Tag Archives: Miroslav Holub

Lives of muskrat lymphocytes

Large lymphocyte from a normal blood film

One of my favorite essays by the immunologist-poet, Miroslav Holub, describes the symphony of cellular life enacted after a muskrat drowns in the writer’s pool and is shot by a neighbor. The scene itself is grim yet fairly boring and commonplace; dead animals, be it a robin flown into our window or a white-footed mouse decapitated by our cat, seem to be an ordinary part of suburban life. But Holub views the situation from the interior view of the animal and with the sense and extrapolation of a poet. His interest in the phenomenon of death lies in the cellular process that are taking place long after we conceive of the animal as “dead.” While ordinarily we see the spectrum of alive to dead as having a definitive moment of change from A to B, a universe of interactions, an ecosystem of cellular bodies, continues to communicate, move, exist. I’ve copied my favorite excerpt from the essay, that of the lymphocytes (an immunologist’s specialty), below.

So there was this muskrattish courage, an elemental bravery transcending life.

But mainly, among the denaturing proteins and the disintegrating peptide chains, the white blood cells lived, really lived, as anyone knows who has ever peeked into a microscope, or anyone knows who remembers how live tissue cells were grown from a sausage in a Cambridge laboratory (the sausage having certainly gone through a longer funereal procedure than blood that is still flowing). There were these shipwrecked white blood cells in the cooling ocean, millions and billions of them on the concrete, on the rags, in the wrung-out murkiness. Bewildered by the unusual temperature and salt concentration, lacking unified signals and gentle ripples of the vascular endothelium, they were nevertheless alive and searching for whatever they were destined to search for. The T lymphocytes were using their receptors to distinguish the muskrat’s self markers from nonself bodies. The B lymphocytes were using their antibody molecules to pick up everything the muskrat had learned about the outer world in the course of its evolution. Plasma cells were dropping antibodies in various places. Phagocyte cells were creeping like amoebas on the bottom of the pool, releasing their digestive granules in an attempt to devour its infinite surface. And here and there a blast cell divided, creating two new, last cells.

Where immunology and a poet meet

The other day I posted a poem written by the Czech immunologist/poet Miroslav Holub, who was said to be one of that country’s greatest poets of the century, as well as a well-published research scientist. In the preface to one of Holub’s collections of poems, Sagittal Section, Lewis Thomas, another biologist–poet, noted that Holub was composing what both scientists and poets filter everyday live for, those “points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.”

October 21st, 1993, David Morley, an environmental scientist–turned lyric writer, interviewed Holub for roughly an hour about the immunologist’s thoughts on performing his poetry, the greater relationship between science and the arts, and the impact of the 20th century’s events in the Czech Republic on Holub’s writing. As a whole, the interview is a meditation on living between two worlds that inform each other in a reciprocal fashion. Holub’s words function as a subtle counter to those artist narratives of a solitarily focused creator, one whose life is the making of their craft and whose art is in turn their life.

The immunologist–poet allows instead a process, a space where exchange of idea and inspiration occur, where scientific discovery and lyric writing are neither mutually exclusive categories nor entirely dependent acts in the dance.  And yet as much as these two elements of Holub’s life inform his view of the world, they are not an all—there is more to life than work and production, Holub asserts. To take one’s self so seriously, to see their art or science as an absolutism, is to be a “workaholic,” a word the interviewee abhors in the English language. Instead, life should be about play, about a childhood sense of exploration and humility—Holub sees a different path. As he notes during the exchange, “I am serious about science, and I am serious about my poetry, but I do not take myself seriously.” Humbling words from a humbling man.

Find the full audio recording here.

“Immanuel Kant”

Immanuel Kant

The philosophy of white blood cells:
this is self,
this is nonself.
The starry sky of nonself,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.
Immanuel Kant,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.

And he knows nothing about it,
he is only afraid of drafts.
And he knows nothing about it,
though this is the critique
of pure reason.

Deep inside.

Miroslav Holub

Holub’s poetry

In the Microscope

Here too are the dreaming landscapes,
lunar, derelict.
Here too are the masses,
tillers of the soil.
And cells, fighters
who lay down their lives for a song.

Here too are cemeteries,
fame and snow.
And I hear the murmuring,
the revolt of immense estates.

– Miroslav Holub (1923-1998)