Branko Miljković, Fire and Nothing/Vatra i Ništa

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Language, to me at least, resonates most vibrantly when cast into the poetic medium.  Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with the rhythms of songs, nursery rhymes, and later on, hexameters and blank verse.  Poetry is more “3D” to me:  I hear it, read it, and ultimately feel it as something much more palpable than prose or drama.  When I set out to learn a new language, one of the things I seek to discover is how that language’s poetry rings in my ears.  I do not expect the sonnets of Italian or Spanish, the hexameters of Latin or Greek, the alliterations and assonances of English, or the complexities of German poetry.  I just want to lose myself into the imagery and ebb/flow of a gifted poet’s use of his/her native language.

Recently, I discovered a 20th century Serbian poet, Branko Miljković, whose 1960 collection, Fire and Nothing, has been a revelation for me.  Published in the US in 2010 in a bilingual text, it has occupied my thoughts lately.  The cover blurb describes him as being influenced by Mallarmé and several of the French Surrealists in the way that he layers meaning and association through artful repetition.  His translator, Milo Yelesiyevich, purposely renders these poems in a free translation style, yet still rooted in Miljković’s adherence to a symbol/association scheme.  The result is, as Yelesiyevich claims, a prepev, a “re-singing” or “singing over again.”  Below are a few excerpts from the poem “Svest o Pesmi”/”Consciousness of the Poem”:

Je li to čudna želja da se živi                                                To live without the self:  a strange desire?
bez sebe? Želja za pesmom bez pesnika?                               To want a poem without a poet?  Time,
Od prošlosti i zaborava vreme što se divi                               From the oblivious past, does it admire
izdajstvu moga zaustavljenog lika?                                        The betrayal of my thwarted design?

Da li to znati reći promeni:  neću!                                         Does that mean saying to change:  Not for Me?
I ostaviti pesmu da se sama menja?                                        And let the poem change itself? Furthermore
Pokloniti sebe životinjama i cveću                                         To dedicate myself to beast and flower
i snagu svoju dati gladi crnog korenja?                                   And lend my strength to black roots’ hunger?

U ovoj noći mene nije stid                                                    I’m not ashamed to sing behind a wall
što pevam iz zida lepše no na slobodi.                                  Better in such night than free elsewhere.
Sunce mi u peti bridi.  Blešti zid                                           The sun stings my heel.  The blazing wall
na kraju puta što nikud ne vodi.                                           At the end of the road – it leads nowhere.

Throughout “Consciousness of the Poem” and into some of the other poems that I have read to date, Miljković returns repeatedly to the images of sun, fire, blood, and walls.  He artfully recasts them, in one case replacing the perspective of an angel with that of a wall to represent reality and the encasing of our hopes and desires, in ways that imbue these words (and others) with meanings far beyond their lexical origins.  In the Serbian original (I typed it in modified Roman script instead of Cyrillic for ease of comparison here), Miljković uses a sort of half-line rhyme in places to emphasize the points he is making about life and death, desire and the loss of meaning.  Although not fully replicated in the English translation, the translator seems to have done as fair of a job as possible in capturing the essence of Miljković’s lines/symbols without resorting to ossifying the freeness of the original verse with a stilted translation.

When I originally wrote this short review back in July on Gogol’s Overcoat,  I had only read only about a fifth of the poems.  What I said then was that Miljković reminded me favorably of those few poems of Mallarmé that I had read in French or English translation.  Having finished the entire collection in the interim, what I can briefly add here is that the second half of the collection is perhaps even stronger than the very good first half.  Miljković is not a poet whose imagery and themes can be easily grasped in a single reading; it is doubly difficult when one only reads his native language at an elementary level and the parsing of the bilingual text ends up being halting and hesitant.  But sometimes it is worth the effort to wrest meaning and understanding from the text and in the case of Miljković’s poems, the intrepid reader is rewarded for her effort, especially if s/he revisits the collection after an interval and begins almost anew.


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