On Branko Maleš’s Poetry



Branko Maleš’s poetry, with its literary and historic relevance, makes him a classic of 20th century Croatian poetry. From his first collections, Tekst (1978) and Praksa laži (1986), to the latest, “biba posavec” (1996) and Trickster (1997), his poetic expression continues to show increased mastery and aesthetic development. In his early works we can detect a textual practice which carries traces of the grammatological turn [1], as it was presented in essays published in the Croatian literary magazine Pitanja at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as post-avant-garde and pop-art European and Slovenian experience. Such ‘horizon’ [2] of poetry, namely the practice of the ‘signifier’ scene, called for a certain concept of poetry whose origins can be found in post-structuralist tendencies, especially when it comes to the treatment of language. This concept strived to eliminate the transcendental and metaphysical ‘signified’ of the logocentric original location of poetry.

This new sensibility and, thus, new sensitivity, offers new poetic possibilities and thus takes a polemic, deconstructive and ironic stand towards cultural and literary tradition. This also becomes evident in Maleš’s position on social and historic reality which is implied and structured through the use of language in his poems, while in his non-fiction texts (newspaper columns) this position is undoubtedly adopted as a private strategy, attacking the center of ideological power side-on. This is something that needs to be made clear because behind both of Maleš’s activities lies the same issue: the necessary inter-subjectivity of any kind of Subject, made up of different types of cultural layers, knowledge, technique, etc. and which is always dislocated and de-centered. This is important, I would add, because it is how Maleš keeps his poetry clean of different kinds of functionality [3].

Maleš’s poetry from his first stage, the collections Tekst and Praksa laži, should be read within the semiotic framework of the writing scene focussed on the signifier. This played with a specific concept of poetry and should be seen as a project which tried to eliminate the metaphysical concept derived from a logocentric understanding of poetry. This still does not mean that logocentrism itself was successfully eliminated. During that period Maleš engaged more actively in literary criticism, especially of the poets of his generation who shared the same model of poetic practice. That’s why we detect an awareness of the semiotic quality, and even a reduction of expression. Maleš’s first collection is marked by “semantic concreteness” in the literal sense of the words, which means, paradoxically, that we see the concretization and coherence of meaning, even emotionality, and not only an attempt to present the speech of the poetic subject as a certain simulation of scholarly research.[4]

At that time a number of Croatian poets published poetry which continued to follow the avant-garde trend of the beginning of the 20th century. Instead of Baudelaire’s “forests of symbols”, with regards to defined meanings, rhetorical decorations and the enlightening function of literature, they turned to the forest of signifiers, the cacophonies of so-called accidental and associative sound, the pragmatic dimension of language in their content, Dadaistic ironic commentaries. They were interested in banality, the idea of art freed of style and emotion, in the effect of shock, and collage as found in a happening (in poetry this is intertextuality as one of the components of postmodernism). On a sociological level the heritage of the avant-garde movement is recognized in the instrumentalization and functionalization of mass culture with the intent to bring down the elite. We can recognize a similar scenario in Maleš’s development. As he said himself about Tekst, “I definitely confirmed and (definitely) spent one avant-garde dogma.”

If in Tekst Maleš inclined to a version of Mallarme’s pure literature, in Praksa laži ( Practice of Lies) he created a different poetic model and leaned towards a different Mallarmean postulate relating to a certain intentional repetition that takes place in every book. The very idea of literature as a practice of lies (as the title of Maleš’s book suggests) actually comes from Plato, for Maleš the lie derives in the impossibility of producing an original. It follows that if everything has already been told,  all new writing is actually a recontextualizaton of traces, of language — as Derrida would have it — and of literature — as Borges would have it. This poetic position is further explained in the book’s subtitle: “plagiarism, copies, video-recording devices: the golden children of repetition”.

In his second poetic phase, Maleš was more focused on organic, precognostic, phantasmagoric, on the images of land and body, on nighttime images and the simulation of infantile discourse. It would be more accurate to say that Maleš is dreaming of an ecological heaven, one which can be found through archaic, primitive forma mentis and its magical power in serving life. What’s in question here is the ethos of the community, the experience of originality and its inclination to health. Or, in other words, Maleš wishes to connect the ahistorical “wild thought” and his present historical and cultural moment from which he speaks, in a multi-synchronic manner, all the while (and this needs to be pointed out)  giving special attention to the ethical dimension of both of the constellations in question.

But who is his “poetic subject”? It is a man who is sick, psychotic. What we have here is, as Maleš said, the “couch discourse”. With this in mind, his poetic images become objects of desire, phantasms, resentment and thirst for the lost socio-anthropological and magical paradise; ultimately this discourse holds a message. But as the poetic subject is at the same time an infantile psycho-subject, we cannot only speak of the couch discourse, the simulation of the couch experience, but of the simulation of the couch discourse, i.e. more precisely of the simulation of simulated infantile discourse. Maleš lets the Other speak as a subject in order to avoid triviality. Thus, we could conclude that the “yellow discourse” [5] of the couch, as a result of schizophrenic state of mind, actually suggests the split and dispersion of the subject. This is visible in different strategies of poetic expression, from infantile to sophisticated, from syntactic to semantic jumps, from simulation to aphasia.

And so Maleš’s development from structuralism and textuality to postmodernist pop-art, the music video model, and on to a simulacrum infantilism and fairy-tale-like quality seems completely normal and consistent from the position, in Tin Ujević’s words, of the logic of poetic renewal. However, this syncretistic idea is intended to draw our attention to the accuracy of representation of this kind of philosophy of life which takes into consideration the correspondence between nature and culture, people and events. From anthropological and ontological perspective we could say that his poetic practice offers Dionysian delight as well as tragedy but also ways of overcoming the absurdity of socio-historic essentialism, which most often has as ambition Logos, Cogito and a totalizing rationality.

Finally, although this kind of poetry at first sight seems mischievous, it is implicitly critical of the culture and literature that surround it, as well as the Croatian poetic tradition which is basically focussed on different mystifications. Maleš simply points to the cosmogenetic fact of the world in which we just go on living our lives.

Editor’s notes:

1. Derrida’s term for the science of writing.
2. From Jauss’s theory, “horizon of expectations”.
3. Usage for the purposes outside of the aesthetic realm of poetry, e.g. in politics. Males started to write his poetry during the communist regime.
4. A neologism coined by the poet, B. Maleš, meaning that poetry marked by “semantic concreteness” avoids metaphors and other rhetorical devices to a great extent used by older generations of Croatian poets.
5. Superficial.

© Prof. Cvjetko Milanja (Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović)

Source: Adapted version of an essay "Antropološko-vitalistička gesta u obzoru postmodernističke paradigme" published as an introduction to B. Maleš's selected poems, "Sjajno ništa - izabrane pjesme 1978-1998" (Lunapark, Zagreb 2002).

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