Thursday, January 19, 2006


Vasko Popa

Vasko Popa (1922 - 1991) was a prolific Serbian poet (43 published collections in his lifetime) who was generally held to be the best poet in his language of his generation. His work was much influenced by surrealism; "In the Ashtray" is typical in this regard: the description of an ashtray and its contents are transformed into a harsh, desolate landscape populated by those damaged souls seeking what they've lost and and paralyzed into inaction, all presided over by a brooding and ambiguous deity:

"In the Ashtray"

A tiny sun
With yellow tobacco hair
Is burning out in the ashtray

The blood of cheap lipstick suckles
The dead stumps of stubs

Beheaded sticks yearn
For sulphur crowns

Blue roans of ash whinny
Arrested in their prancing

A huge hand
With a burning eye in its palm
Lurks on the horizon

(Translated by Anne Pennington)

This piece is typical of much of Popa's work, not just in its surrealistic atmosphere but in its focus on inanimate objects which, through imaginative transformation, become the basis of exploring the human dimension. Popa tended to write short poems in related sequences, often focusing on objects, such as White Pebble and Bone to Bone; "After the Beginning" comes from the second sequence and presents a conversation between two bones:

What shall we do now?

That's a good one
Now we'll have marrow for supper

We had marrow for lunch
A hollow feeling nags my innards

Then let's make music
We like music

What do we do when the dogs come
They like bones

We'll stick in their throats
And love it

(Translated by Charles Simic)

Popa's technique is to strip the subject down to its barest essentials, then explore its denuded self in human terms.

The other important influence besides surrealism on Popa was folklore, legend, and myth -- especially those of Serbia. Several of his important works dealt with the lame wolf, an ancient Serbian deity out of pre-Christian myth, Homage to the Lame Wolf and Wolf's Earth, in which he explores the nature of human desire for acceptance by a personal deity, as in this section from Homage:


Let me approach you
Lame wolf

Let me pluck
Three magical hairs
From your triangular head

Let me touch with a stick
The star on your forehead
The stone over your heart
The left and then the right ear

And let me kiss
The wounded holy paw

Let me approach you
Don't scare me with your divine yawning
Lame wolf

(Translated by Charles Simic)

Popa also creates his own myths, a technique he fuses with his surreal focus on the inanimate in his best-known sequence The Little Box in which The Little Box takes on mythic, cosmic dimensions and significance:

"The Little Box"

The little box gets her first teeth
And her little length
Little width little emptiness
And all the rest she has

The little box continues growing
The cupboard that she was inside
Is now inside her

\And she grows bigger bigger bigger
Now the room is inside her
And the house and the city and the earth
And the world she was in before

The little box remembers her childhood
And by a great great longing
She becomes a little box again

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box

(Translation by Charles Simic)

In his sequence Raw Flesh turns to Eastern European legends of the werewolf to explore the violence inherent in human nature:

"Under the Sign of Wolves"

On the highway just outside of town
They found horses with torn throats
Harnessed to an empty wagon

And on the top of a mulberry tree
A merchant changed into a white sheep

All night the wolves danced
Around the fruit tree reeking of human flesh

You would have known how to haggle
With those long-tailed dancers
My grandmother tells me

I stare into her pointed teeth
And try to puzzle out her laughter

Then I run into the backyard
Climb the snow-covered pear tree
And practice my howling

(Translated by Charles Simic)

But, while much of Popa's work concerns itself with the darker corners of the human soul, there are also moments when he explores the small, fragile beauties of the tangible world, beauties which exist in the face of time's erasure:

"The Starry Snail"

You crawled after the rain
The starry rain

The stars made a house for you
Out of their bones
Where are you taking it now on your towel

Time limps behind you
To overtake you to run you over
Let your horns out snail

You crawl on a huge cheek
That you'll never glimpse
Straight into the plow of nothingness

Turn to the life-line
On my dream hand
Before it's too late

Make me the inheritor
Of your wonder-working silver towel

(Translated by Charles Simic)

Thanks for this. I have the Ashtray poem in an anthology, and a couple others in Lame Wolf. It's a cool concept you have here, introducing poets. Thanks, I'm enjoying your blog.
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