Thursday, July 3, 2008

Homage to the Lame Wolf


Vasko Popa

Translated & Introduced by Charles Simic


Vasko Popa's poems exist, in incremental measures, as self-reliant wholes referring to progressively greater unities. These vast connectives thread across the many years in which Popa was writing poetry, as evidenced in Charles Simic's selected translations of the Eastern European writer. The paradoxical simplicity of the individual poems weaves into each other, as wolves, games and stones reappear in familiar, yet shifted associations.

In "the Heart of the Pebble," an early poem, Popa writes about a group of children who "…Opened the heart of the pebble/ In the heart a snake/ Sleeping spool without dreams…," while in the much later "Homage to the Lame Wolf," he asks the wolf of the title, to "…Explain to me if you still remember/ How you change the swallow into a fire-snake/ And snake into precious stone…" Defamiliariziation is achieved through an accumulation of protean repetition.

The complexity of Popa's simplest linguistic gestures allow for an air of almost aphoristic philosophy. Simic refers to this as Popa's "classicism," and it is probably why he writes that "one might be reading Euclid on the triangle here." The later half of the book for the most part further investigates the marriage of earthy folklore with a deadpan mysticism. Popa explores this through images such as "Let me pluck/ Three magical hairs/ From your triangular head…" or "Strong teeth and secret wings/ Grow when you drink stone-milk." Images turn upon themselves and pursue logistical paths not expected by the rational mind of the reader.

While there is a definite pleasure in the second half of the book, I found myself rereading and returning to the beguilingly simple poem sequences' of the first half with far greater frequency. Sequences such as "White Pebble," "Games," and the later "the Little Box," employ simple language and situations to explode rational expectations towards logistical freeness. Words hopscotch across individual lines and emphasis the word itself as an object. A word such as "itself" is simultaneously reductive and expansive. Popa employs repetition to pivot these tendencies in lines such as "It stepped out of it/ Hid itself from itself…," or "It filled itself with itself…," expanding the associative power of the word, while also drawing attention to its own essential being as an object. "The Little Box" sequence latter on in the Selected Poems harkens back to the paradoxes and philosophy of earlier sequences like "Games." It's true that Popa never abandons this tendency per se, but the more implicit folkloric sensuality of the latter work represents an investigation of these aims through a different approach. There is a paradox of defamiliarity, but achieved through differing nuances.

Simic is quick to note that in these poems "...there's Surrealism," though I take issue to the use of a capital "S" surrealism, because while Popa does bares superficial comparisons with the French Surrealists, I believe it would be a disservice to these poems to place them under that umbrella. The term surrealism is, unfortunately, a diffuse one separated from a very distinct philosophy and aesthetic origin, which despite its many roving permutations and contradictory qualities, exists squarely as a specific movement writing about, in reaction to, and within a Western tradition - one increasingly defined in relation to Capitalism and imperialism. Popa draws on a folkloric esotericism much more grounded and earthy than the French Surrealists, whose work features a more rigorously intellectualized approach, owing greatly to the critical work of figures like Andre Breton and Georges Bataille. This terrifying, yet striking defamiliarization employed by Popa deserves its own context, instead of one so squarely Francophile. I'm at a loss for an appropriate label, as if a label were even something which is necessarily needed, but the unique, though oftentimes parallel, strangeness of Popa and his Eastern European peers deserves evaluation away from the hubris of Surrealism as such.

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