“Poetry and science form the basis of my experience,” wrote the Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub (1923-1998.) Probably the only poet who could lay claim to developing a strain of nude mice, Holub studied to be a doctor after the second World War, supporting himself as an editor of a science magazine, Vesmír (The Universe). He published 150 scientific papers and a monograph, “Immunology of Nude Mice,” as well as 14 books of poetry and five books of essays.
Holub’s poem “Brief Reflection on Cats Growing in Trees,” perhaps a sly reflection on the unknown universe beyond our own narrow world, appears in the collection Poems Before & After and is reproduced here with kind permission of Bloodaxe Books. It is, in my opinion, a perfect illustration of the scientific method (as well as a good example of why scientists so frequently disagree about the outcome of an experiment.)
Brief Reflection on Cats Growing in Trees
By Miroslav Holub
When moles still had their annual general meetings
and when they still had better eyesight it befell
that they expressed a wish to discover what was above.
So they elected a commission to ascertain what was above.
The commission dispatched a sharp-sighted fleet-footed
mole. He, having left his native mother earth,
caught sight of a tree with a bird on it.
Thus a theory was put forward that up above
birds grew on trees. However,
some moles thought this was
too simple. So they dispatched another
mole to ascertain if birds did grow on trees.
By then it was evening and on the tree
some cats were mewing. Mewing cats,
the second mole announced, grew on the tree.
Thus an alternative theory emerged about cats.
The two conflicting theories bothered an elderly
neurotic member of the commission. And he
climbed up to see for himself.
By then it was night and all was pitch-black.
Both schools are mistaken, the venerable mole declared.
Birds and cats are optical illusions produced
by the refraction of light. In fact, things above
Were the same as below, only the clay was less dense and
the upper roots of the trees were whispering something,
but only a little.
And that was that.
Ever since the moles have remained below ground:
they do not set up commissions
or presuppose the existence of cats.
Or if so only a little.
(From Poems Before & After, translated by Ian and Jarmila Milner, Ewald Osers, George Theiner, David Young, Dana Habova, Rebekah Bloyd & Miroslav Holub (Bloodaxe Books, 2006.)
Note: For more about Miroslav Holub’s life and poetry, see The Complete Review. A fine collection of his essays, Shedding Life: Disease, Politics, and Other Human Conditions was published by Milkweed Editions in 1997. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Richard Schweder wrote that the essays revealed Holub to be “a wraith of reason deriding all Dark Age flights of fancy,” who was “above and against Marxism, parapsychology, Zen, yoga, animal rights advocates, alternative medicine, Hindu gods, J.R.R. Tolkien, postgraduate mystics, California philosophers and anyone or anything either premodern or postmodern.”