This is the wall, Melissa; behind its stones,
A garden which bees, your body, fill with their drones.
― Ivan V, Lalić ‘Wall’, translated by Francis R. Jones
From her crumbling fresco, his wrathful angel’s gaze
ignites my air. Raising her sword, she loses a feather:
it spirals through the winds of empires and dynasties
to wind up in Lalić’s pillow, where his face is baptised
again by his own sweat and tears: his old nightmare,
that garden by the playground where no bees drone
only the birds flying over in rows. They deliver gifts
as red as Easter eggs; painted metal shell-casings
litter the grounds beside schoolchildrens’ bodies.
Now he dreams a church, people tied like kindling.
He weeps, I can’t stay silent: the walls stayed silent
and crumbled. His face crumbles. The church burns.
An angel’s smile unfurls from the ash like a new leaf,
a poem; eggs for the fresco gather again into shells;
she fans them with her golden wings and leans over,
she whispers See, on this wall a stain grows a face.
Poetry wants to be a contagion.
― Jorie Graham
Dream into being a lost city into and call it Lygos,
Byzantium, Czargrad, Stamboul or what you like:
speak its mosaic of languages, taste their honey.
Dream a city an empire, a faith, a state of mind
and body ― that drone of bees behind your ribs
is its busy streets, its great dome rings your skull.
Dream a city forever dividing along invisible lines
that rise to heaven like Isidore’s fiery walls of Eden:
Orthodox one side, heretic the other. Then vice versa.
Dream a city where plague is a poet hiding presents
in armpits he renders as baskets of salt-cast flowers,
scabs as jewels for his Fabergé Housekeeper Eggs.
One hatches a golden bird that can bend all tongues
to its clockwork song, mean anything and everything,
protected by all the king’s horses, all the king’s men
as winds shake the city and walls begin to crumble.
The background against which I first worked on this commission was the referendum on EU membership, when Remain campaigners frequently imaged the choice as one between building bridges and walls ― US arguments about Trump’s ideas for controlling immigration debated this literally. As we know, the metaphorical walls here won the vote, finding new ways to divide the UK, yet all this was strangely reflected for me in the Lalić poetry I read again and again during this period. In a time when walls rose all over Europe, he was part of a literary intellectual bridging process after the Second World War, appearing in Modern Poetry in Translation’s first issue, chosen by the editors Ted Hughes and Danny Weissbort alongside the likes of Miłosz, Popa, Herbert, Holub and Voznesensky to introduce Eastern Europe’s riches to the English poetry public. Lalić himself bridged Serb and Croatian traditions as also traditional poetic techniques with a Modernist cast of mind. Lalić lived in Yugoslavia, where Tito ‘rode the wall’ (as the Chinese say) in his East/West relations: for the poet even walls can sing, as they do in his poem ‘Byzantium’; furthermore, as Francis R. Jones writes in his selection of Lalić’s poetry, A Rusty Needle, ‘In his poetic world, as lucid as crystal, so intensely seen, opaque barriers turn transparent’. This seemed to offer promise that we could see through our new situation here if we chose to, as Lalić does, transforming it in the act of perception, by his art.
Nevertheless, my own walls include learning languages: I studied French, Latin, German and Irish on the hoof at various times but was diabolical at all of them. I’d grope about in some new linguistic world, vocab in hand, piecing sentences painfully together like trying to make a living, breathing creature from Lego. Being so reliant on translations made me fascinated with them, much as my inability to sing has led me to study those who can. While I appreciate that Jones’s dedicated translations do attempt to recreate Lalić’s rhymes and rhythms, I also like Simic’s freer approach in his selection of Lalić’s poetry, Roll Call of Mirrors. Compare this from the former’s second line to ‘Fresco’: ‘The contorted air ignites at your gaze’ with Simic’s ‘The air is on fire, it shrinks from your gaze’, capturing both its physical and emotional impact in the word ‘shrink’. Nevertheless, I respect Jones’s fidelity and would not have dispensed with any translations of these poems I found, valuing particularly those by Lalić himself, and would have read more if I could have found them.
In interviews, Ivan V. Lalić stressed the formative experience of his childhood in the Second World War, including inter-community atrocities alluded to in such poems as ‘Requiem’ (‘I cannot stay silent; the walls have stayed silent | And crumbled’). ‘Inventory of Moonlight’, in the first edition of MPT, describes children killed in a fire as becoming angels in accordance with local tradition and, with a haunting and beautiful image the smile of one ‘emerging from the ashes | Like a leaf from a tree’. To me, this is also like a poem in Keats’ mind: I make such connections freely because Lalić was so immersed in English poetry himself and I hope by triangulating Lalić through different versions to get a feel of his landscapes in and on my tongue: there is something seductive yet poignant about this intimacy with different beings we will never really understand: introducing Roll Call of Mirrors, Simic writes: ‘Translation is the closest possible reading one can give a poem ― a lover’s reading’, then brings in Charles Wright: ‘Poetry is an exile’s art. Anyone who writes it seriously writes from an exile’s point of view’: this is a common enough observation and I recall Richard Murphy in an interview saying he felt his real home was in the language, a view reiterated recently by the poet Vahni Capildeo. I believe the brave new worlds conjured up by such poets expand our ideas not only of home but elsewhere; here I think of a passage in Geertz’s Local Knowledge, which almost seems to begin with a Burns allusion, ‘To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. But it is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largeness of mind comes without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham…’ I can’t imagine anything more important than the ideas contained here, especially as new walls rise around us. We don’t live in places, we live in descriptions of places, in Wallace Stevens’ formulation. Confucius said a man who does not know the poetry of the Book of Songs is standing with his face against a wall and I recalled this image as a vision of the future here, a refusal to recognise the stain being born on its wall, like the one in Lalić’s ‘Face’, a portrait in mould and damp, a mirror of decay, without eyes or mouth or power to speak.
So my poem has two sides like a wall and my response is to Lalić himself, as he is revealed in his work. A poet of magical vision, though for all he wrote about Byzantium, Islam remained a blind spot: beyond the Mediterranean Christian classical tradition, this is a wall he doesn’t see through, a world, in Geertz’s terms he cannot see alongside his own, though now we can read his ‘Princip on the Battlefield’, dedicated to his father, which invokes his assassination which took place on an anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, and I think that it makes him sound like a suicide bomber:
With no armour, I mingle between the passers by
And the gilded shadows …
I raise my hand:
― Let all be blessed and just ―
Jones is the translator here and has always been alert to political contexts: in his introduction to A Rusty Needle he writes ‘As I write, Yugoslavia is savagely tearing itself apart on ancient fault-lines’ and he has to the strong commitment to a non-ethnicized view of Southern Slavic culture shown in his later work. This important work shows no sign of being less than urgent in any foreseeable future.
To crown it all (as dry stone dykers say), I used the Serbian tradition of families retaining one of the painted easter eggs called a ‘housekeeper’ all year round for luck. Perhaps because of the association with walls, this presiding image brought to mind Humpty Dumpty, able to bend words to his will like some parody of the poet and when he declares, ‘I can explain all the poems that ever were invented ― and a good many that haven’t been invented yet’, I recognise echoes of the voice of professional expositor of poetry, which I cannot pretend to be. Wisława Szymborska’s praise of ‘I don’t know’ in her Nobel speech l connect with Simic writing in Roll Call of Mirrors, ‘In the end, all poetry is translation of an uncertain and often absent original’.
Loss is the essence of all I have described here, from the circumstances of its composition to Lalić’s own in how he reads it into his country’s history at the same time that Europe’s was being rewritten again, though without improving on the original. I am grateful to Sasha Dugdale for giving me the opportunity to respond creatively to the predicament and to learn more about the marvellous poetry of Ivan V. Lalić.