Leave the Red Rags Behind: Miroslav Holub’s poem “Bullfight”

Read “Bullfight” here.

Czech poet Miroslav Holub was, by his own admission, a scientist first and a poet second. Perhaps what this means is that his poetry couldn’t exist without his work as a scientist, which I can understand. Our obsessions are what drive our poetry; if Holub were to deny his obsession, his poetry would serve no purpose. I’m not familiar with Holub’s work as a whole, but I recently came across his poem “Bullfight” in the anthology The Rattle Bag, and was drawn to the stark language and simple but effective use of sentence structure.

It isn’t surprising to me that such a poem was written by a man who considers himself a scientist first. There is a kind of distance to the language, and a cleanness. It’s not flowery or sentimental; it’s image-driven, which is what gives it its power. Here are a few lines of the narrative center of this poem:

Red blood spurts between the shoulder-blades.
Chest about to split,
tongue stuck out to the roots.
Hooves stamp of their own accord.

Red is of course an obvious choice for the mood Holub is setting in this poem, and it appears four times. First, “Red flags flutter,” then the above line, then “the red rags,” and towards the end of the poem, “the black-and-red bull.” Two allusions to the matador’s cape, two to the blood of the bull. Holub draws an easy parallel here between human violence and animal suffering—the core of the bullfight. Also note the three latter lines above. Each is pared down, the language simple and straightforward. Holub isn’t evoking emotion through deep detail but rather through stark image. There’s no gauzy poeticism, just the body of the bull in its animal nature. Plain, honest.

One of the most striking aspects of this poem for me was Holub’s use of parallelism and repetition to quickly create setting and emotion. As mentioned above, the first two uses of “red,” set four lines apart, are parallel in structure, but the stronger examples come in three places in the poem: the opening, the climax, and the closing. Here’s the opening:

 Someone runs about,
 someone scents the wind,
 someone stomps the ground, but it’s hard. 

These lines set up a couple feelings for me. First, the repetition of “someone” gives me a sense of confusion; who are these someones? The speaker can’t seem to parse one from another, can’t fully process the scene clearly. Second, I get a sense of animal immediacy. The following parallel verbs—“runs,” “scents,” “stomps”—are all very animal words, full of physicality. Pairing such words alongside “someone” makes for images that could be describing the bull as easily as the matador, picador, and bandoleros.

The second use of parallel sentence structure comes at the high point of the poem. The bull is severely injured but not yet fatally wounded. But all the players have been named and are deep in the action, the final blow soon to fall. Holub writes:

 And then someone (blood-spattered, all in)
 stops and shouts:
 Let’s go, quit it,
 let’s go, quit it,
 let’s go over across the river and into the trees
 let’s go across the river and into the trees,
 let’s leave the red rags behind,
 let’s go some other place, 

The more times “let’s go” is repeated, the more I feel the desperation of this “someone.” There is no real possibility that killing will be avoided now. And the desperate repetition is more effective in meting out panic than further description of the violence could be.

The second-to-last stanza includes the repetition of the phrase “and be dragged away” three times. Because parallel structure has been set up as a norm within the poem, this repetition doesn’t come off as overdone but adds a final push to the last scene. We end not with any of the human elements but within the mind of the bull himself, who will “fall” and “be dragged away”

 without grasping the way of the world,
 without having grasped the way of the world,
 before he has grasped the way of the world. 

The final repetition is parallel, yet not perfectly so, the tense shifting from present, to present perfect, to present continuous. “Continuous” seems a good word for this final tense; the bull remains not quite killed, and not understanding, ad infinitum. Both the repetition and the changing tense aid this final image: repetition by creating a cyclical, never-ending feel to the event, and changing tense by creating a sense of always getting closer to, but never reaching, understanding and/or the release of death.

Holub, Miroslav, “Bullfight.” The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, pp. 90-91.