VASKO POPA ‘S GRAND DESIGN

Posted: December 6, 2014 in Chat
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(All poems are from the translations by Anne Pennington.)

One of the most interesting commentaries on the poetry of Vasko Popa has been Alexander Ronelle in his THE STRUCTURE OF VASKO POPA’S POETRY, UCLA Slavic Studies, 1986.

Here he identified in the first seven books published up to 1980 a definite pattern, as well as purposeful arrangement of contents. Each book he commented has its own identifiable pictoral symbol used in the book. Each book in turn is comprised of variable cycles of poems.

The books under discussion are BARK, UNREST-FIELD, SECONDARY HEAVEN, EARTH ERECT, WOLF SALT, RAW FLESH and THE HOUSE ON THE HIGH ROAD.

More books have been added since:

VP2

By far the majority of cycles are uneven in number, usually seven. He writes ‘…one element can be set off as the centre of the structure, in that the surrounding elements form opposing pairs, but the central element stands alone.
We can see this in the titles of the One Bone to Another cycle in UNREST-FIELD (1956): they are concentrically titled –
At the beginning – At the end
After the beginning – Before the end
In the sun – In the moonlight
and the centre poem Underground

The Quartz Pebble sequence has a similar but tantalising structure of titles:
The quartz pebble – Two quartz pebbles
The heart of the quartz pebble – The secret of the quartz pebble
The dream of the quartz pebble – The adventure of the quartz pebble
and the central one The love of the quartz pebble

The following book SECONDARY HEAVEN (1968), has less explicit titling of its sequences. Heaven’s Ring, for instance gives us:
The stargazer’s death – Fugitive stars
Heaven’s ring – the starry snail
Nothingness – The shadow maker
and the central one Orphan absence.

The book ’s first poem, however,  is The Stargazer’s legacy, of the Yawn of Yawns cycle.
Heaven’s ring is another name for the milky way; the Starry snail’s path also alludes to this feature. We find this feature, as well as the Yawn in the previous book THE UNREST-FIELD.

In the Quartz Pebble cycle we can see how the single Quartz pebble of poem one, through the central poem Love of the quartz pebble, relates to the last poem Two quartz pebbles. This is a distinctive arrangement. There are two arcs to this cycle; we need to know how they relate to each other.

The first half of the sequence centres on the quartz pebble and a number of unidentified agents: two in the Heart, a hand in the Dream. The second half, from The Love onwards identifies the other as He throughout and the He is identified as the Quartz pebble; the first half others are external and acting upon the Quartz pebble. The change from the insular, isolated ‘stubborn’ singular pebble of the first half occurs through the outward focus onto the her of the other pebble in the central Love poem; the singular pebble is described in the poem as being ‘transformed’.

The Adventure and Secret poems of the second half find the pebble with an awareness of self, and of its ‘cramped’ limits; in the Secret this self awareness becomes its own subject, but it with externalised consequences. And we find in the last poem that the sense of conjoining in Love of the central poem, has been lost in the awareness of separate selfhoods:

Two victims of a little joke
A bad joke without a joker.

In the first half we see the pebble acted upon and producing a display of what could be cosmic proportions, the broken open pebble’s glittering quartz likened to a snake around the sky of the earth: the milky way.

VP1
In the second half this self display is found wanting when compared with the discovery of the other pebble. But the two exhaust each other.

The Quartz Pebble cycle can be seen to be formed as a chiasmus, that is of two halves which relate to one another closely, and that the poems, as set out above, do relate antithetically to each other across the two arcs.
There are generally two basic forms of chiasmus; one consists of two arcs of paralleled ‘episodes’ (for want of a better term), they are paralleled in that the latter episodes refer to their former counterparts but in an antithetical or changed mode.
The second form is as the first but the change from first to second arc has its own episode which is generally referred to as the ‘turn’, as below.

VP4The consequences of the second form allow the first, central and last episodes to relate to each other closely.

Change the term episodes to poems and we can see that the first poem in the Quartz pebble cycle relates to the middle and last (also note how Vasko Popa uses the personal identifiers in each poem):

Two sweets yesterday
On the tongue of eternity
Two stone tears today
On an eyelash of the unknown  

(: Two Quartz pebbles)

Whereas the first poem, The Quartz pebble, has:

It holds all
In its passionate
Internal embrace
…………………………………………
It smiles with the eyebrow of the moon

The central poem, The love of the quartz pebble, gives us in relation to these:

He is quite transformed
Into the white of her eye

Only she understands him
Only her embrace has
The shape of his desire

The eye image is transformed, and transmitted to the other: to see the other and the other to see him: identification of uniqueness in the mass. What we find here is a chiasmus and ring, which the second form of chiasmus above: the quartz pebble is first seen as

Headless limbless

…………………………………………..

A smooth white innocent corpse

(: The Quartz pebble)

and in the last poem of the cycle:

…………………………………………………..

They look at each other dully
………………………………………………
They talk without lips
They talk hot air

It is not the chiasmus we had expected from the titles, though: this is not the transformation through love of convention, but a love where the self is compromised, exhausted, through love.
Can this form be found in other cycles? The One Bone to Another cycle is another cycle of two halves, the first optimistic, positive, adventurous. The central poem Underground flips the mood to:

…………………………………………………….
As if everything were beginning again
With a more horrible beginning
 (: In the moonlight)

The two speakers (one?) throughout the cycle move from positive if sometimes malicious glee:

What shall we do when the dogs come
They like bones

Then we’ll stick in their throats
And have fun
(: After the beginning)

Where all is open and visible and the senses/ a memory of senses, continue, to a cold dark eternity where nothing is:

There long awaiting us
…………………………………..
No one and his wife nothing
(: Before the end)

The cycle takes the form of a dialogue, one bone to another, one of whom is witty and lively, the other appreciative. At the end of the cycle they cannot distinguish between each other, both are in the dark figuratively and sensorally: Why have you swallowed me…//…….It’s you have swallowed me.

Following the form of the Quartz pebble we need to know now if and how the first, middle and last poems relate to each other. In the central poem they resolve to … grow pure… until they are … eternal beings of bone// Just wait for the earth to yawn. In the first poem they can lay claim to being

The backbone of a streak of lightening

………………………………………..

Pelvis of a storm

…………………………………….

Ribs of heaven

………………………………………..

But the last poem finds them lost:

Now no one knows any more
…………………………………..
All is an ugly dream of dust

So yes they do relate bleakly to one another as before.

It is safe to say that a lot of Vasko Popa’s work deals with the destructiveness of relationships. It is also tempting to read into the two cycles just looked at, and bringing in unfashionable contextual elements, critiques of a growing isolationist stance in politics that led to the imposition of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

Do the seven books of Alexander Ronelle’s study also display this meticulous structuring and arrangement? That is a matter for another time.

Vask Popa (1922 -1991)

:VP3

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Comments
  1. Jenni says:

    You always have such interesting posts, and I always end up learning something I didn’t know.

  2. Daedalus Lex says:

    The meanings are still cryptic, mysterious, but I like it 🙂 The bone poems look especially attractive. They seem to combine something dark and deep with a sparkle of wit on the surface (i.e., on the rhetorical interface where the reader first meets the poem, before s/he can dive into its depths). This is beyond the interest they have for your “rings and chiasmus” studies.

    • Thanks for the comments.

      I admit to have rushed this – no analysis, no extrapolation of results etc.
      Ah, well.
      Another time.

      At least you are putting the work in! Great to read your blogs!

  3. Thanks for this Michael. Popa remains pretty enigmatic to me, design or no design. But your post reminded me that the Anvil ‘Collected’ has been sitting on my shelves unopened for too long. What do you think of Ted Hughes’ Introduction to the work?

    • Hi Martyn
      Memory is certainly an odd phenomenon – there was one of Popa’s Games cycle horrified me when I first read it because it seemed so relentlessly brutal. Now can I find it?
      I think we have to take his Intro with care – for example Tara Bergin’s PhD thesis is online and deals with Hughes’ ‘use’ of Pilinsky: https://theses.ncl.ac.uk/dspace/handle/10443/2214

      The Popa translations are by Anne Pennington and so dependable; it is what he makes of them. His response does now read rather the product of a certain period of time, and toned with personal colourings. There are useful and usable insights there, admittedly. It is amusing how he assumes a magisterial stance towards his readers, prophet-like speaking from the otherside of pain.
      I was always wary how he read his personal calamities into those of his time; Not sound historicist sense – but then historicism is also a passing phase in our understanding. We can only write with what we have available to us; eternal verities are only judged by time i guess.
      As with all things we take what we can use of what he has written there.

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