In the war-torn country of Serbia, few writers, feminists, political activists, or editors have been as influential as Radmila Lazic. One of her country’s most prominent poets, Lazic has published six books of forthright, bold, and moving poetry. She has also founded and edited a magazine of feminism, edited two anthologies, and founded a civil resistance movement to protest Serbia’s infamous militant leader, Slobodan Milosevic. It was not until 2003 that the first translation of her work into English, A Wake for the Living, was published. This poetry collection opens with a striking poem titled “Smaknuca” (“Death Sentences”), in which a woman tells her lover that she will not be like Ophelia, the love interest of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Instead of Ophelia’s death sentence of drowning, she says, she wants the death sentence of her lover taking off her dress and putting his arms around her neck.
“Death Sentences” is a poem with implications about feminism and sex, and it uses Ophelia—a key symbol of traditional, passive femininity—to demonstrate some of the problems with an outdated and repressed idea of femininity. The poem implies that the speaker will enjoy a liberated and open sexuality without the traditional, overly romantic, and idealized constraints of love. Lazic also presents a deep ambiguity in the poem, since this new, free love is also a “death sentence,” thus establishing a key theme throughout A Wake for the Living, that joy coexists with hopelessness and death. Translated by eminent Serbian-American poet Charles Simic, “Death Sentences” is available in the 2003 Graywolf Press edition of A Wake for the Living.
“Death Sentences” begins with what seems to be a paradox: the speaker was born both too late and too early for something. The meaning becomes clearer in the second and third lines, as the speaker reveals that she is addressing the fictional character of Hamlet, a reference to Shakespeare’s protagonist. Although she is actually addressing her own lover, she calls this lover by the name of Shakespeare’s hero, thereby comparing her relationship with her lover to Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. When the speaker says she was born too late to be his Ophelia, she means she was born too late to be a woman of Shakespeare’s time, which implies not just that she was not alive during this period but that women have changed since the early seventeenth century and, perhaps, are less likely to drown for their lovers. The speaker also says she is too old to be Ophelia, who is probably quite young in Hamlet and who the speaker describes as “pimply,” like an adolescent girl.
In the second stanza, the speaker imagines herself drowning—as Ophelia does in Shakespeare’s play after Hamlet has abandoned her and killed her father, and she has gone mad. The speaker describes this drowning in the first person, but throughout stanzas 1 and 2 she is imagining the event as if she were Ophelia. Therefore, she is commenting on the significance of the drowning in Hamlet. It becomes clear as the poem progresses that this drowning is a symbol for Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship, a kind of relationship the speaker does not want to have with her lover.
The speaker uses the verb “let” to begin the second stanza, implying she is allowing or even willing herself to drown. She describes her hair as “flattened wheat,” as though it will be made into bread. The second line describes her hair spreading over the “dark” water, and the next lines imagine her eyes floating beside the water lilies, disturbing them. Lilies are associated with purity and virginity, which implies the speaker’s eyes are pure, but since they “upset” the water lilies, there is also the implication that there is something disturbing and unsettling about this kind of purity and virginity. It seems as though her lily-white eyes are somehow floating disconnected from her head, which suggests that...
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