BOOKS: Poet in a lab coat

THE RAMPAGE by Miroslav Holub, Faber pounds 7.99
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The Independent Culture
HOLUB, poet and immunologist, spans the two cultures, bringing a clinical eye to bear on our anthropomorphic view of the world, and putting the dry bones of science back into a larger humanist perspective. "A molecule fits in a molecule, / John the Baptist baptises as usual". This puts a new slant on the almost tautological statement of each line by juxtaposing supposedly antithetical worlds and finding similarities. Could genes be said to baptise our desires? Is the Baptist programmed to wander in the desert, and direct us to the nearest font?

You have to get pretty high up to view these things, and Holub's dry manner is sometimes rather etiolated. You also have to zoom in close, so that a cobweb might reveal "a laurel wreath / on the neck of last year's gnat / trembling in the draft / like a mummy of our / forever distant / love for Helen of Troy"; or a nail-hole look like "the mouth of a volcano / Empedocles jumped into, / big as a sigh, / the hollow brain of a mite, / the little mouth of a prince open in wonder ..."

Holub covers the ground at a great intellectual and emotional lick. Within a few opening lines in the first poem, "The Wall in the Corner by the Stairs", we meet the Greeks, the Celts, Brueghel, Beckett, the baroque, family photos, the unholy war of insects, the incessant human impulse to praise and to despair. He has the ability to seize on minutiae and make them eloquent, to let the part speak for the whole, or the whole be cut down to six by looking at it from a fresh angle.

"Scene with Fiddlers" evokes the long Communist freeze ("It snowed from the heart. And for years"), and so does "At Last", which wonders what happens when freedom finally arrives, but ends rather tritely "We might even/be hostage/to ourselves". The shortness of the lines only adds to the bathos. Another poem remarks "The essence of art / is that we aren't very good at it."

These aphorisms produce a short-term frisson, and so do the multicultural meetings between Orpheus and the genome, say, or a sperm quoting Hamlet, or "Anancephaly" ("newborn without a brain") set against "Erato the muse" and "Kant's reason". There's something a bit too formulaic about these collisions, though, and too lazy in the crop of ironies.

The idea is to undermine cosy stories with the uncosy facts at atomic and sub-atomic level, to-deconstruct grandeurs and certainties. Likewise the pared-down free verse and technical lexicon intends to administer a cold shower to conventional notions of poeticism. At its best this is salutary, at its worst it just turns into another sort of preachiness, garnished with the periodic table.

Holub is best when he is most feeling, as in the book's first poem and in "My Mother Learns Spanish" - which she fails to do, triumphantly. Elsewhere the prophylactic dryness and breadth of allusion look merely like an honest man having his say, standing up in a lab coat starched with late-century ironies about our diminished place in the scheme of things.