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75: VASKO POPA

#75: VASKO POPA. One of the first of praises for artists of any stripe is for originality, and part of the particular aesthetic thrill of reading Dickinson or Hopkins or Han-shan or Rimbaud or Szymborska is the feeling they give us that we could never mistake this poet’s work for any other’s. Even at the remove of Charles Simic’s superb translations, Vasko Popa’s book Homage to the Lame Wolf (Oberlin College Press, 1987), when I came upon a copy recently after not having seen Popa’s work for thirty years, amazed me with its instantly familiar tone and whole poems I had virtually by heart. Popa seems to me simply one of the most original poets I’ve ever read, and I’m at a loss as to how to describe him. Born in 1922 in Serbia, he served as a partisan fighter during the war and was a concentration camp survivor; he went on to the literary life of a European author, editing and writing and founding an Academy of the Arts; he died in 1991 of cancer. And I doubt that this information will really be of any help. The poems are impersonal, mythic in tone, whole light-systems away from, say, Greek classicism or European romanticism. The book blurb talks about “elements of surrealism, folklore, and trenchant logic”: close, I suppose, but trying to convey the lost-in-the-dark pathos and eeriness of these poems about pebbles, bones, the lame wolf (as potent a presence as Hughes’s Crow) or, most haunting of all, a little box, I find I’m pretty lost myself. These irreducible little poems can only be left to speak for themselves, in a language we never knew we knew. Go.

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