Vasko Popa’s poetry displays many unique features. From the very first, he showed a predilection for objects, for specifics rather than generalities, for the concrete rather than the abstract. As if to restore the equilibrium disturbed in his early manhood during the war, he felt a need to call everything by its proper name, to relegate each object to its appointed place.
Among his first poems, which appear in Bark, are those titled simply “Chair,” “Plate,” and “Paper.” In such poems, he attempts to penetrate the outer shell of objects, arriving at their core. One gets the impression that he stares persistently at an inanimate object until it appears to breathe and to move. In one of his finest poems, “The Quartz Pebble,” he extols the magnificent beauty of a stone in its seeming immobility and indifference to its surroundings (“headless limbless”). Soon, however, the smooth white stone begins to move “with the shameless march of time,” holding everything “in its passionate/ Internal embrace.” Thus, the essential traits of the quartz pebble are illuminated in a very few lines. Although not a living being, it moves, breathes, smiles, and shows passion. (This poem first appeared in Bark and was repeated and expanded into a cycle in Popa’s second collection, Unrest-Field.) The secret of Popa’s propensity for things lies in the fact that they are not merely things for him but beings, which only the sixth sense, or the inner eye, of a poet can discern.
Popa’s dead world pulsates with a weird life that is more intense than that of living beings in the familiar world. Speaking of a cigarette in “In the Ashtray,” he calls it “a tiny sun/ With a yellow tobacco hair” being extinguished in an ashtray while “the blood of a cheap lipstick suckles/ The dead stumps of stubs.” In “On the Hat Stand,” “collars have bitten through the necks of hanging emptiness.” “In a Smile” describes a scene where “Blue-eyed distances/ Have coiled up into a ball.” The culmination of this anthropomorphism is found in the cycle “Spisak” (“List”). In addition to the quartz stone mentioned above, this cycle comprises a duck that “will never learn/ How to walk/ As she knows/ How to plough mirrors”; a horse that has eight legs and drags the whole earth behind him; a pig that runs joyfully toward “the yellow gate,” only to feel the “savage wild knife in her throat”; a dandelion that is “A yellow eye of loneliness/ On the sidewalk edge/ At the end of the world”; and a chestnut tree that “lives on the adventures/ Of his unreachable roots.” A dinner plate is “A yawn of free lips/ Above the horizon of hunger.” Popa’s obsession with things reveals not only his uncanny ability to see the world from their perspective but also his intention to speak through natural symbols, to present graphically the mysterious nature of human destiny.
Popa’s closeness to things was undoubtedly accentuated by the war experience of his impressionable years, when the language spoken around him was blunt, terse, bloody, and final. From this experience stem two haunting cycles of poems in Unrest-Field , “Igre” (“Games”) and “Kost kosti” (“One Bone to Another”). “Games” is Popa’s response to the frightening games of war. The poems of this cycle resemble an eerie pantomime of creatures beyond the natural and comprehensible, for Popa’s “games” defy logical explanation, symbolically reflecting the cruelty, grotesqueness, and fatuity of human existence. In “The Seducer,” one person fondles a chair leg until it gives him “the glad”; another kisses a keyhole while a third...
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person gapes at them, turning his head until it falls off. In “The Chase,” people bite arms and legs off one another and bury them like dogs, while others sniff around, searching for buried limbs; whoever finds his own is entitled to the next bite.
Even more drastic is the cycle “One Bone to Another.” By stripping human beings to their bones and allowing the bones to express the feelings of their former bodies, Popa speaks the subterranean language of life beyond the grave. This danse macabre suggests the life that was or might have been. When, in the first section (the poem “At the Beginning”) one bone says to another, “We’ve got away from the flesh,” the stage is set for a new existence entirely different from the human, yet the bones proceed to emulate their former “owners”: “It’s marvelous sunbathing naked,” “Let’s love each other just the two of us”; “Then we’ll . . ./ Go on growing as we please.” Soon, flesh commences to grow back on them, “As if everything were beginning again/ With a more horrible beginning” (“In the Moonlight”). They have no place to go: “What shall we do there/ There long awaiting us/ There eagerly expecting us/ No one and his wife nothing” (“Before the End”). Finally, they devour each other: “Why have you swallowed me/ I can’t see myself any more . . ./ All is an ugly dream of dust” (“At the End”). Again, the application to human conditions is all too obvious.
In these bleak conditions, Popa assails his nemesis—his fate or death—head-on, demanding the return of his “little rags”: the minimum requirements for existence. He calls his nemesis a “monster”; he threatens it (“Flee monster . . ./ We’re not meant for each other”) and challenges it to a show-down, trying all the while to build an immunity against adversity, albeit unsuccessfully. It is a valiant protest just the same, capable of restoring one’s dignity (“I’ve wiped your face off my face/ Ripped your shadow off my shadow”). Thus, Popa can even be called an optimist, despite the macabre atmosphere of his world.
In such an atmosphere, the love experience, too, undergoes a Popa-esque metamorphosis. In the cycle “Daleko u nama” (“Far Within Us”), from Bark, Popa tries to save his love from a nightmarish dream:
Horror on the ocean of tea in the cup
Rust taking a hold
On the edges of our laughter
A snake coiled in the depths of the mirror . . .
Murky passages flow
From our eyelashes down our faces—
With a fierce red-hot wire
Anger hems up our thoughts . . .
The venomous rain of eternity
Bites us greedily
In such moments of acute danger, the poet expresses unabashed tenderness: “The streets of your glances/ Have no ending/ The swallows from your eyes/ Do not migrate south”; “I would steal you from silence/ I would clothe you in songs.” Even the hours of fear (“The pillars supporting heaven crumble/ The bench with us slowly/ Falls into the void”), of parting (“Only in sleep/ we walk the same paths”), of threatening loss (“I go/ From one side of my head to the other/ Where are you?”) are only temporary. In Popa’s world, love seems to be the only power capable of overcoming the adversities of fate and death.
From the small, seemingly insignificant objects of his early verse, Popa has moved to the larger arena of his native land and from there to the universe itself, in the collection Secondary Heaven. In Popa’s cosmology, the sun rules in his empire, but his rule is marred by the struggle between the forces of darkness and light. Popa uses this allegory to suggest his worldview and to treat complex human problems in an oblique fashion.
Secondary Heaven begins with a symbol of emptiness in the form of zero: “Once upon a time there was a number/ Pure and round like a sun/ But alone very much alone.” No matter how much the zero adds or multiplies itself, the result remains zero. The forces of light, represented by King Sun, are engaged in a battle against the world of nothingness (zero). Tragically, the heir to King Sun, Prince Sun, is a blind bastard led by two crippled rays. Hope seems betrayed, and the chances of the forces of light are slim, yet the struggle goes on. This is the bare outline of Secondary Heaven. Popa’s allegory should be seen not as a metaphysical or mythological interpretation of reality but rather as a reflection of man’s fate in a celestial mirror. The force of the poet’s idiom, the familiar simplicity, the use of old legends and folklore, and the original humor and charming irony make his collection a great achievement. Above all, it shows that Popa’s poetic thought has come full circle. By way of the universe, he has reached his final destination—his own self.
Wolf Salt, Raw Flesh, and Kuća nasred druma
Of Popa’s later collections, Wolf Salt is centered on the myth of a wolf as an old Slavic symbol of vitality, not of evil and destruction. The wolf is depicted as a benign creature, lame yet possessing indestructible tenacity, symbolizing the vitality of the Serbian people. He is connected with the Serbian historical and legendary figure St. Sava, who is his shepherd. Popa’s characteristic terseness and directness of expression add to the exceptional quality of this book, making it one of the best in his entire opus. Raw Flesh represents a slight departure from Popa’s customary manner, in that it is more personal and realistic. The poet returns to his native region, evokes memories of his childhood, and even names names. Although the poems have a realistic surface, they resonate with ancient myths, popular beliefs, and superstitions, all indicating the depth of Popa’s immersion in the soul of his people. These poems seem somewhat lighter than his usual poetry, as if to show another, less somber side of the poet. Kuća nasred druma (the house on the highroad) is a heterogeneous collection lacking a tight cyclical unity, but even here one can perceive a potentially unifying subject matter that may eventually lead to the further development of this cycle and possibly give birth to other cycles.
Stylistically, Popa’s poetry is marked by several distinct characteristics. Rather than composing individual, self-contained poems, he generally works in cycles of poems dealing with the same subject matter and written in the same vein. In turn, these cycles are related to one another; for this reason, Popa frequently changes the order of cycles in new editions, where they acquire new pertinence.