Monday, November 30, 2015



Look Back, Look Ahead by Srečko Kosovel, Trans. from the Slovene by Ana Jeinikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson
(Ugly Duckling Presse, New York, 2010)

Srečko Kosovel (1904-1926) was an influential modernist Slovene poet who experimented with impressionism, expressionism, Dadaism, avant-garde constructivism and surrealism, and wrote more than 4000 drafts and scribbles before his sudden death from meningitis. In 2010, Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson published a new English translation of seventy seven texts, different in terms of style and theme, with a Preface by Richard Jackson, a Translators’ Note by the two translators and an Afterword by Ana Jelnikar.

An example of an impressionist poem is the first text of the collection, “Village Behind the Pines”, a nostalgic pastoral representation of his native village of Tomaj, located in the Karst Plateau, close to the Duino Castle, where R. M. Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies: “In the clasp of green pines / a dusty white village, / a half-asleep village / like a bird nesting in the hands. // Amidst the fragrant pines I stop / isn’t this my own hands’ embrace? / Such an embrace, such an arch / for only a handful of children. // Behind the church wall / someone is buried. / On the grave a briar blooms. / From the white village, white roads – / and all of them lead to my heart.” The presence of the pines in several other poems by Kosovel mirrors the landscape of the region where he spent most of his short life. Although the boundary between the speaking subject – the “I” – of the poem and the background is relaxed, suggesting they are both part of a larger reality, the sensations are described rather than interpreted and the focus is not simply on the fugitive image, as we might expect from an impressionist poet. For example, the tension between living in the village and returning to the village after a period of time spent away shows Kosovel’s interest in capturing more than one perspective: the village, the bird nesting and the grave are contrasted with the poet’s gaze and all meet in his conscious heart.

A more bizarre and radical distortion of reality can be found in his expressionist poems such as “The Ecstasy of Death”, which emphasizes the layers of history, specific to the European continent, and the necessity to reassess the meaning of death. By rejecting immediate, traditional and stereotype perceptions, the poet uses synecdoche and personification to cast light on an obsolete approach to death: “Exquisite, so exquisite will be Europe’s death: / a luxurious queen in gold, / she will lie in the coffin of dark centuries, / silently she will die like an old queen / closing her golden eyes”. He sets it in contrasts with other forms of dying, which may involve personal reassessment of convictions, worldviews and purpose in life: “O, no more water in Europe. / We people drink blood, / blood from the sweet evening clouds.” or “All the seas are red, all the seas and lakes / full of blood, there’s no water, / no water to wash the guilt away, / for this human to wash his heart, / no water to quench this thirst / for the quiet green nature of morning.” The sun itself, the center of the solar system, is interrogated, in order to hint at mankind’s frailty and imperfection: “O, will you, evening sun, send your blazing rays into this land, this green dewy land?” In the end, the poet prefers to offer an apocalyptic view on the life on earth, a prophecy of the twenty century wars, based on his own experience of the First World War: “Then the sun’s gleaming rays will shine / on us, European corpses.” The title of the poem, repeated throughout its body, radically bespeaks about unknown excess, the unreasonably wrong directions people often take, and the modernist need to view life and death from fresh perspectives, concisely formulated in the line “the European, a thousand times dead”, which could be taken not only as destruction and decay, but also as metamorphosis or as replacement of the old with more adequate structures, content and contours.  

Kosovel did not play with language just for the sake of playing or for his own pleasure. Like other authors of the epoch, he was a foreseer who experimented with avant-garde forms of poetic discourse, appeared in the interwar decades and based on the impact of various domains of knowledge upon the perception of reality and the essence of life. “The Budget” and “My Black Inkpot” are two texts in this collection which convey hermetic combinations of radical inadequacy and truth. The former poem is an “existential” budget, a list of psychological features meant to portray a human being as part of a universe whose structure is still elusive, in spite of efforts to calculate and balance profit and loss.

finances = o
financial hope = imperfect number
strength and happiness = enough for three
energy = ∞
despair = 3x per week
falling in love = every month
debts = imperfect number
hope in the future = ∞
linearity = a // b
Summa = eager expectation

The very first line, in which zero is replaced with the letter “o”, is a subtle code switch from what finance usually means – capital and pecuniary support – to other meanings. At the time when Kosovel wrote the poem, that was a visionary idea and simultaneously a question, given that the notion of human capital, as a reworking of the Marxist term “labour power”, emerged a few decades later, in the second part of the twentieth century. Moreover, there are several schools of thought with different approaches to human capital nowadays, depending on various socio-economic and geographical contexts, and measuring the levels of happiness or hope is undoubtedly a type of scientific advance of the late twentieth century.

The poem “My Black Inkpot” describes the blurry contrast between awareness and general sleep, between the writing self, open to the unspeakable, and what is usually seen as non-writing:

My black inkpot is out for a stroll.
Dressed in tails.
The whole country veiled, deaf.
A melancholy cat lies in the hay.
Whining on its golden violin!
Da, da, da.

The combination of surreal imagery and Dadaist discourse bring about the verbalization of what was previously unspeakable. The colours of the poem – the black of the ink, the white of the fog, the yellow of the hay and the “golden violin” – operate too in this direction: instead of describing sensations about a world only in black and white, torn and scarred by incongruent contrasts, the poet pays attention to the yellow in-between, be it hay or violin as epitomes of agricultural and cultural productions, wherefrom he extracts the discursive essence of his poetry. It does not matter if that discourse initially consists of simple sounds. Yet, the Slovenian original “Da, da, da / A A A / A A A” was taken over in English as such, which differs from a previous translation by Slovenian poet Bert Pribac and Australian writer David Brooks, “Yea, yea, yea. / A A A / A A A”, included in The Golden Boat: Selected Poems (2008). Choosing “Da, da, da” is an example of foreignization – “da” means “yes” in Slovenian – and a return to the basic speech and to singing, resembling a baby’s early sounds.

This small difference signals various degrees of sensibility to the possible audiences of the translated text. Works by poets like Kosovel translated into English are addressed to any speaker of English: native speakers; learners of English, who might come from other Eastern European countries, like myself, or from none other place than Slovenia itself; and poetry lovers from other parts of the world who speak English. Reading poetry in translation as part of the contemporary transnational and multilingual global society can help us better understand some of the possible underlying sources of conflict, can help us make better choices and wiser predictions.


Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian and was awarded a prize for poetic eloquence by the American Cultural Center in April 2005. She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.

No comments:

Post a Comment