Ida Hansen celebrates two of Croatia’s finest poets, Vesna Parun and Slavko Mihalić.

For centuries, Western European poets have been celebrated for shining light on humanity’s most urgent questions. The purpose of life, whether death really is final and how the arts can help in trying to understand either of those topics. Yugoslav and Balkan poets who have quietly been writing all this time unfortunately fell between the cracks. Outside the Balkan region, not many are familiar with works of Vesna Parun and Slavko Mihalić. However, in their native country Croatia, they are considered to be some of the brightest minds of the 20th century for their mastery of complex emotions in the typically surreal imagery of their time and how they are able to detach historical events from their context and make them feel universal.

The undiscovered spark 

It is not uncommon for people to turn to poetry which directly communicates an idea. Something they might have heard before, but just needed to see in written form. Maybe a short inspirational snippet or words of wisdom, which are easy and quickly consumed. There certainly lies power in poetic directness. It makes poetry more accessible and helps alleviate a bit of its intimidation and the seemingly elite character. However, there is something riveting about poetry which transcends the poet’s initial intentions and makes the reader insert him or herself between the lines. Most people would agree that good poetry sparks something in the reader and opens a part of them which was left undiscovered all these years. One does not have to be from the same walk of life or have experienced the same traumas in order to feel connected to someone else’s inner world.

Through the centuries, Western European writers and poets have been celebrated as one of the greatest builders and contributors of European culture and identity. In the meantime, Yugoslavian poets seem to have fallen between the cracks. Referring to Yugoslavian poets, the American writer Charles Simic once wrote in an introduction to Slavko Mihalić’s work Atlantis, that “[t]here is no question that these poets have felt and thought about the evil in our century more acutely than their contemporaries in the West.”

It definitely rings true that a lot of Yugoslavian and Balkan poets thematically occupy their work with the topic of war (understandably so, as it was their vivid experience). However, it is important to dismiss the notion that this is the Balkan literature is focused on war alone. Of course, poets like Vesna Parun and Slavko Mihalić also use the medium to process and overcome the paradox of life during war, as did many other Yugoslavian intellectuals and writers in the 20th century. However, the notion that Yugoslavian literature only deals with the grim aspects of life and showcases the violent horrors of war might be a reason why the poetry has not yet reached a broader audience outside the Balkan region. While many Balkan people, especially Croatians, would be familiar with Parun and Mihalić, outside the Balkans they become overshadowed by other more mainstream writers.

Yet there is a worldly quality to Parun’s and Mihalić’s poetry that deserves to be heard on the World stage. Their writing is rich with metaphoric imagery and depth. Both poets are seamless masters of unpacking the complex layers of human thought and experience during hardships; but also during happier times. With each unpacked layer the reader discovers a bit more about the human condition and perhaps himself. Times of hardships ascribed to a specific time period of the Yugoslavian history become universal with surrealist images. Especially during the 1950s, 60s, and 70’s, the cultural and political landscape of Yugoslavia was ambiguous. On the one hand the authoritarian regime made it clear of what was to be written about, accompanied by harsh punishment for those who disobeyed while on the other hand, young people were introduced to western culture with its new possibilities and alternative ways of life.

And while history books often focus on a tyrant and the common man loses his identity by becoming a statistic, Parun and Mihalić delicately showcase the common person’s feelings and thoughts while capturing the atmosphere of the time.

For example, in Mihalić’s poem “Panic”:

There is no explanation, all shows are cancelled
The wind dropped to the ground and sniffs last year’s leaves
From the view the seasons have disappeared
Day and night, hand in hand, go toward the cemetery
Women hurriedly prepare suitcases
Things are nervous, pushing fingers away from them
Don’t fear, no one will recognize you
You can easily hide in the crowd that pales
Jump over a paper wall, run across the empty river
Man and dog stand, above them the sky splits
An old woman passes by: She is either blind or sees through you
What does she want? Where is she from? She does not answer…
You can recognize her face, take her as one of yours
Soon you will have no one, you will be nothing yourself
There is no explanation, all shows are cancelled

(translated by Dasha C. Nisula; Music is Everything by Slavko Mihalić)

The notion that one does not want to be noticed in a big crowd, the feeling in one’s bones that harder times are approaching, the fact that there are no answers to why something is the way it is and, ultimately, the powerful image that one’s city is in an “out of the ordinary state” with all shows and entertainment being cancelled, are situations that a lot of people can relate to in their personal lives. The touching image of day and night going hand in hand to the cemetery, signaling finality is just one example of Mihalić’s metaphorical genius.

The young verse 

During the 1950s there was an emergence of young writers and poets in Yugoslavia who focused on surrealist poetry. The topics were not limited to war but were rather all encompassing. As music was an important part of Mihalić’s personal life, he summed up the profound power of music perfectly in his poem called W.A. Mozart. Here his surrealist style takes on a beautifully haunting quality:

Late at night, during a storm,
Mozart suddenly appeared at the door of the candelabra hall.
He was a savage out of forgotten primeval forests.
He was an oarsman trying to connect to shores.
A sweaty blacksmith he was and a horseman
who carries mysterious messages from sea to sea.
A runaway from prisons whose king’s name
is unknown.
A fairly late pilgrim from the Holy Land
with claw wounds from hellish monsters.
A cellarer. Fire-eater. Cobra tamer.
And when he lowered his fingers from the piano keys
no one moved.
All set lifeless in their chairs
only their eyes shown.
He returned into the stormy night where
his grave is thoughtfully hidden.
(translated by Dasha C. Nisula; Music is Everything by Slavko Mihalić)

In this piece, Mozart seems to have become his music. It leaves the reader being both impressed by the artistry of Mozart and Mihalić (who is able to conjure up vivid images). After reading this piece, one is strangely comforted in the fact that Mozart’s soul lives on through his music. The contrast between the quietness of the audience and Mozart’s eerie piano highlights the charismatic performance. Even people who are not familiar with Mozart’s work specifically, are left appreciative of the power of music. The way his music can evoke many emotions means it can be mighty and subtle at the same time. Mihalić has conjured a nostalgia in Mozart’s music which the audience in the poem and the reader are able to feel. There is a longing to physically be one of the spectators and witness to how Mozart does his magic and leaves the reader’s eyes shining.

Vesna Parun, who has the same rare ability to show transcendental beauty in ordinary lives, has probably been one of the most slept on poets outside Yugoslavia. Whilst engaging in similar topics as Mihalić, she differs in one aspect. She is able to capture the sensitivity of the female perspective. Although her poetry strongly focuses on love, its pain and its beauty, it is not accompanied by the typical clichés that surround love poetry. There is something very humane about the way Parun depicts young women’s experiences in Yugoslavia.

In her poem Maidenhood, it almost feels as if death personified is talking to a young woman and foreshadowing the hardships and loneliness of the war that is yet to come, and the want for a kind embrace in one’s last seconds. As it also might be the woman talking to her past self from the future, the reader is left to speculate:

That stamping and that smoke that is drawing nearer
will enter your garden, open the sleeping door.
You are alone in the house. What will you tell him, maiden,
this unknown man who wants to die
in your bare arms, what will you tell him?

You are alone in an empty deserted house
which is embraced by fern. From your window
the sky is always the same, gentle and far.
Tired horseman ride down the streets.

But someone wants to die in your gentle arms
that no one has lulled in the nights.
Someone yearns tonight to embrace, while dying,
your thin waist and untouched hair.

Look at the road, look along the water, along the extended evening:
someone was calling you secretly from the shore.
Drop your braids down your shoulders. Run
open-hearted; don’t be afraid if you tremble.
Run, run! Don’t ask who is it that moans
nor who follows your steps in the dark.

The gravediggers have already taken from the wrecked house
the glittering corals and golden canaries.
The stories dissipated in the stillness.

Don’t cry: this is love. Go through tracklessness.
Instead of earrings, you will carry the weight of pain,
maiden, if you choose life!
(Translated by Dasha C. Nisula; You with Hands more Innocent by Vesna Parun)

This poem transcends in a way the context of war as most people are able to recall traumatic experiences and the fact that death is harder on the living. Like many of Parun’s poems it highlights the importance of love and humility. As love is one of Parun’s most prominent themes in her writing, her “modus vivendi was [that] ‘it is love that makes and keeps us human.’” [You with Hands more Innocent by Vesna Parun]

Ultimately, Parun and Mihalić show in their poetry how subtle words and images have the power to evoke strong emotions in the reader. They both excel at making complex ideas seem simple and simple things transcendental.

Ida Hansen
Ida is a German and Croatian freelance writer who graduated with a master’s degree from LSE in European Studies, with focus on European ethnic and cultural identity, She wants to bring visibility to Europe’s underrepresented regions, with special focus on the Balkans. She strives to strengthen the cultural exchange between European countries and the world.

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