Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Vasko Popa: Complete Poems

Do you know what I hate? I hate it when I start reading a writer I’m anxious to read and realize I don’t like his work after all. As the judicious and prudent reader that I am, I tend to read only books I think I’ll like. My instincts and choices delight me more often than they disappoint me. Vasko Popa’s Complete Poems, however, was a book that severely disappointed me. Popa (1922-1991) was a Serbian poet, and I know nothing about him. I presume I came across his name the way many others have who surf the internet: in some message board I discovered the popular poem “The Little Box”

The little box gets her first teeth
And her little length
Little width little emptiness
And all the rest she has

The little box continues growing
The cupboard that she was inside
Is now inside her
And she grows bigger bigger bigger

Now the room is inside her
And the house and the city and the earth
And the world she was in before

The little box remembers her childhood
And by a great great longing
She becomes a little box again

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box

And I thought this poem was so marvellous that I had to read more by the author. Popa, I later discovered, wrote in cycles of poems, and he devoted a whole cycle to the Little Box, for instance “Last News About The Little Box:”

The little box which contains the world
Fell in love with herself
And conceived
Still another box

The little box of the little box
Also fell in love with herself
And conceived
Still another little box

And so it went on forever

The world from the little box
Ought to be inside
The last offspring of the little box

But not one of the little boxes
Inside the little box in love with herself
Is the last one

Let’s see you find the world now

Oh I like this very much! It had humour, it had wit, the metaphor was, to me, very successfully rendered. I imagined reading the rest of his poetry would be equally enjoyable and wondrous. But after reading the 400 pages that composed the Complete Poems, it was hard work squeezing as little as ten poems that I found good. The Little Box cycle for me remains the most interesting work in Popa’s oeuvre. Apart from that, there’s a poem here and there that caught my attention.


Only when she felt
The savage knife in her throat
Did the red veil
Explain the game
And she was sorry
She had torn herself
From the mud’s embrace
And had hurried so joyfully
From the field that evening
Hurried to the yellow gate

Perhaps because I like animal poems and poems that explain the inherent cruelty of the world, I thought this was a worthwhile poem. At the end of the day, though, it’s really just a description of a farm scene.

28 (from Bark)

Beneath your eyelids
Your violets sleep

I turn myself into a sun
Above your nightmare

You throw open
Every window in your forehead

I pick you white
Waterlilies from my blood

You give my tree of ashes
Green leaves

I love the bizarre imagery in this one, the way there’s nothing physical about it but it’s all symbolic. Many words joined together that don’t work rationally but poetically are very remarkable.

The Nail

One is the nail another the pincers
The rest are workmen

The pincers grip the nail by the head
Grip him with their teeth with their hands
And tug him tug
To get him out of the floor
Usually they only pull his head off
It’s hard to get a nail out of a floor

Then the workmen say
The pincers are no good
They smash their jaws and break their arms
And throw them out of the window

After that someone else is the pincers
Someone else the nail
The rest are workmen

Like the poems from the Little Box cycle, I find the metaphor amusing, and the amusing way he describes the human pattern of revolutions and counter-revolutions. At least that’s what I think it’s about.

The Heart of the Quartz-Pebble

They played with the pebble
The stone like any other stone
Played with them as if it had no heart

They got angry with the pebble
Smashed it in the grass
Puzzled they saw its heart

They opened the pebble’s heart
In the heart a snake
A sleeping coil without dreams

They roused the snake
The snake shot up into the heights
They ran off far away

They looked from afar
The snake coiled around the horizon
Swallowed it like an egg

They came back to the place of their game
No trace of snake or grass or bits of pebble
Nothing anywhere far around

They looked at each other they smiled
And they winked at each other

I have no idea what this poem is about, but again it’s the bizarre imagery that makes it so interesting, and the fact it makes my brain form images of impossible things.

A Forgetful Number

Once upon a time there was a number
Pure and round like the sun
But alone very much alone

It began to reckon with itself

It divided and multiplied itself
It subtracted and added itself
And remained always alone

It stopped reckoning with itself
And shut itself up in its round
And sunny purity

Outside were left the fiery
Traces of its reckoning

They began to chase each other through the dark
To divide when they should have multiplied themselves
To subtract when they should have added themselves

That’s what happens in the dark

And there was no one to ask it
To stop the traces
And to rub them out

Another poem that conjures a metaphor and builds the images around it with creativity, making it to me one of Popa’s best poems after “The Little Box.”

Unbroken Lesson

The red teacher Zarko Zrenjanin
Was killed by the crook-limbed master-men

Our ordinary men swear
They still see him

On the derailed train full of murderers
In the burning cornfield
In the centre of Vrsac ringed by dogs

Only we his pupils
Know what’s going on

Ignoring the master-laws
We’re giving him our hearts’ work
And our weapons

This is a melancholy poem, apparently autobiographical, but for all its sadness it manages to remain sober and avoid descending into sentimentality.

The Poet’s Ladder

In Vrsac on the eve of war
Dejan Brankov the poet took a flat
In the house next to ours

He asked me to persuade my father
To set up a ladder
On our side of the wall

Any night he expected
They’d come to take him
To the concentration camp

Long after he’d been killed
Leading a band of partisans
The ladder still stood
In its appointed place

Up the wooden rungs there climbed
A muscat vine

Another poem that seems to come from his life experiences; I find the impact of the final stanza remarkable. It juxtaposes the death of the poet with a final image of nature just going on, vines growing wherever they can, indifferent.

Imminent Return

In a cell of Beckerek Prison
I spend the day with a Red Army man
Who’d escaped from a prison camp

Any moment the door may open
And he’ll be taken out
And shot in the yard

He asks me to show him
The quickest way
To Moscow

With breadcrumbs on the floor
I build the towns he’d pass

He measures the distance with his finger
Claps me on the shoulder with his great hand
And rocks the whole prison with his shout

You’re not far my beauty

The autobiographical poems possibly form my favourite cycle after “The Little Box.” The poet is always on the brink of falling back on sentimentality, but instead makes the verses cold, detached, slightly mysterious.

Be Seeing You

After the third evening round
In the yard of the concentration camp
We disperse to our quarters

We know that before dawn
One of us will be taken out and shot

We smile like conspirators
And whisper to each other
Be seeing you

We don’t say when or where

We’ve given up the old ways
We know what we mean

That’s the thing, what does he mean? I love the ambiguity of the final verse.

I Defend

They would bury my gaze
In the dust
Rip the rose of my smile
From my lips

I guard the first
Spring in my breast
I guard the first
Tear of joy

They would divorce me
From freedom
They would plough up
My soul my soul

I defend
This bit of heaven in my eyes
I defend
This bit of earth in my hand

They would cut down
My young orchard of joy
Yoke my songs’ nightingales
To a wooden plough

I won’t give up
This bit of sun in my eyes
I won’t give up
This bit of bread in my hand

What to me makes this poetic statement the book’s most beautiful poem is something I can’t put into words, but I think it’s the poet’s passionate claim to frankly humble things: a bit of sun, a piece of bread. Makes me wonder if everything else has perhaps been taken away from him already.

Vasko Popa’s Complete Poems was read for the European Reading Challenge.


  1. As I have commented before, I too am very careful about what I read.

    Too bad that the entire body of work was disappointing. I really like the poems that you posted here.

  2. In some sense, ten good poems is not such a bad hit ratio. Clearly, a "Selected Poems" would be a better choice, but such are the travails of reading poetry.

    Reading prose, too, although most people pay so little attention to writing they do not notice.

    Some poets end up reduced to one great poem.

  3. - Brian, perhaps you'd like the book better. You should look up the Little Box cycle on the internet, they're easy to find and for me are his best work.

    - Tom, I find that ratio pretty low actually, for a poet of Popa's alleged stature. I have no problem finding dozens upon dozens of excellent poems in Wislawa Szymborska's collection, or in Zagajewski's books, to say nothing of Pessoa and his heteronyms, mass producers of quality poetry.

    But I agree one great poem is enough to redeem a poet.

  4. I've enjoyed the poems selected in Homage to the Lame Wolf, translated by Charles Simic. It has, I think, the complete cycle of "The Little Box" poems. A streamlined and probably more manageable collection.

    1. Yes, I thought of getting that collection, but when I discovered there was a complete poems edition, it didn't make any sense anymore :)

      Perhaps he would have been better in a smaller dose and I could have kept the illusion that he was a great poet. I mean, I'm sure he is, but I fear he does nothing for me.