. It included six linocut prints that appeared as full-page illustrations by Zdeněk Rykr, the poet’s husband. Both Součková’s text, which describes an urban landscape of war in fragments of speech, signboards, newspaper headlines, and lists, and Rykr’s linocuts, which make use of geometric blocks of color and figurative silhouettes to suggest alienating cityscapes, are in dialogue with the interwar Modernist preoccupation with the speed and distraction of the European city. A 2006 facsimile preserves the book’s unique binding and graphic layout, and is likely an introduction for the contemporary reader to Součková’s rich poetic style, as she has been largely left out of Czech literary history.[1]

In the facsimile, produced by Czech publisher PROSTOR, the text of the poem has been offset-printed and is accompanied by letterpress-printed digital scans of the original linocut illustrations. Thus, the new edition, like the original, makes use of relief printing while simultaneously employing modern modes of digital reproduction to facilitate the copy. The page layout evokes the construction of skyscrapers, as the lines of the poem run from the very top of the page to the bottom, surrounded by wide left and right margins of unprinted space. Likewise, a reoccurring pattern of squares in several of the linocuts conjure rows of windows in tall buildings. This tight geometric sequencing is echoed on the cover and within the text itself, which is interrupted periodically by three horizontal rows of small squares. The heavy sans serif typeface also fits firmly within the style of Modernism with which the poem and its illustrations reflect.

Mluvící pásmo

Text by Milada Součková, with illustrations by ​​Zdeněk Rykr

Self-published

1939

PROSTOR

2006

30 x 25 cm

29 unnumbered pages

Spiral-bound

Linocut illustrations

In 1948, a decade after the book’s original publication and just a few years after the end of the Second World War, Součková immigrated to the United States and settled there for the rest of her life. Součková’s work fits within a legacy of European Modernism that includes the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the Czech author Karel Čapek, who are both well-known though she is not. The title of Součková’s poem is a nod at this legacy, as “Pásmo” is Czech for “Zone,” referencing Apollinaire’s poem of the same title.[2]

Mluvící pásmo, Text by Milada Součková, with illustrations by ​​Zdeněk Rykr, PROSTOR (2006)

As a spiral-bound publication, Mluvící pásmo reflects the era’s fascination with new technologies as applied to art-making: its wire binding was employed in the 1936 single issue of the Brno-based magazine telehor, dedicated to the work of László Moholy-Nagy. The 2006 reprint of Mluvící pásmo has helped to resurface this exceptional work and highlight its integral place within Czechoslovakia’s impressive book production during the interwar period. 

The text of the poem, as well as the book form, accentuate the manual process of printing and the collaboration required to produce the printed word. In Součková’s poem, the male narrator reflects on the place of language in the context of a society in collapse, employing the vocabulary of the printer’s studio to ponder the relevance and implications of publishing in war time. Toward the end of the poem, just after the radio announces the first hours of a new world war, the narrator turns self-reflexively to contemplate his own printed word, and questions its value:

Oh, printer, how could I not sing your praises!

I would like most to bring you this page, and wait until you compose it.

What do I love more than your type?

But I am a bit embarrassed when I look at my manuscript,

because I think that you will say: is this worth printing?

I know how hard it is to find words beautiful enough to deserve to be printed.

It turns out that, whether from a lack of good news or equitable laws to print, the printer in the poem would rather sit silently in an orchard than get to work at the press. Considering that the poem was penned, and indeed printed and bound, within the first months of the war, we can imagine the printer still sitting in the garden, waiting for better days, after the poem’s completion. But the narrator has nevertheless found a way to get his words inked on paper.

This contemplation of the labor of printing words during violent times is followed by one last linocut by Rykr and the poem’s final lines, which read urgently: “I am A MAN WITH A PEN IN MY HAND.” The narrator’s insecurities do not relinquish the desire to write. Mluvící pásmo is an artifact of the compulsion to produce art even in dark times, and its reprint in 2006 is evidence of the enduring strength of that striving.

Mluvící pásmo, Text by Milada Součková, with illustrations by ​​Zdeněk Rykr, PROSTOR (2006)
  • (1)

    For an extended interpretation of Mluvící pásmo and a discussion of its place within early twentieth century European literature, see Zuzana Říhová, “‘Farewell to the Whole Epoch’: The Zone as the Beginning and the End of the Czech Avant-Garde,” Journal of Modern Literature 43, no. 4 (Summer 2020), pp. 45–61.

  • (2)

    For more on the significance of Karel Čapek’s translations of Apollinaire’s poetry in the context of Czech Modernism, see Deborah Garfinkle, “Karel Čapek’s ‘Pásmo’ and the Construction of Literary Modernity through the Art of Translation,” The Slavic and East European Journal 47, no. 3 (Autumn 2003), pp. 345–366.

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