Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Stephen Schwartz

"Under Empty Skies Falconers Weep" 

A Personal Survey of Modern Verse in Ex-Yugoslavia and Albania  

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I will begin this highly selective and idiosyncratic discussion of modern Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, and Albanian poetry with an anecdote.  While barely known in the West, this episode represents the first penetration, in the form of an exclusively personal relationship, of the heart of European modernism by a representative of the Balkan literary world; that is, the first instance of a counter-trend to a series of influences that had completely transformed the literatures and even the broader society of the South Slavs and Albanians. 

In 1903, Guillaume Apollinaire went to London, pursuing his great muse, a governess named Annie Playden, with whom he had traveled in the Rhineland.   I say pursued, although in our less innocent age, Apollinaire’s devotion to this young woman who claimed to have insistently rejected him might, unfortunately, be described as “stalking.”   The pair had met as household servants.  The governess and the poet, whom she knew by the nickname “Kostro,” from his born name Kostrowitsky, were employed by a German countess, the English girl to teach the children her language, Apollinaire to instruct them in French.

          Annie Playden was interviewed much later in her life by LeRoy Breunig and other American scholars of French literaturein encounters that seem almost caricatural of university manners in the United Statesand it appeared she knew nothing of Apollinaire’s literary ambitions.   Her portrait of him is distinctly unsettling; according to her, he took her to the top of a mountain and threatened to throw her off if he would not marry her.   He also repeated to her Oscar Wilde’s remark “each man kills the thing he loves” in a way she considered sinister.  He was subject to intense jealousies and violent rages.  She claimed his attentions caused her to flee England for America, and a long stay in Santa Barbara, California.   And although she, undoubtedly truthfully, claimed she came from an extremely proper English family and had never had the slightest physical intimacy with him, Apollinaire wrote to at least one friend claiming he slept with her.   

Of course, he would not have been the first man (or the last) to indulge in that lie.  But our interest is elsewhere.   When he went to see her at her family home (twice), the French poet stayed in London with his friend, the Albanian writer Faik Konica, who published Albania, a review to which Apollinaire contributed.   Faik Konica, while obscure to the outer universe, was a major Balkan political and literary figure.  He was born in Konitza, near today’s Greek-Albanian border, in 1876.   Although a Muslim aristocrat or beg, he was a pupilas were the Albanian Catholic poets Gjon Sinishta (1930-1995) and Martin Camaj (1925-1992), whom we shall also examineat the Jesuit Xaverianum College in Shkodra, the main city of north Albania.  He also studied in the French Lycée at Galata Seray in Turkey, and in France, before coming to the U.S., where he gained a master’s degree in arts and letters from Harvard, in 1912.  

In 1897, at 21, Konica founded Albania in Brussels.  Published until 1909, it has been described as nothing less than “the first modern Albanian journalistic enterprise… colossal” in its significance, by a historian of Albanian media, Blendi Fevziu.[i]  Faiku, as he is universally known among Albanians, served after 1929 as his country’s diplomatic representative to Washington.  He died in 1942, and was buried in Boston.  In 1995, with great ceremony, his remains were returned to Albania and reinterred in Tirana, the capital.   His writings were extensive, and he is considered one of the greatest Albanian prose stylists.

Apollinaire was drawn to Faiku, and described him in his Anecdotiques as follows:  “Of all the men I have known and remember with the greatest pleasure, Faik Konica is one of the most singular… (He purified) the Albanian language of corrupt and parasitical terms that found their way into it.” [ii]

Apollinaire’s memoir of the Albanian author is filled with a wonderful humor.  He wrote, “Faik Konica took great pains with the publication of Albania.  On the cover, as an emblem, it bore the arms of the future kingdom of Albania.”  This escutcheon, showing the double-headed eagle of the 15th century Albanian patriot Gjergj Kastrioti, or Skanderbeu, had been rediscovered by Faiku.   According to Apollinaire, Faiku had it designed “by a French sculptor, whose name I forget and who died a few years ago in the outskirts of New York by a fall from a balloon.”

Further, Apollinaire recalled, “Because of the meticulous care with which Faik Konica wrote his articles, and his slowness, his magazine always appeared considerably behind time.  In 1904 only the issues for 1902 came out, and in 1907 the 1904 issues appeared quite regularly.”

Apollinaire wrote, “Faik Konica had a passion for pseudonyms.  He changes them very often... when I knew him he called himself Trank Spiro Beg... That lasted only two or three years.  Then he took another pseudonym which he used to sign a very solid, very well-written book, entitled A Treatise on Artificial Languages.  That new name was Pyrrhus Bardhyli.”  I should note that I have been unable, as yet, to locate any reference to this work or the pseudonym in Faik Konica’s works or biographical studies of him.  However, Faiku had edited Albania under the name Trank Spiro Beg, and he contributed two essays signed with that pseudonym to Apollinaire’s own “little magazine,” Le Festin d’Ésope.   These were titled, “Outline of a Method of How to Succeed in Winning Applause from the Bourgeois” and “The Most Colossal Mystification in the History of the Human Species.”   I have yet to examine the French versions of these works but they have never been published in Albanian, as far as I am aware.

“As we waited for lunch, which was always late, my host would play for me twangy old tunes, sitting at his desk with lowered eyes and a serious air,” Apollinaire wrote of Faiku.  Although Apollinaire described Faiku as a devotee of the clarinet, the oboe, and the English horn, the instrument in question may have been the fyëll, a traditional medium of Albanian music that is, indeed, typically played in exactly that manner, as if no audience were present.  “Lunch was ŕ l’albanaise; in other words, interminable... The lunches lasted so long that I was unable to visit a single museum in Londonwe always arrived just as the doors were closing.”

          Apollinaire lived in Faiku’s house while pursuing Annie Playden, for whom he wrote “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé” (“The Song of the Poorly-Loved”).  Of that work, perhaps the greatest love poem of this century, I will say no more. It is up to readers, and especially poets, to know those things; but one might add, in retrospect, that she was as poorly-loved as he, considering his cavalier behavior with her.   The poet himself confessed, “many of the expressions in the poem are too severe and abusive.”

Apollinaire took Annie, his young and unwinnable love, to Faiku’s house, all the way across London from her family’s dwelling on Landor Road, also immortalized in Apollinaire’s poem “L’Emigrant de Landor Road.”  In 1962, in her late ‘80s, interviewed by American academics in a suburban house on Long Island, she recalled that Faiku’s female companion made up a bed for her and the poet, but that she said, Oh no, I can’t do anything like that.  I must go home, my mother is expecting me.”   It is doubtful that Annie Playden would even consent to kiss him.  Then he walked her back to her house, and returned rejected through the streets of London to Faiku’s residence.

His affection for Faiku gave rise to many interesting details.   Apollinaire wrote, “I once again spent some time in London with Faik Konica, who had married and was living at Chingford.  It was spring, we took walks in the country and spent hours watching people play golf.”    

Francis Steegmuller, a leading English-language biographer of Apollinaire, commented, “not that Faik Konica seems to have been in any way disreputable.  Still, his eccentricities underline Apollinaire’s own.   Including the eccentricity of taking all the way across London, to visit this revolutionary, with whom he had chosen to stay, a girl who had to be home by nine...”  

Steegmuller had trouble taking much of the whole topic seriously, and could not be expected to do adequate research on Apollinaire’s Balkan pals; the biographer offers a pedantic but wrong “correction” to Apollinaire’s description of his friend, and, after translating most of the poet’s portrait of the Albanian patriot into English, suggests that it was “at least half invented, probably.”  In reality, it was 95 percent accurate, and the rest may be accounted for by miscommunications between Apollinaire and Faiku.   Steegmuller went on to refer to “buffooneries,” such as the following: 

one evening Apollinaire tried everyone’s patience by bringing with him [to Alfred Jarry’s salon] a guest who was, or whom he declared to be, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Salonika, and solemnly requesting that particular consideration be shown this personage because his newspaper was "read by the Sultan himself.” 

One can easily imagine the testy laughter this apparent stunt provokedexcept that, given Apollinaire’s associations with Faik Konica, it is very likely the guest was exactly who and what the poet claimed he was.  He might even have been another notable Albanian patriot who would become quite famous in the West, the former Ottoman diplomat Ismail Qemali Vlorë. 

            But that is another story altogether.[iii]  There is already much about these tales that is distinctively “Apollinairean”:  the poet, who was an outsider of mixed Polish Jewish and Italian ancestry, as the companion of a representative of a nation completely unknown in western Europe then, and little better known now; Apollinaire as an enthusiastic collaborator of Albania, an obscure periodical which he seems to have viewed as no less worthy than the major Parisian journals for which he wrote.  The saga of his tormented involvement with Annie Playden, and of her own life, also possesses a rather Nabokovian quality.   Above all, there is the Borgesian sense of parallel universes, of events behind a curtain, of a secret history that underpins much of the contemporary sensibility.   This sense is always present in the contemporary Balkans, which seems like a kind of counter-Europesomething beyond the title of the “other Europe” so often used to describe the eastern half of the continent.   

To emphasize, there is something for which there seems no literary label, though perhaps it is also “Nabokovian,” but with another sense, in the contrast between the destinies of Annie Playden and Faik Konica in Apollinaire scholarship.   The American experts found it easy to locate and interrogate Apollinaire’s muse later in her life, writing about her eyes which retained the striking blue color that inspired the poet.  Yet the life of a great Balkan intellectual and historical personage was treated with cheerful disregard, as Albanians in general were dealt with by the Western cultural hierarchies until the sudden intrusion of the Kosovo war, in 1998-99, into global awareness.   How curious that Annie Playden should have gone for much of her life, as discovered by the scholars, without knowing anything about Apollinaire’s writerly interests and later attainments; but how dismaying that the poet’s links to the political destinies of a whole nation should have been completely overlooked, or, at best, treated as a subject of trivial amusement.   

It is nearly impossible to convey to a foreign audience the emotion with which Albanian readers, especially Kosovars, would view these seemingly minor incidents.  The collected works of Faik Konica were edited by the outstanding Kosovar intellectuals of recent years, including Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Kosovar civic resistance to the Serbs for a decade and probable future president of Kosovo.  For Albanians it is as if Americans were to read that Thomas Jefferson was an intimate friend of William Blake, and that Blake had written The Songs of Innocence and Experience at Monticello, with Jefferson’s works having then been edited by Abraham Lincoln. 

There is another issue: the silence imposed on Faiku and his reputation by the Albanian Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.  Mainly because of his residence in the U.S., but also because of his Catholic education (which was absolute anathema to Hoxha), Faik Konica was prominent on the long list of authors who could not even be mentioned in Albania from 1945 to 1991, except negatively.  I learned of the whole history of Apollinaire and Faiku anecdote because ninety years after Apollinaire’s trip to London, I read a denunciation of Faiku by Ismail Kadare, the Albanian author who became world-famous on subsidies from Hoxhawho is, in fact, the only Albanian writer known in the world today, and whom I shall also discuss further on.  Kadare assailed Faiku in terms I believed were hallucinated, as the “patron of European decadents.”[iv]   Then in Illyria, the New York Albanian newspaper, I found a reference to Faiku’s friendship with Apollinaire.  I looked it up in Apollinaire’s works, and there it was.

But this anecdote serves for more than an example of a coincidental meeting among notable personalities.  Central European and Balkan literary verse traditions have nearly always developed in response to currents in the West.  Yet this poetry has always had an extraordinary strength and beauty, as if, in contact with a stimulating force from the exterior, the poetry of the “other Europe” liberated hidden energies.  Notwithstanding the cult of folk poetry that has been maintained locally, especially by Serb writers, the greatest south Slavic and Albanian poets are glorious imitators of foreign models, not drinkers at the wells of popular tradition.

The earliest Balkan literary authors, as opposed to authors of religious works or memorial epigrams, and the creators of anonymous epics and popular ballads, appeared in the cities of the Dalmatian coast during the Croatian Renaissance of the 15th and following centuries.  They included Marko Marulić (1450-1524), born in Split, and author of an epic in hexameters, Judita, first printed in Venice in 1521.[v]  Marulić’s contemporaries and successors included a number of other talented versifiers, such as Hanibal Lucić (1485-1553), Petar Hektorović (1487-1572), author of a notable poem on fishing, Marin Držić (1508?-1567), and Ivan Gundulić (1589-1638).[vi]  A vigorous tradition of poetry in Latin also existed in Croat Dalmatia at this time and for some centuries afterward, in which some of these poets also participated.  Marulić, for example, wrote a Latin epic on the exploits of King David, Davidias, that was not printed until the middle of the 20th century.  

An impressive trilingual anthology, The Croatian Muses in Latin, with versions in English and Croatian accompanying the Latin originals, was issued in 1998, in a major series of English volumes printed under the rubric of Most/The Bridge, a literary review presenting Croatian writers in foreign languages.  Unfortunately, these useful books are unavailable outside Croatia; finding an Anglo-American distributor for them would be a worthy task, as they include some of the most significant works I will discuss here.  (I would also point out that some of the most important English-language volumes discussed here, printed in Croatia, Kosovo, and elsewhere, are not even to be found in the Library of Congress.)  A school of Jewish authors in Latin also flourished in Dalmatia in the 16th century, exemplified by the Portuguese expellee Joăo Rodrigues, known as Amatus Lusitanus (1511-1658), author of a work extolling the Republic of Ragusa, or Dubrovnik, and it would be equally useful for a similar selection of his work to appear under Croatian auspices.[vii]


France Prešeren  

            The first modern poet in the South Slavic area was also a product of external influence:  France Prešeren (1800-1849), lawyer by profession, founder of Slovene literature and even of Slovene nationalityrather like, to extend our earlier comparisons, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Andrew Jackson in a single personality.  Prešeren was an extremely great poet, whose biography and work are exemplary of the influence of Romanticism in the Balkans.  But, as a representative of a minor language, with no more than three million speakers in the whole world today, he has, predictably, been ignored outside Slovenia and the former Yugoslavia.   Thus, his name does not appear in the notorious World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time,[viii] which manages to include one Slovene, Veno Taufer, no born Croats, no Bosnians (of any faith), two Serbsthe irritatingly ubiquitous Vasko Popa (1922-1991) and a very great poet, Branko Miljković (1934-1961), whom the Croats also claim with some justiceone Macedonian, Slavko Janevski, and no Albanians.

            It seems all too predictable that World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time would slight Balkan authors; and I do not pretend that the survey I present here is exhaustive, since it reflects my own preferences and prejudices.  But I believe it unarguably a major injustice that Prešeren should be consigned to global oblivion.  I will confess that having heard Slovenes of all classes and attainments proclaim his praises over the years I was more than a little skeptical, figuring this was merely a case of local pride in a local yokel.  I was absolutely wrong.  Having now read his work in the original as well as in (inadequate) translations, I fully recognize Prešeren as worthy to stand among the finest poets of the 19th century, in any language.   Prešeren is profoundly self-critical as well as lyrical.  Unfortunately, the only translations of his work now available are a sort of doggerel, now tinkly, now galumphing, that cannot do him justice; nevertheless, even in those rags his treasure shines through.

            Prešeren’s printed work is relatively slender, because he had the misfortune to come under the influence of a Slovene linguistic crank, Jernej Kopitar, who induced him to burn his early manuscriptsone of several transgressions for which Kopitar himself deserves to burn in hell throughout all eternity.   Prešeren wrote sonnets, ghazals, and an epic, Krst Pri Savici (The Baptism On the Savica)in other words, a fairly typical Romantic output.   But he is most famous among Slovenes for his “Zdravljica” or “A Toast,” which has become the Slovenian national anthem, as an expression of his standing as the real creator of a Slovene national identity.  His sad-eyed portrait appears on the Slovene 1000 tolar note.

            Prešeren wrote with great delicacy in his language, which he sought to promote, and with effect and emotion about his coethnics; but he cannot be pigeon-holed as a mere poetic patriot, much less a narrow nationalist.  While his outstanding work, Sonetni Venec (A Wreath of Sonnets) begins and ends with the line “Poet tvoj nov Slovencam venec vije” (“For Slovenes, I as poet will reap a wreath,”), he was an authentic humanist and universalist, in accord with early Romantic values.   Thus, the real theme of Sonetni Venec is his unrequited love for a Ljubljana woman.  Among his other works, he wrote a touchingly beautiful poem, “Judovsko Dekle” (“The Jewish Girl”), about a maiden  “born a daughter of Abraham” who falls in love with a Christian, but who puts loyalty to her religion before her desires.  The poem is splendid in its simplicity, but also remarkable in its depth of insight, and deserves an article-length study of its own.  

Prešeren, whose own love life was unhappy because of his rebellious habits and literary ambitions, clearly identified the devotion of the Jewish girl to a higher duty with his own refusal to conform to the narrow-minded society of 19th century Ljubljana. In addition, although it is unstated, one must imagine he saw in the unredeemed status of Jewry in the Habsburg lands, no less than in the world at large, a parallel to the misfortune of his own small and neglected people.  What a lesson that the Slovenes made his life miserable, as they truly did, and then recognized in him the greatest advocate of their nationhood!  “The Jewish Girl” is especially fascinating because 19th century Slovenia, unlike the other South Slav lands, had virtually no significant Jewish communities on its territory, and the poem is actually set in Moravia.   Of all the poets whose works I have read since first approaching the Balkans in the mid-1980s, none more cries out for decent translation and serious commentary in English than France Prešeren.[ix]   


Romanticism and the South Slavic Poets

            Romanticism swept the South Slav nations in the 19th century, a topic belonging more to the political history of the region, and of the evolution of “Yugoslav” (i.e. South Slav, from Jug, south) identity.  This subject is adequately treated in many books, and I will not review it at length here.[x]

However, it should be noted that French Romanticism was to become the long-dominant influence in South Slavic literary life, partially for political reasons.   The history of the Balkans had changed forever with the conquest of Slovenia and northern Croatia, which were Habsburg possessions, by the armies of Napoleon, in 1806.   As elsewhere in Europe, the eruption of Bonapartist modernity undermined the entirety of the old order.  The first seeds of a new, common “South Slavic” identity were thus planted, for the French conception of the nation, as a unifying factor suppressing local distinctions, began to penetrate the minds of the Slovenes and Croats.  Two years before, the first significant anti-Ottoman rebellion had broken out in Serbia.

Although the French were expelled from the Adriatic and the region returned to traditionalist, Habsburg rule, in the 1830s-40s a movement known as “Illyrianism” was born as a call to unification of the entire South Slav family, initiated by a Croat intellectual, Ljudevit Gaj.   It was under the influence of the “Illyrians” that the “Yugoslav” name for all these diverse peoples was coined.   The 19th century Romantic notion that all the South Slavs, like the French, the Italians, and the Germans, could voluntarily forsake their cultural differences and become a single nation was especially strong among the Croats. 

            Likewise, the “infiltration” of literary Romanticism was seen in the best poetry written in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in the late 19th and early 20th century.   Its exponents included five poets identified, each in a distinctive way, with Bosnia-Hercegovina:  Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević (1865-1909), Aleksa Šantić (1868-1924), Jovan Dučić (1871-1943), Musa Ćazim Ćatić (1878-1915), and Augustin “Tin” Ujević (1891-1955).   Dučić and Ujević, as well as Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914), who lived in Paris and died in Zagreb, were also dedicated vagabonds.   But Kranjčević was a political nonconformist forced to migrate around Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Ćatić was somewhat “French,” i.e. Romantic and radical.  The latter was the first Bosnian Muslim author to break with Oriental (Turkish, Persian, and Arabic) literary forms, which, with undeniable distinction, had dominated Bosnian Muslim literature until that time.[xi]

None of these authors are known outside former Yugoslavia, even in occasional translation.   In the case of Kranjčević, a fin-de-siecle literary rebel born in Senj, Croatia, but who died in Sarajevo, this is perhaps justifiable.  Kranjčević’s “Parnassian” style, although marvellous, is extremely difficult to translate; Matoš, a very great poet reminiscent of Apollinaire or Cendrars, is also resistant to translation.   Both these poets were identified in their time with the renaissance of Croatian national identity.  But none of the others should elude study and appreciation by foreign readers.  Šantić, a Serb from Mostar in Hercegovina, wrote many poems that were set to music and adopted into the repertoire of Muslim popular singers.  His “Emina” seems a variation on the theme of Prešeren’s “The Jewish Girl”it is a gorgeous verse about a Serb youth who briefly (“in a single glance”) sees the unforgettably beautiful daughter of a Muslim imam.  The sung version has become inextricably associated with the town of Mostar and has even been called the unofficial anthem of the old, multiethnic Bosnia-Hercegovina.   It begins,

Last night, when I came back from the warm bathhouse,
I walked past the garden of the old imam,
Where, there in the garden, in the shade of the jasmine,
With a copper vessel in her hands, stood Emina. 
                   (Translation mine)

Muslim singers like the famous Himzo Polovina typically let out an “oh” of awe at the beauty of the girl, before pronouncing her name.  

“Emina” is widely performed today, with a certain sadness considering the destruction visited on Mostar during the recent war.  Musa Ćazim Ćatić also wrote love poems that have been set to music and become popular as Muslim love songs, or sevdahlinke, a Bosnian term derived from the Turkish word sevdah, for love, but which also indicates pain, passion, grief, and torment.  One of the most beautiful and popular sevdahlinke, which I have here done into English, is his “Kradem ti se u večeri,” (“I steal to you in the evening”):

I steal to you in the evening,

In the evening, under your window,

To throw you a bunch of hyacinth,

So that flowers may tell you,

How much, how strongly I love you;

I’m dying, my love, for you.


You do not care about my suffering,

For the pain within my heart.

The flower withers, youth dries up,

Sevdah fades into nothingness.

May Allah give you to another,

            While I’m dying, my love, for you.[xiii]

          (This translation conforms to the sinuous, Oriental melody of the song.)

Jovan Dučić, a Serb born in Trebinje in eastern Hercegovinaan exquisite town now completely “cleansed” of Muslims – lived in Paris before joining the Serbian diplomatic service.  He died in 1943 in Gary, Ind., once known as “Serbian Gary” for its large émigré population. Curiously, his reinterment in Trebinje toward the end of 2000 provided the first instance in which Serbian reform leader Vojislav Koštunica visited Bosnia-Hercegovina.   Dučić also wrote wonderfully about love, as in his “Pesma Ženi” or “Poem to a Woman,” which begins:

You are my moment, and my dream, and radiance,

My word in the tumult; my footstep, and sin;

You’re only beautiful while you are secret;

You’re only true when I’m desperate to have you. 

(Translation mine)

            Augustin Ujević, who signed his name as “Tin” and is familiarly referred to by that nickname alone, was a different sort of poet.  A complete Bohemian, he lived on the edge of survival for years, in Paris as well as Belgrade, Sarajevo, Split, and Zagreb.  A political as well as literary free spirit, he was associated with the extremist youths of the Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia) movement, which organized the assassination of Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914, bringing about World War I.   According to the contemporary poet Vlado Gotovac, Tin gloried in being called “the Baudelaire from Imotski,” a rural district of Croatia where he had his early schooling.   His work is extremely varied, and of all the poets in this group, his verse is that which, for its versatility and popularity, seems most unjustly neglected by foreigners.   His “Pomorci” (“Seafarers”), which I have translated here, describes the emigration of Croatians from the Dalmatian coast, including to the New World:

Oh sea, unplowed field, on which neither basil nor quince bloom,

sea with the smell of iodine and the corrosion of salt,

glorious image of nature, in your deeps I sink with my pain

like a treasure that will never emerge from the pearls’ hidden place.


Easy it is to weep, but fine to be serene as the sun and the sea,

Adriatic, on your shore the fishermen’s nets lie ragged;

and you remind me of the mythical monsters of the prophet Jonah,

long ago they called out: Venice; and now, America;

Companion to the genius of the Atlantic and the Pacific!

Old is the song of the galley slave, the toiler at the oar,

new is the song of the worker, from California;

I don’t know which is sadder,

But certainly each is sad, monotonous, nothing relaxing.

War dies out, far away, in forgotten borderlands,

where neither mourning nor sadness nor reason will loom large,

All there is monotonous like your soft waves

And words from the high seas write over the shore.


But only they could do it, free captains,

whose grandparents were pirates, on the waters freely singing;

you people will never again be chained

and you will be able to die knowing you will be happy.

In the embrace of the waters martyrs of the waters,

under the world’s storms devotees of the sea,

worldly yes from bright deaths no greater pleasures will come

and yes the costume of fate alone is necessary.

And when the birds come with the serene song of their wings

on the limitless sea the sails will appear festive.


So in some dilapidated temple with the smell of old age

on whatever shore stubbornly eaten by water

iodine and lightning flashes spurt at a distance in the heat

breath of the sea so clean over priestly garments;

and there under glass, little pictures of true things only,

with flags of the whole navy in the little jobs,

a pledge from the sailor’s house out of the age of unknown coins;

a prayer to God, with folded hands in the Boat.


Yes, I know the wind... on the sea... from the springtime of wind...

Billows... deafening murmur... and creaking...

Dust... from whence comes dust on the sea...

Dust... in the eyes blood... yes reddened eyes... blind...

blood flowing in the eyes from the dust the sea throws up...

bloody powder... bloody waves... bloody rain...

what cracks in the ship...


What, if not their firm bones like people’s bones

when bursting under strangling pressure

the ship cracks up... falls into the abyss...

and there remain neither planks nor pallets in the shipwreck...

no grass grows on the surface of the sea...

like the fanciful greenery at the bottom of the pit

or graveyard moss there in the grey of the mountain. 

The Croat dissident Communist Ante Ciliga (1898-1992), an early escapee from the Soviet GULag and author of one of the best analyses of the Bolshevik horror, The Russian Enigma, recalled at the end of his life how, as a 15-year old high school student in Mostar, still under the Habsburgs, he “went running to enroll” in a French language course. Ciliga’s first great influence had been Matoš, especially his articles in the Croatian press, from Paris, on French intellectual life, including Baudelaire and Rimbaud.[xiv]  In the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, extreme modernism extended its roots in Yugoslavia, which had come into existence in 1918-19first in Slovenia under the influence of various European movements, then in Serbia with the emergence of a Yugoslav Surrealist group, which commuted between Paris and Belgrade.


Srečko Kosovel  

Once again, then, the penetration of the South Slavic region by a major new intellectual trend began in Slovenia, on the Italian and Austrian frontier, where the earliest extreme avant-gardist, Srečko Kosovel (1904-26) appeared.  In his brief life, Kosovel gave Slovenia quite a shock with his boldly experimental work, even though it was frankly derivative of the tendencies in France, Germany, Russia, and Italy.   He worked through three phases of what might have seemed like fashionable imitationimpressionism, expressionism, and constructivismexcept that he adopted all these styles at the same time, and understood each in his own way.  Like Prešeren before him, he was somewhat neglected during his lifetime.  Living in a zone where Slovenes fell under Italian rule after 1920, Kosovel, again like Prešeren, united a dedication to the spirit of the new with a defense of Slovene nationhood against the aggression of Italian fascism, which included raids on Slovene cultural institutions in Trieste.  Thus, he was also influenced by futurism, but reacted strongly against its Italian imperialist and fascist pretensions.   He launched his own unsuccessful literary journal, Lepa Vida (Beautiful Vision).   However, only about 40 of his poems were published in his lifetime, and his most interesting collection, Integrali (Integrals)poems sometimes reminiscent of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, elsewhere of the more extreme futurist examplesdid not appear until the late ‘60s.    We are lucky to have a complete English edition of Integrals, published in Slovenia.[xv]   Here, from that translation, is Kosovel’s poem “Europe is Dying:”

Europe is dying.

The League of Nations and the apothecary,

both are a lie.

Operations! Revolutions!

On a grey road I appear.

Brown leaves are falling from trees,

and only one thing I fear.

When these trees are black, no longer verdant

and grey fields

and small houses

and I will scream

then everything, everywhere around

will be silent.


The Yugoslav Surrealists

            The fullest explosion of the European avant-garde spirit among the Yugoslavs after World War I occurred among the Serbs, but was centered in Paris.   The Yugoslav Surrealist Group around the young poet Marko Ristić (1902-84) participated in the circle around André Breton from very soon after the latter’s publication of the first Manifeste du Surréalisme in 1924, and seems to have been the first of the many satellite groups to appear in the Bretonian orbit.  The group had published extensively in the Belgrade “modernist” journals Putevi (Roads) and Svedočanstva (Testimony); and Putevi had published excerpts from Breton in 1923, making it also, apparently, the first journal in a Slavic language to take notice of the new Parisian developments. The first printed manifestation of Yugoslav surrealism in Paris itself seems to have been the appearance of a poem composed in French by Ristić, “Se tuer” (“Killing Yourself”), which appeared in the fifth issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, in October 1925.  The poem, which is rhymed, belongs neither to French nor to Serbian literature; it is clearly the creation of someone to whom French was a second language, which granted the author a certain fresh awareness of the humorous possibilities of improbable plays on words and alliterations of a kind different from more typical surrealist discourse.   The Bosnian literary critic Hanifa Kapidžić-Osmanagić, who is an expert on Serbian surrealism and the doyenne of Bosnian literary criticism today, considers it untranslatable into Serbian.

There are several other interesting aspects about the history of the Yugoslav Surrealists.  Like their French mentors, they became Communists, though most of the Yugoslavs remained within the party.  But their fate was different, and to understand it we must skip one or two decades ahead.  Surrealism flourished in a number of countries that had not previously experienced major avant-garde movements, such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Greece, as well as Yugoslavia.  But Czechoslovakia and Romania, which produced excellent surrealist poets and plastic artists, saw all of them on the margin within their countries; then, they were either bought off or driven into exile by the coming of Communist rule after 1945.  By contrast, the Greek surrealists, exemplified by Odysseus Elytis, Nikos Gatsos, and others, completely conquered literary life on their territory and ended up as national idols, with Elytis winning a Nobel Prize, but had no impact in painting or sculpture.

            Yugoslav surrealism was weak in plastic creation, but greatly influenced the poetic idiom in the country, as represented by such names as Alexander Vučo (1897-1985), Dušan Matić (1898-1979), Milan Dedinac (1902-57), and Oskar Davičo (1909-89), all of whom, but especially the last, became major cultural figures.  Vučo and Davičo saw translations of turgid novels they wrote about the Tito Partisans during the second world war published in Britain in the 1950s, in a series that included one magnificent work, the Croatian literary master Miroslav Krleža’s Return of Philip Latinovicz, alongside which they look very pale.[xvi] 

None of the Czechoslovak, Romanian, or Greek surrealists committed to Communism with the seriousness of the Yugoslavs.  But in addition, none of the other groups benefited from a situation such as existed in the Yugoslav Communist movement under Tito.   The Yugoslav surrealists, once they had proven their loyalty to the party, rose to great prominence in the Yugoslav cultural and political hierarchy.   One of them, the poet Konstantin (Koča) Popović (1908-92), author of some of the most luxuriantly novel surrealist texts, later served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and became a leading officer in Tito’s Partisan army, and then a major figure of the Yugoslav state.   

Popović would live out what was arguably the most “surreal” career of any surrealist anywhere.  Aside from serving from 1953 to 1965 as Yugoslav foreign minister, he was several times head of the Yugoslav delegation to the United Nations General Assembly.  Most remarkably, during the period of extreme tension between Stalin and Tito after their break in 1948, he conducted negotiations with Western military representatives, in his capacity as Chief of Staff, for modernization of the Yugoslav Army in anticipation of his country siding with NATO in a war against the Warsaw Pact.  In 1932, he and Marko Ristić had collaborated on a surrealist “Project for a Phenomenology of the Irrational.”  Unlike their surrealist comrades in Czechoslovakia and Romania, the Yugoslavs obviously had nothing to fear from cultural commissars after 1945.  (The Yugoslavs were likewise the only contingent of International Brigaders in a Communist country that avoided being purged and murdered en masse, and which also attained high positions).[xvii]


Miroslav Krleža and Yugoslav Surrealism

              However, this “liberalism” on Tito’s part, at least in the cultural field, also existed, in part, because the battle between modernism and Stalinism had been fought with great tenacity in the Yugoslav Communist milieu even before World War II.   The hero of the fight to defend modernism was the outstanding Croatian essayist, novelist, and poet Miroslav Krleža (1893-1981), an early and leading Communist himself and an extremely popular figure in his homeland.   The historian Ivo Banac has written that Krleža’s work “was one of the principal means by which Marxism acquired intellectual weight, not just in Croatia but in all Yugoslavia.”   Indeed, the Croat Communist chieftain Vladimir Bakarić, cited by Banac, declared that Krleža  “did more for the progressive movement than the party in its entirety.”

            Krleža was close to Ristić and Davičo, and in 1939, soon after the main Soviet purges, Krleža launched a new literary review, Pečat (The Seal) in Zagreb.   Its editorial board included Ristić and two other authors already labelled “Trotskyites” by none other than Tito himself, who had taken over control of the Yugoslav Communist apparatus as a Stalinist, at the height of the purges in 1937.   In Russia the “Trotskyite” charge was a death sentence; in Paris, Breton, the mentor of Ristić, had become the most prominent defender of Trotsky in the European literary scene.  In reality, there was no Trotskyist movement in Yugoslavia.  The truly noble Krleža defended his accused compatriots, and more; he went on the offensive, and in December 1939, with Stalin and Hitler now allied and World War II having begun, dedicated an entire issue of Pečat to a polemic, “Dijalektički Antibarbarus” (“The Dialectical Antibarbarus”) in defense of artistic freedom, against the Stalinists in the Yugoslav party’s intellectual cadre.

The former surrealist Koča Popović, sadly, rallied to the orthodox elements, which included, as one of their leaders, none other than the Montenegrin writer Milovan Djilas, later to gain world fame as a critic of Communism.   But in those days Djilas was a fanatical and even violent Stalinist, and Krleža later admitted that Djilas’ behavior in the intraparty quarrels over modernism inspired him with a literal anxiety for his physical well-being. Nevertheless, the Croat author pressed on as if utterly fearless.  Krleža’s group was purged from the party in 1940, but not all the party members were willing to concur. The author Kočo Racin, considered the creator of modern literature in Macedonian, was expelled from the party because he declared that while he was willing to separate from the Krleža group, he could not denounce them, since, in his words, “because of him… I became a Communist, which for me means:  I became a man!”  The brave Krleža also opposed the Soviet invasion of Poland and Finland.   But Tito was not Stalin, and Krleža, Ristić, and Davičo were eventually returned to favor, without, let it be said, any apology or renunciation on their parts.  Indeed, Tito later turned against Djilas, who after his fall from the heights of party power, reinvented himself as a democrat and pursued a new career in the West.  Popović died during the Bosnian war; some had spoken of him as the only figure among Tito’s heirs who could have kept Yugoslavia together, but it was too late, for him as for his country.[xviii]


Four Major Figures: Popa, Miljković, Mihalić, Kocbek

            The Serbian poet Vasko Popa is often grouped with the Serb surrealists, although he was born a generation later.   Popa has become a product rather like the Yugo car; he is a symbol of Yugoslav culture throughout the world, translated and promoted everywhere.   His admirers included the late Octavio Paz.  I must say I have never understood or concurred with this enthusiasm.  I find Popa irritating to an extreme.   His little verses seem to me to be merely clever notations without the charm of surrealist dreams and fancies.  It was as if he consciously set out to imitate the brevity of the Anglo-American poets after Pound, not very differently from the way Djilas set out to sell himself to Western readers as an anti-Communist.  But it is impossible to avoid him; naturally, he appears in the World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time winners’ list, with nothing less than verses on Kosovo and other Serb nationalist myths, including “The Battle on the Blackbirds’ Field” and “St. Sava’s Journey,” the latter dedicated to the founder of the Serb Orthodox Church.  In this he also resembles Djilas, who was quite a flamboyant Serb chauvinist.

In the wake of the carnage in Kosovo, no matter how one feels about the policies pursued by Yugoslavia and the West there in 1999, all such manifestations have a distressingly “Wagnerian” feel.   One wonders why, out of the Yugoslav matrix, only Serb literature, including such stars as Popa, has been sold in the Westand with so heavy a burden of nationalist sentimentality.  Certainly nobody has gone out of their way to translate the love lyrics of the Serb surrealists.  And it is extremely doubtful that Croatian verses on the 10th century King Tomislav would have gotten much of an audience among Western poets and readers, much less have excited the enthusiasm of Octavio Paz.       

            I consider the Serbo-American poet and translator Charles Simic, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to be an accomplice in this campaign of intellectual propaganda.   For example, his The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, spares us Popa on St. Sava, but also ignores Šantić, Dučić, the latter really an absurd oversight, and Davičo.  However, we are offered a selection from the surrealist Vučo on the Slavic Christianizers Cyril and Methodius, icons of Serb nationalism (even though they were Macedonians), with the charming lines,

            grab the lustful second wife of some Moslem

            Before the rapacious mocking scissors of madness…

            Although I may be accused of political correctness, I find the sentiments seemingly expressed here more than a little distasteful in the light of the Bosnian war of 1992-95, in which quite a few wives of Muslims encountered literal “scissors of madness” in the hands of Serbs.  Further along, we find an unabashed promoter of maudlin Serb legendry, Milorad Pavić (1929-) represented with a poem on the “Great Serbian Migration 1690,” another favorite item of nationalist Serbism.  Pavić is considered a fraud by many readers in the former Yugoslav lands, but Simic’s promotion of him is inexhaustible. 

            But the worst failing of the Simic enterprise is that its chief executive officer has a tin ear.   The same anthology includes a really terrible mauling of a poem by Branko Miljković, whose date of death (1961) Simic also manages to get wrong.   A great many people worthy of trust consider Miljković the best Yugoslav poet after World War II, and it is interesting to note that because he died in Zagreb, Croats also claim him.  The poem in question, “Frula,” is titled “Shepherd’s Flute” by Simic and appears on page 83 of The Horse Has Six Legs.   I will leave it to readers to look his version up.  Here is mine, from which I have taken the title of this essay:

            The gentle fevers of flowers, disturbed,

            you sense.  Behold, oh plants you bow again.

            Seeking the drunken south and a disappeared summer,

            Hurry, sing to the holiday of the world.

            Repeat the day because the ungrateful body

            returns shadow to the sun and twists the song.

            Give a bird back to the lonely man.

            Under empty skies falconers weep.

            Summon wild ducks from the mountains by tradition.

            Merge the senses with a song so they shall not decay

            In the bodily night.   Let less and less be

            Visible so that you realize memory.

            Empty my knees and seize my heart

            Hurry, circle, sing, deceive bad fortune

            Smederevo is open, birds are cooing

            Under empty skies falconers weep.

            Smederevo is a city; the poem is rhymed in the original, which makes a considerable difference.  It is a difficult poem in Serbian, to say nothing of English; Miljković was a difficult poet, who also distinguished himself as a translator of Osip Mandelshtam into Serbian.[xix]  Yet if such a poem merits attempting in translation, it is worth a better try than that made by Simic.  Simic proves he is merely lazy when, for example, he allows the first word in line five, “ponovi,” “repeat,” to be printed as “repent.”[xx]

            The fine Croatian poet Slavko Mihalić (b. 1928) also fared poorly in his refashioning by the Simic tin works.   The Mihalić collection in English, Atlantis: Selected Poems 1953-1982, translated by Simic with Peter Kastmiler, includes the same lame and anemic presentation, although Mihalić is one of the best Croatian poets of the post-1945 period.   Kastmiler bungles the end of Mihalić’s beautiful poem “Približavanje Oluje” (“Approaching Storm”) by rendering the lines, “Dakako ovo će mjesto u mojem sjećanju ostati svetu/Molim te brže koračaj i nemoj se osvrtati” as:

            Of course this place will remain sacred in my memory.

            Please walk faster Vera and stop looking back.

            In fact, the name “Vera” does not appear at the conclusion of the original poem, though it does at the beginning and elsewhere.   I would render the whole poem as:

            Look at those clouds, Vera, why are you silent

            I’m not, by God, an animal, but here’s the rain

            How it suddenly gets colder

            We’re far from town


            Of course, Vera, I can never forget what you’ve given me

            Now we are one, so how should we speak

            Yellow clouds typically mean hailstones

            All is now still, the crickets and the wheat


            If you wish, we can stay here

            I’m afraid for you, for me it’s nothing

            Lightning is dangerous in the fields

            And we’re now at the highest place (and so damned alone)


            Tonight the farmers will curse at the grain scattered by the storm

            I wouldn’t be able to depend so much on change

            Don’t cry, Vera, it’s only nerves

            And they sense the storm


            I’m telling you, life is in every way much simpler

            Here are the first raindrops, now the deluge begins

            Button your skirt, watch out, even the flowers close up

            I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you


Obviously, this place in my memory will remain holy.

Please hurry up and don’t look back.[xxi]

I am quite fond of this poem; it summarizes much of which I have experienced in the human landscape of the Balkans, and seems to stand as a general statement of existential experience in modern times.  Its diction is original and complex.  But the Simic “industry” seldom, if ever, conveys the special qualities of the original.  His style of translation is less Slavic than slovenly, as if he realizes that most American poetry readers will never attempt the originals, and therefore he may foist on them whatever comes first from his pen.

            Mihalić was a founder of the Most/The Bridge enterprise, in 1966, but was fired from it in 1972, during the repression that followed the “Croatian Spring” of 1971 – a brief period in which restrictions on national culture in Tito’s Yugoslavia were relaxed.  He has also translated into Croatian another Slovene whose work we are lucky to have in a good English translation, the Catholic social poet Edvard Kocbek (1904-81).  I recommend a reading of Kocbek’s work to all who really want to grasp the contradictions of South Slavic history.  He manages to encompass virtually all the qualities of his forebears and contemporaries:  folklore, epic traditions, Slovene nationality, nature, the struggle for freedom, deep religiosity, dedication to truth, and an exceptional lyric sense.   The collection Edvard Kocbek, translated by Michael Biggins, has so many fine verses in it I find it difficult to choose an example.  Here is one untitled poem from it:

            We walk, exhausted and deeply changed.

            None of us remembers where or when, but

            somewhere we sang around a poplar and slept beneath

            steep hills; sometimes we go downward as though

            for night work at a mill, at others we climb up,

            as if expected at a winepress.


            A windmill jerks, its faint creaking follows

            us down the valley floor.  There is no center to this

            dark space, I constantly strain forward,

            my loved one is far off.  A cold shudder courses through

            my body, how much I would like to see her smartly, autumnally

            dressed, ready for a night journey, we have so far to go.

            The biography of Kocbek demonstrates that not all was love and liberty in Tito’s Yugoslavia.   Although the author participated in the antifascist struggle in Slovenia and held major responsibilities in the regime after 1945, the publication of a collection of four short stories, Strah in Pogum (Fear and Courage), in 1952, led to his exclusion from politics and a bar on his publications, the latter for more than a decade.[xxii]

Kocbek got in trouble in Communist Yugoslavia because of his Catholic humanism.  Of course, given that Tito was the dictator, it is a strange aspect of the country’s literary history that, because of his opposition to Stalin, some “non-conforming” Yugoslav authors, especially in the later period, took a strong pro-Soviet position. Although the Croatian woman poet Irena Vrkljan (b. 1930) cannot be considered a Stalinist, she did commit to print a long and unfortunate essay on the Russian poetess Marina Tsvetayeva, Marina or About Biography, that has been published in the West.  In it Vrkljan identifies her own biographical details with those of Tsvetayeva, in a syrupy, sophomoric manner, which is no great sin; she also offers an interesting description of the early death of Branko Miljković.  Yet a major aspect of her book involves a seemingly wilful obfuscation of the most tragic and even outrageous aspect of Tsvetayeva’s lifenamely, the long association of the Russian author with a Stalinist secret police spy and assassin, Sergei Efron.[xxiii]


Vlado Gotovac

  An identification with Russian authors is not unknown among other, more sensible and serious Yugoslav poets, as well as among some downright fools.  One of the former was the Croat Vlado Gotovac (1930-2000), a major moral and political as well as literary figure.  A dissident, Gotovac was also identified with the rise of the Croat patriotic movement in the 1970s, and the “Croatian Spring” of 1971; he was imprisoned in Communist Yugoslavia and nearly killed. After the proclamation of Croatian independence in 1991, he became an outstanding opponent of Croatian autocrat Franjo Tudjman and was again almost killed, when he was assaulted on the podium while running against Tudjman for the country’s presidency. He was a delicate poet and absolute antitotalitarian who identified totally with Osip Mandelshtam, in contrast with Vrkljan’s crush on Tsvetayeva.   In a conversation with me in 1999, he said, “Mandelshtam is the only possible model, the only model we need today.”

            After his death, I myself contributed translations, composed in collaboration with the Croatian writer and cultural activist Mate Maras, to a memorial collection of Gotovac in translation, although I doubt Vlado himself would have authorized it, as he was uncertain about whether his work would survive Englishing.  His work is concise, often brief, but profoundly eloquent.   The commemorative volume, simply titled Vlado Gotovac, was published by Most/The Bridge in 2003.  I am proud to describe it as the most beautiful book in the series.[xxiv]

Vlado Gotovac was a gentle, reflective personality.  One of his best poems reads (in my translation):

I never thought of leaving the angel

The angel that can do nothing for me

The angel that can do nothing against me

The angel that glimmers constantly throughout my space

The angel that does not save me from either pain or happiness

The angel that only excuses

I will never end my combat with this omnipotent spirit

I would need him for one more life

            If I die let it be in time to help him

Another outstanding poem, “Lazarus’ Canticles,” begins:

           From the bottom of the darkness of the exiled

           Who after being wise hunters turned into servants

            I have salvaged my song.

            The memorial volume includes a memoir of his experience in prison, when  Communist guards seized from him a copy of the poems of Mansur al-Hallaj, a ninth-century Islamic mystic executed for heresy in Baghdad, after declaring “ana ul-haqq,” or “I am God [in the divine attribute of Truth.” But “Hallaj was not thwarted,” Gotovac explainedby which he meant that the voice of free inquiry will always prevail, uniting a medieval Muslim poet like Hallaj with a modern Catholic poet like Gotovac. Much has been said in praise of the Sufi poet Rumi, but I know nothing more eloquent in celebration of Islamic spiritual traditions than the recollection of Gotovac, who placed Rumi, along with such other Sufis as Hallaj and Suhrawardi, on an equal level with St. Augustine, Holderlin, Melville, Apollinaire, Mandelstam, and others as the master writers of civilization.   That sort of unity is Croatia at its best and the reason Vlado Gotovac needs to be remembered.   He died in Rome; like the next author I will discuss, as well as the best Albanian poets, such as Lasgush Poradeci and Martin Camaj, he was deeply influenced by Italian poetry.


Viktor Vida  

            The Croatian poet Viktor Vida (1913-60) died before Gotovac, and in very different circumstances: he committed suicide in Argentine exile.  But he also stood for an ideal of Croatian national integrity and opposition.  His early work appeared in Krleža’s Pečat, and possessed an anticlerical and leftist flavor.  However, during the second world war he worked in Italy in a news agency associated with the collaborationist regime in Croatia, and with the coming of the Tito regime he chose not to return to his native land.   He worked for some time in the Vatican, and his verse took a religious turn.  Nevertheless, he remained in some sense a man of the left, and was treated as such by the émigré social-democratic intellectual Bogdan Raditsa, a former Tito official, among others.

Regarding his move to Italy during the fascist era, at a time when his native town, Boka Kotorska was a section of Croatia annexed to Italy, thus making him an Italian subject, Vida wrote, “I didn’t go to Italy with the intention of voting in the elections there, but simply to retain my physical integrity…Thousands and thousands did the same thing, [for] one reason or another, and well-meaning and reasonable people do not make a fuss about it.”   (It should be noted that Boka Kotorska was annexed a second time, and is now part of Montenegro, rather than Croatia, although its population continues to speak Croatian.)

Regardless of his personal philosophy, however, Vida was a profoundly gifted writer. The above excerpt from a late polemic appears in his extremely valuable Collected Poems, translated into English and published in Croatia in 1998, also in the Most/The Bridge series.[xxv]  Unfortunately, however, the ‘Americanization’ of world poetry that has induced Slovenes and others to write unrhymed and unmetered verse has also encouraged the translation of beautiful verse that was composed in rhyme and meter as if it were written in free verse.  I previously indicated this problem in the case of Branko Miljković.  Here is my adapted translation of the poem “Sužanj vremena” (“Time’s Captive”), which appears in the mentioned edition:

I don’t know, what I am, where I am, where I am going,

only this mysterious body is my witness,

that from Fullness I was torn away, into time

between Nothing and Everything, wandering and alone.


I don’t know, where I am, nor if I may be dreaming, I dream

a staircase of Night in the desert of the living, and ivy

winds around my trunk, and from my eyes I clear it, remove it

and lift the eyelid of the dream from the crevice, where “I” falls.


But He through the wall of jasper stares unblinking

in all my motions and rings he gives me a sign,

that for me he conceived the world, the sun’s cup, the wing of darkness.


I feel time like sand falling in an hourglass,

as at the doorway of moonlight, an unnoticed ray.

The black bird of Night settles on my shoulder.



                                                    Part II



[i] Fevziu, Blendi, Historisë i Shtypi Shqiptar, Tirana, 1998.


[ii] Citations from Guillaume Apollinaire and interview materials on Annie Playden, see Steegmuller, Francis, Apollinaire, Poet Among the Painters, 1963.   Also see Destani, Bejtullah, ed., Faik Konitza: Selected Correspondence, 1896-1942, London, Learning Design Ltd., 2000, and my short work, Schwartz, Stephen, Ëndërrime në shqip/Dreaming in Albanian, Skopje/Shkup, Fakti, 2003. 


[iii] The memoirs of Ismail Qemali Vlorë constitute a classic of Balkan and Ottoman historiography.  The first edition appeared as Story, Somerville, ed., The Memoirs of Ismail Kemal Bey, London, Constable, [1920], an expensive rarity.  The volume was reprinted as The Memoirs of Ismail Kemal Vlora and His Work for the Independence of Albania, Tirana, Toena, 1997.  The memoirs describe Ismail Qemali Vlorë’s collaboration with Faik Konica on Albania. 


[iv] Kadare, Ismail, “The Literature of Socialist Realism is Developing in Struggle Against the Bourgeois and Revisionist Pressure,” Tirana: Albania Today, 3, 1977.


[v] See notes on Marulić in Pavletić, Vlatko, 100 Pjesnika Književnosti Jugoslavenskih Naroda, Zagreb, Mladost, 1984.


[vi] On Gundulić, see Pavletić, ibid., hereafter Pavletić (I).  Selections from Lucić, Hektorović and Držić as well as the Latin tradition are included without biographies in Pavletić, Vlatko, Zlatna Knjiga Hrvatskog Pješnistva od Početaka do Danas, Zagreb, Matica Hrvatska, 1991, hereafter Pavletić (II).


[vii] Published by the Croatian Writers Association, Trg bana Jelačića 7, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia, e-mail [email protected]. 


[viii] Ed. by Washburn, Katherine, John S. Major, and Clifton Fadiman, New York, Norton, 1998.


[ix] For the life of Prešeren, and Slovene originals of his poems, but not the translations, see Prešeren, France, Poems/Pesmi, Klagenfurt/Ljubljana/Vienna, Hermagoras Verlag, 1999.


[x] I will, however, recommend my own Kosovo: Background to a War, London, Anthem Press, 2000, and the various works cited therein.


[xi] For biographies of Kranjčević, Šantić, Dučić (with the original of the poem cited here), Matoš, and Ujević, see Pavletić (I).


[xii] For the original text of Šantić, see Šantić, Aleksa, Emina, Sarajevo, Sarajevo Publishing, 1998. 


[xiii] Ćatić’s lyric is performed on the CD Mostar Sevdah Reunion, World Connection, WC 43011; a better rendition by Himzo Polovina is unavailable outside Bosnia-Hercegovina.


[xiv] Schwartz, Stephen, “Ante Ciliga 1898-1992,” New York: Journal of Croatian Studies, 1993-94.  This text may also be found at the website of the British magazine Revolutionary History.


[xv] Kosovel, Srečko, Integrals, Tr. By Nike Kocijančič Pokorn, Katarina Jerin, Philip Burt, Ljubljana, Slovene Writers Association, 1998.


[xvi] Vučo, Alexander, The Holidays, and Davičo, Oskar, The Poem, both tr. by Alec Brown, London, Lincolns-Prager, 1959.  On Krleža’s Latinovicz, see Schwartz, Stephen, “Five Yugoslav Classics,” New York: The New Criterion, May 2000, to be reprinted in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook, forthcoming.


[xvii] Biographies of Matić, Dedinac, and Davičo, see Pavletić (I).  A useful account of Serbian surrealism is Kapidžić-Osmanagić, Hanifa, Hrestomatija Srpskog Nadrealizma, Sarajevo, Svjetlost, 1970. On Popović, see Kapor, Čedo, Za Mir i Progres u Svijetu, Sarajevo, n.p., 1999 (memorial volume on Yugoslavs in the Spanish civil war); on the International Brigaders in Yugoslavia see Alba, Víctor, and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism: A History of the P.O.U.M., New Brunswick, Transaction, 1988.


[xviii] On the Pečat affair, see Banac, Ivo, With Stalin Against Tito, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1988; on Krleža, also see Schwartz, “Five Yugoslav Classics,” op. cit. in note 16.


[xix] A selection is included in Bogdanović, Nana, ed., Moderna ruska poezija, Preveli Danilo Kiš i dr., Beograd, Nolit, 1975.


[xx] Simic, Charles, The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, St. Paul, The Grey Wolf Press, 1992.  On the intellectual misadventures, which is a kind description, of Milorad Pavić, see Anzulović, Branimir, Heavenly Serbia, New York, NYU Press, 1999.  The original of Miljković’s poem appears in Pavletić (I).


[xxi] Mihalić, Slavko, Atlantis: Selected Poems 1953-1982, Tr. By Charles Simic and Peter Kastmiler, Greenfield Center, N.Y., The Greenfield Review Press, 1983.  For the original of “Approaching Storm” see Mihalić, Slavko, Sabrane Pjesme, Zagreb, Naprijed, 1998..


[xxii] Edvard Kocbek, Translated by Michael Biggins, Ljubljana, Slovene Writers’ Association, 1995.


[xxiii] Vrkljan, Irena, Marina or About Biography, Tr. By Celia Hawkesworth, Zagreb, The Bridge, 1991.  This work has also been published in the U.S. by Northwestern University Press.  Further on the Tsvetayeva case see Schwartz, Stephen, Intellectuals and Assassins, Anthem Press, London, 2000, and Brossat, Alain, Agents de Moscou, Paris, Gallimard, 1988.Sergei Efron was a writer of some talent who had been linked with the terrorist People’s Will movement of tsarist times, and had been Tsvetayeva’s lover beginning in her teenage years.  

                With the coming of the revolution, Efron had joined the anti-Bolshevik armies.  Tsvetayeva returned to Moscow, intending at first to join him; but she was forced to stay in the Red zone.  She was respected as a poet by the Bolshevik intellectuals, although Efron’s service on the other side was well known.  She professed to hate the Communists and wrote many poems in honor of the White soldiery.  But she also worked briefly for the Bolshevik government, under, of all people, Stalin.

                In 1921, while she was still in Moscow, Tsvetayeva received news that Efron had survived the civil war and emigrated to Czechoslovakia.  Marina immediately joined him.

                In the late 1920s Efron began to express pro-Soviet sympathies.  These became so pronounced as to make Tsvetayeva an object of suspicion in the Russian exile community in Paris.  Eventually, Efron became involved with a Russian-speaking Paris group operating as a front for the secret police or N.K.V.D., the Union for Repatriation of Russians Abroad.

                The political life of the Efron family seems to have proceeded at a rather lazy pace until the assassination in Switzerlandon September 4, 1937, at the height of the Soviet purgesof a middle aged man bearing a passport identifying him as a Czech citizen named Hans Eberhard.

                Eberhard’s real name was Ignacy Porecki.  He was also known as Ignace Reiss, and was a senior official of Stalin’s secret police. A veteran of the Communist International or Comintern, as well as Red Army Intelligence (G.R.U.), he had played a crucial role in Soviet espionage in the West.

                Ten weeks before his death, Reiss had begun a protest against the purges in the U.S.S.R., which had just decapitated the Red armed forces, and from which Stalin had ordered extended to Republican Spain, in the middle of its civil war.  Reiss broke with Stalin in a thundering letter, returned his decorations, proclaimed his solidarity with the exiled Leon Trotsky, and warned against an extension of the N.K.V.D. into the West, specifically, the Spanish Republic.  His liquidation came almost immediately.

                The Reiss murder was a central event in the history of Soviet intelligence operations, leading to more deaths and involving personnel also assigned to the murder of Trotsky.  A complicated trail led the Swiss police, seeking Reiss’s killers, to France.  With the cooperation of the French police, the center of the terrorist group was located in Paris, in the office of the Union for Repatriation of Russians Abroad and in the person of Efron. 

                Efron escaped the police net and returned to the U.S.S.R. via Republican Spain, but the scandal alienated many Russian exiles from Tsvetayeva, including the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who agreed with the widespread belief that she was a knowing and deceitful Soviet agent.  To make matters worse, Efron’s group was also connected with a conspiracy to murder Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov, and to the sensational kidnapping of White Russian general Yevgeny Karlovich Miller.  The Reiss, Sedov, and Miller cases have become subjects for academic commentators on Tsvetayeva’s work.  The single question with which all have wrestled centers on how much she knew about Efron’s activities.

                Efron had fled to the U.S.S.R.  Her daughter Ariadne having preceded him, Tsvetayeva herself, with her son Grigory, nicknamed Mur, returned to her homeland.  For some time she and Efron enjoyed the patronage of the N.K.V.D.  But Efron’s performance in the Reiss case had not been brilliant.  He was eventually purged and executed.  Marina committed suicide in 1941, after the German invasion of Russia forced her evacuation to the interior of the country.  Desperate, she hanged herself.

                The mystery has long remained:  how much did she know?   The question may never be answered in full.  But a key document, long considered lost by specialists, lies in the archives of the Hoover Institution in California:  the record of the French police interrogation of the poetess.  It does not provide a full picture of her state of mind at the time of Reiss’s murder, but it should help correct many inaccuracies and fantasies, including tales of hysterical recitations of verse to the French detectives which have been purveyed by some “scholars.”

                The document shows that Tsvetayeva said her husband had left France to volunteer in the Spanish Republican Army.  She also said she had no idea what he did when he occasionally left Paris, and never asked him about his business.

                These I believe to be lies formulated by Tsvetayeva to protect her husband.  Efron was a weak individual, extremely dependent on Tsvetayeva, with no business or income apart from what he received from her and from the N.K.V.D.  She must have known he was headed “home,” to the U.S.S.R., where she soon followed him. 

                Throughout their relationship Marina had betrayed Sergei Efron, pursuing numerous affairs, including one with another Soviet spy, Konstantin Rodzhevich.  But at the end she remained loyal to Efron in the face of the police.

                In this late act of her drama, Marina Tsvetayeva accomplished not an act of baseness, but of nobility.   She protected the man to whom she had sworn her life.  The Stalinists created a morality that sought to punish spouses and offspring for their relatives’ actions.  But it is not in the tradition of Western law to condemn a wife for her refusal to bear witness against her husband.  That her courage and sacrifice would be crushed and deformed by the evil of Stalinism seems to have been, as in so many other cases, an inevitability.

                Nevertheless, Efron was undeniably guilty of horrendous acts.  Unfortunately, however, Vrkljan chose to sweeten the pill by writing simple-mindedly, “Sergei wanted only one thing:  to go back to Russia… Did Sergei do something wrong in 1937 in order to ‘earn’ his return?  Rumors about his spying activities spread through Paris.   Marina… never believed them.  Was Sergei the victim of anti-Semitic circles in Paris?  Did they hate him also because he wanted to go back?  Hatred towards Marina as well therefore, because of her pride and defiance?  Was Sergei a broken, sick man already, before 1937, before he was shot in 1941?  No one can answer these questions any more now.  At least that justice should be left for someone who cannot defend himself.”

                Vrkljan is entirely wrong in this entire paragraph.  First, she has no standing to speculate on Tsvetayeva’s state of mind.  Second, the suggestion that “poor Efron” was a victim of his simple patriotism is worse than stupid; it is despicable.  Third, the assertion that these questions were destined never to be answered reflected the obtuse outlook of those Communist faithful who really thought that the system would never fall and that the archives would never be opened.  In reality, and in addition to the above-mentioned French police document, we now have the entire file of the Soviet secret police on Sergei Efron. 

The alleged martyrdom of Efron as a Jew is a refrain in Vrkljan’s concoction.  Earlier in the narrative, she writes, “Neither friends in Russia nor abroad wanted to accept Marina’s choice:  a sick man and a Jew.  That is the darkness which lies over Sergei.  Everything else to date is rumor.”   This gives the strong impression of being a deliberate lie.  The involvement of Efron in the murder of Reiss and the plot against Trotsky’s sonneither mentioned in Vrkljan’s bookwas anything but rumor, from 1937 on.  Nabokov was no anti-Semite, and his suspicions about the couple were well-known.  Vrkljan should reissue her book in revised form, at least.


[xxiv] Vlado Gotovac, Ed. by Tea Benčić-Rimay, Zagreb, Croatian Writers’ Association, 2003. For purchase of Most/The Bridge books, see note 7.  An alternative e-mail address is [email protected].


[xxv] Vida, Viktor, Collected Poems, Tr. by Magda Osterhuber, Zagreb, Croatian Writers’ Association.  For the original of his poem, see Vida, Viktor, Izabrane Pjesme, Zagreb, Erasmus, 1994.



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