The Hand that Wants to Become God

This past week, an anonymous neighbor left two shopping bags full of books at the Little Library we built at the front gate. Among them was Serbian poet Vasko Popa’s Homage to the Lame Wolf. Nestled amidst piles of Robert Ludlum, Sue Grafton and What to Expect When You’re Expecting, it seemed to reflect different tastes altogether. Apparently, our anonymous donor agreed. The book came to us unopened and unread, still in its original shrink-wrap.

From the mid-50s to the mid-80s, Vasko Popa was counted among Yugoslavia’s greatest modern poets. Back then, this really meant something. The country’s wily postwar Communist strongman, Josip Broz (“Tito,” as everyone called him), had positioned Yugoslavia at the forefront of the “non-aligned movement,” a loose association of mostly new countries whose nationalist politicos – Egypt’s Abel Gamel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah – hoped to remain independent of Soviet and Western blocs.

In those days, the local Ministry of Culture richly rewarded artists who wrote in an anti-colonial vein, or who, like Popa, hewed to an apolitical avant-garde modernism. Within Yugoslavia, as Dubravka Djurić notes, Popa, emollient without being sycophantic, made the right moves, and managed to make art that was uncompromising while burnishing Tito’s carefully manicured claim to have created a cosmopolitan and humane communism. Moving from success to success, Popa ultimately became, as Djurić put it, the “uncontested father figure” of modern Serbian poetry.

Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, the year Popa died. By that time, the nonaligned and third world internationalisms of the 50s and 60s had already become moribund. A cosmopolitan Yugoslav in life, Popa is now merely the best-known literary corpse in one small country’s bone-yard. And anyway: how many people outside Europe know the difference between, say, Serbia, Slovenia and Slovakia?

However, against this gradual decline into obscurity, Popa’s reputation does have a powerful champion: the Belgrade-born American poet Charles Simic. Simic – who has won a Pulitzer, a Stevens Award and a Frost Medal – is a writer possessed of a positively 19th century capacity for work. While pursuing an active academic career and publishing a stream of essays in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, he’s published more than forty volumes of his own work and has translated the work of another dozen poets, mostly Serbian.

It happens that Simic loves Popa, championing him in two collections: The Little Box (1970) and Homage to the Lame Wolf (1979), the very book tossed unread into the book-box I keep like a fish weir in the front yard, the better to feed my own prodigious appetites.

Frankly, Popa’s work doesn’t look like it would be all that difficult to render into English. The poems are short: ten or twenty lines a piece. The lines are short too: six or seven words is typical. Sentences are declarative. Nouns are nouns, verbs are verbs, and in general all the parts of speech behave themselves as they would in any conversation you’re likely to have on any given day.

When Simic first tried translating Popa, he too expected only a moderate challenge. However:

to my surprise, I found it hard going. The language of Popa’s poems is both simple and idiomatic. The economy of expression is staggering. One has almost no room to maneuver. The literal level is no problem, but each word and image release multiple associations. The native reader enters in Popa the most intimate recesses of his maternal tongue. As a translator, one is left with one option: For each idiom in the original, one assumes, there’s an idiomatic equivalent in English. There usually is, but it takes years sometimes to remember them.

It turns out that the experience of reading Popa is not unlike Simic’s experience translating him. It looks a lot easier than it is. And, if you’re struggling, there’s not much room to maneuver, not many lines in which to develop some sense of meaning. Here for instance, is the last poem (“At the End”) of “Bone to Bone,” seven short conversation between… bones:

I’m a bone you’re a bone
Why did you swallow me
I can’t see myself anymore

What’s wrong with you
It’s you who’ve swallowed me
I can’t see myself either

Where am I now

Now no one knows any more
Who is who or where
It’s all an ugly dream of dust

Can you hear me

I can hear both you and myself
A hellebore is crowing out of us

I will tell you the truth: “Bone to Bone” gave me trouble. Yes, right, it’s about death and falling apart after death and all that, but a lot of it was elusive. That bit about swallowing, for instance: what’s that about? I’d have my hand on an image like this, but it was like holding a live eel: slippery and very determined to escape before being eaten.

I kept thinking of Robert Crosson, who I mentioned a couple of months ago. You may recall that Crosson learned from Kenneth Patchen that when it comes to poetry, it’s important to be “in no rush to ‘understand.’” Just listen: let the language do its thing. Throughout a first reading of Lame Wolf, I did just that.

At the end, though, I was still a little lost. Before another go, I read Simic’s introduction (I’d skipped it the first time around). Simic gave me three useful pieces of advice for reading Popa. First:  Popa collected Serbian folklore. Not epics or romantic ballads, but ephemera: jokes and riddles, short fables, scraps of myth that survived like ancient weeds, growing unnoticed at the side of a tumbledown house. These poems, Simic suggested, want to be heard as myths – often humorous, but myths all the same.

Second: Popa belongs among midcentury surrealists, reveling in a “metaphorical invention and free juxtaposition of images in the service of heightened lyricism.” In short, Popa’s having fun here, even when he’s breaking things.

Third: “If the poems are ‘difficult,’ it is because Popa insists on the logic of his metaphors… [and] seems perfectly happy to let them live their lives…. For Popa, the metaphor is always wiser than the poet.”

This last remark was the most important. Popa does let his metaphors live their lives, and this is disconcerting because their ambitions are usually alien to our own. Reading this, I was reminded powerfully not of French surrealists but of Gumby, the clay animation show I watched as a kid. In Popa’s poems, stones, finger bones, wolf’s teeth, small wooden boxes jerk themselves awake and transform themselves from one form into another as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

That is a trick mastered by the white pebble which opens the collection:

Without head without limbs
It appears
With mad pulse of chance
It moves
With shameless pace of time
It holds each thing
In its passionate inner embrace

A white polished virgin corpse
Smiling with the eyebrow of the moon.

Once the pebble moves, it can do anything within its nature. And what is its nature? To be wholly itself, a self-contained sign of the absolute cosmos:

A hand springs out of the earth
It throws a pebble in the air

What happened to the pebble
Did the heights devour it
Did it change into a bird

Here is the pebble
It remained stubborn in itself
Neither on earth nor in heaven

It listens to itself
Among the worlds a world

Popa’s pebble can fall in love, dream itself into heaven, or suffer indigestion without its essence changing. It is godlike in its ability to combat creation’s indolent preference for entropy. Its insistence on its own existence organizes the universe around it.

This is not an un-American idea. William Carlos Williams, after all, is well known for own home-grown pebble, which takes the form of crockery:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill

It took dominion everywhere.

So too Wallace Stevens, upon whose red wheelbarrow so much (still) depends.

In fact, the United States is piled high with meaning-imbued objects, objects which insist on their existence despite all attempts to tame, define, or consume them: Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the Mississippi River, El Capitan. Why, then, should an American reader be so disoriented by a self-assured pebble or a world-devouring box?

Why? Because these aren’t American pebbles or American boxes. When Williams and Stevens invented their world-transforming objects, they were winking at our American inclination to imagine things as agents of order. And not just order: redemption! Williams’ jar subdues the “slovenly wilderness,” and Stevens’ wheelbarrow spreads its benign serenity among the clucking chickens and thence throughout the Appalachians. In things, Americans find salvific consolation. 

Popa will not have his things put to such human use. While American wheelbarrows and jars serve American ambitions, Popa’s lidded Serbian box is entirely free of its Serbian box-maker. It is free to overturn the natural order, free to destroy the world, free to bring the gotterdammerung, if in the proper mood.

There is more to say of Popa’s work – “St. Sava’s Spring” and “Homage to the Lame Wolf,” for instance, take very different turns from “White Pebble” and “The Little Box.” All, however, have in common a certain mole-like quality. It’s been two weeks since I read Popa. In the intervening days and nights, his poems, unseen and sometimes unnoticed, have diligently tunneled into my old habits, disrupting the way I see the world.

So, when I found a dolly’s severed hand on the sidewalk two blocks from my house, I thought immediately of Popa. Though broken off from the larger object, it is now a thing of itself, whole and entire, belonging, for the moment, to nothing else. This plastic hand bent the remainder of my day into its orbit, a metaphor come to life.

Spend too much time contemplating a thing so self-contained and it really will devour the world.

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