The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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“One Bone to Another” is a cycle of seven short poems. The title of the cycle establishes the mood and alludes to the personae of the poems, two bones that engage in an intimate dialogue about the human condition in their subterranean mise-en-scène. The titles of the individual poems indicate the setting and order of the events in the cycle. These events are depicted as occurring in the immediate present; and the bones express their reactions to them in the first-person plural or first-person singular. As the events unfold, each poem marks a shift in the mood of the bones, from smug independence and delight after being freed from their prison of flesh, to terror and helplessness at the realization that they must submit to the forces of human fate, and finally to bewilderment and despair when confronted with the inevitable transience of human existence.

The first poem, “Na poetku” (“At the Beginning”), expresses the bones’ relief and newfound sense of independence after freeing themselves from the “flesh”: “Now we will do what we will.” In the second poem, “Posle poetka” (“After the Beginning”), the bones gleefully begin to ponder the possibilities of their new existence; they will “make music,” and if any hungry dogs should come along, they plan to trick them: “Then we’ll stick in their throats/ And have fun.” This delight in the prospect of mischief turns to a delight in each other in the charmingly romantic mood of the third poem, “Na suncu” (“In the Sun”), as they sunbathe naked and declare their love for each other. In the fourth poem, “Pod zemljom” (“Underground”), having concluded that “Muscle of darkness muscle of flesh” are “the same thing,” the personae contemplate what they will do about it. They decide to call together “all the bones of all times”; they will all “bake in the sun” and “grow pure,” and so they will become “eternal beings of bone” who wander about as they please.

This sense of independence is abruptly arrested in the fifth poem, “Na meseini” (“In the Moonlight”), when, bewildered, the bones begin to realize that they are slowly being covered in flesh and filled with marrow, “As if everything were beginning again/ With a more horrible beginning.” Their bewilderment turns to despair in the sixth poem, “Pred kraj” (“Before the End”), as they attempt to find a means of escaping the inevitable: “Where shall we go nowhere.” This despair is tinged with resignation and defeat in the seventh and final poem in the cycle, “Na kraju” (“At the End”), in which both bones express the fear that they have been swallowed by each other, and that now they can no longer see or hear or be sure of anything. The sense of freedom that preceded has vanished: “All is an ugly dream of dust.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

The cyclic form is a hallmark of Vasko Popa’s poetry. It enables the poet to maintain a free philosophical inquiry and thus promotes his artistic objective: the distillation of truth. As Ted Hughes writes in his introduction to Selected Poems (1969), “Each cycle creates the terms of a universe, which [Popa] then explores, more or less methodically, with the terms.” A central theme is presented, and the poems within the cycle explore various facets of that theme (although the number of poems varies, Popa evidences a partiality for the number seven). This circular mode of inquiry enables the poet to meditate on the theme from a number of imaginative angles so that all of its cosmic conditions and possibilities are revealed. The result is disclosure of the cosmic drama, and this phenomenon is reinforced by the way the cyclic form mimics the nature of the cosmic structure: While each poem can stand alone, its meaning is always amplified in the context of its relationships to the other poems in the cycle.

The terse, economic style evinced in this cycle is a second regular feature of Popa’s poetry. In Popa’s case, however, reductionism is more than simply a poetic style; rather, it functions as a technical device which, like the cyclic form, promotes his philosophical and artistic aims. Typically, Popa’s poems are forty to fifty words in length; they run ten to fifteen lines, with three to five words per line. They are arranged in somewhat uneven stanzas of single lines, couplets, tercets, and, more rarely, quatrains. Thus the compression is visual as well as verbal. This compression also contributes to the strong rhythm of his poetry; the meter is irregular but distinct. The majority of Popa’s poems are written in the present tense, which amplifies the terseness and intensity. His syntax is highly compressed and frequently ambiguous, the lexicon lean and concrete, the diction inordinately concise, and the neologisms frequent. He uses a minimum of connecting particles and transition words, and punctuation is altogether absent. By adhering to this economical style, Popa is able to sustain the distillation process even as he develops a theme.

The functions of these features, however, are not mutually exclusive. While the cyclic form promotes a revealing, comprehensive inquiry by containing the thematic aspects in workable segments, it also implicitly participates in their reduction and consequent distillation. Conversely, just as reductionism exposes and reinforces the multifarious cosmic relationships inherent in the poem, it contributes to the development and enrichment of the theme. The versatility of these features, then, enhances the collective effect. Thus, the structure itself participates in the philosophical development and becomes an essential part of the meaning of the poem.

While Popa’s linguistic code may seem austere, it finds a lively counterbalance in his humor, as illustrated in “One Bone to Another.” Popa’s wry, ironic humor is most closely related to the irrational humor of folklore. This kind of humor is distinguished by its functionality: It is understood that the folktale, or the riddle, is a kind of verbal play which attempts to account for reality by temporarily suspending the limitations of “the real world.” It is a product of instinct rather than of intellect. It is humanistic and tends to suggest rather than define, it comments without judging, and it opens rather than closes the circle. This humorous tendency is most dominant in Popa’s first three poetic collectionsKora (1953; Bark, 1978), Nepoin-polje (1956; Unrest-Field, 1978), and Sporedno nebo (1968; Secondary Heaven, 1978)—in which it is manifested in the delightfully unself-conscious activities of the archetypal beings, such as the “bone couple” in the present cycle, who inhabit the primordial environment of Popa’s poetic world.

Popa’s folkloric orientation is apparent in his imagery as well. For example, while at first glance, an image such as “The backbone of a streak of lightning” seems to reflect the kind of incongruous juxtaposition of unlike objects which is the touchstone of surrealist texts, it is in fact typical of the kinds of anomalies which regularly occur in Yugoslav folklore. Moreover, such images, though rich in dramatic associations, are often tempered—just as in folklore—by a playful, childlike tone. The humorous escapades of the personae in “One Bone to Another,” for example, make readers forget that they are eavesdropping on a conversation between two bones about the wonders and frailties of the human condition.