(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)