Short Takes

Vasko Popa

I love this name. Vasko Popa was a poet, and a Serb. I learned not long ago that Vasko Popa had been a powerful influence on Ted Hughes. But before I knew anything more than that about him, I loved his name.

I think it is best if you say both names. Vasko Popa.

Certain names love our mouths. Or, our mouths love them. They are not for labeling; they are for intoning. “It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it” (Whitman). We may be tempted to try to explain this love, but usually the explanation is transparently an excuse to keep saying the name.

The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grant point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion.

The lawyer narrator of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is doing many things in this ridiculous passage. He’s telling us that he had a rich client; he’s trying to explain how that fact confirms certain meritorious aspects of his personality; he’s performing a time-wasting and absurd backwards movement with his double negatives—“not unemployed,” “not insensible”—ungainliness posing as sophistication that reminds me of the weird backside-thrusting dance Chaplin performs as a stalling technique in [?]. The narrator is also, I think, making fun of himself, of his vanity.

But mostly what he’s doing is “pronouncing” and “speaking” and “repeating”—a name: John Jacob Astor. Why? Because “it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion.” We might be inclined to say that it’s the love of bullion that makes the lawyer love the name. But that would be wrong: the love of bullion is brought forward as a reason for something that remains unreasonable—namely, the “rounded and orbicular sound,” the way it makes the mouth feel, the way that feeling makes you want to use words like “orbicular” and “hath” and “unto.”

Vasko Popa.

Vasko Popa was, as I have said, a real person. Having now read the poems recently translated by Charles Simic—especially the cycle of poems addressed to the “lame wolf,” a figure from Serbo-Croatian folklore—I understand how Vasko Popa helped Ted Hughes in his violent wrestling with his “Crow.” The first English translations of Vasko Popa’s poems came out from Penguin in 1969 with an introduction by Hughes:

I like this cover because it conveys the idea that Vasko Popa is a human being while also proposing that he is a collection of inscribed lines—as, for me, he is a cluster of consonants and vowels. Translated poets remain fantasies as perhaps no other kind of writer ever does. I do not know Serbo-Croatian, so I cannot read Vasko Popa’s poems in the original. The closest I can get is to say his name over and over. (At the top there is a photograph of Vasko Popa. He could be anyone’s uncle—possibly Simic’s).

Consider this poem:

So you want us to love each other
You can knead me out of my ashes
The ruins of my laughters
The remains of my boredom

You can doll-face
You can grab me by the braid oblivion
Hug my night in its empty shirt
Kiss and kiss my echo
You don't even know how to love

The words are Simic’s, so it’s his poem. But of course it is not only his poem: it is also the poem of Vasko Popa. The whole book of Simic’s translations is full of such short unpunctuated violent metaphysical utterances. I love them. I am henceforth on the watch for anyone who tries to doll-face me.

Wise Triangle

Once upon a time there was a triangle

It had three sides

The fourth it kept concealed

In its red-hot middle

By day it climbed its three peaks

And admired its middle

At night it took it easy

In one of its three angles

Each dawn it watched its sides

Turn into three incandescent wheels

And vanish in the blue of no return

It took out its fourth side

Kissed it and broke it three times

To hide it again in its old place

And again have only three sides

And again climb each day

Its three peaks

To admire its middle

While at night it rested

In one of its three angles

A triangle with four sides is an impossible form, and for that reason one that can destroy and restore itself all the time. There is a form, and it can be admired—it can admire itself!—but it has a card up its sleeve, a fourth side, something that erupts like magma from its red-hot middle. “Wise Triangle” is an ars poetica. It describes Popa’s pulsatile forms, birthing themselves violently, taking shape, then vanishing into “the blue of no return.”

Vasko Popa. Interstellar vastnesses out of which forms impose and depose themselves, opening like an eye then closing, supernovas and black holes, a bolus caressed in the mouth then swallowed.

Dream of the Pebble

A hand rises out of the earth

And throws a pebble in the air

Where did the pebble go

It didn’t fall back to earth

Nor did it rise up to heaven

What happened to the pebble

Did the heights swallow it

Did it turn into a bird

Look there’s the pebble

It stayed stubbornly inside itself

Not on earth nor in heaven

Listening only to itself

A world among worlds

Whether Vasko Popa wrote such poems because his name was Vasko Popa, or whether I understand Vasko Popa’s poems this way because his name was Vasko Popa, I cannot say.