Edvard Kocbek
(Slovenia, 1904–1981)   

Edvard Kocbek is a great unknown East European poet. Although born in 1904, he published most of his major poetry in the 1960's. This makes him more of a contemporary of poets like Zbigniew Herbert, Vladimir Holan, or Vasko Popa than of his own generation. In all these poets, the influence of modernism and its anesthetics collided with the tragic history of their countries. Kocbek is one of the true witnesses of our new dark ages. These fine translations from Slovenian introduce to us a poet of extraordinary originality and vision who deserves a place in the pantheon of modern literature.

This evening won’t let me be, it’s a toy
And I am a child who just has to take it apart
And put it together again, or else
the curiosity will drive me wild
and the emptiness blind me with its sad song,
for what is and what is not,
and what is not is present in what is.

So begins Edvard Kocbek’s 'This Evening, This Toy' (Translation: Lozar) in lines that touch upon most of this great poet’s concerns. Here is the role of the poet as one who deconstructs and reconstructs the world around him through the play of imagination, but a playfulness (as he says in 'Afterward to a Bride Dressed in Black') that also combats “emptiness,” that understand paradoxes of presence and absence, being and non-being as two sides of the same coin. It is a playfulness that recognizes the dangers around us, a symbolic evening itself, that is, with its "sad song" composed of the possibility of nothingness, “emptiness.” Faced with such pervasive "emptiness" and loss he would try to dismantle and sort without losing anything, an impossible task.

And there I am dismantling and sorting
everything I lay my hands on, lay
my memory and my ken on. All by itself a new order arises
I become a builder, a mason, a roofer,
next I change into a painter and a rugweaver,
finally I am a gardener. By then night has fallen
and there are ever more things behaving ever more
mysteriously, till all that is left in my hand
is something gentle and light, a bride's veil
without the bride.

The stakes are indeed high here and the end suggests a kind of provisional teleology, or, poetically, a sense of an endless process of subverting and rebuilding: the process itself becomes at least as important as the product. For Kocbek there are no easy victories, in fact no victories at all, only the heroic struggle towards a final, transcendent victory beyond poetry, beyond even simple mortality.

Take, for example, the poem, 'The Divine Search' (Translation: Kravanja). Here the poet-speaker searches for a beautiful maiden and seems to float across waves, clouds, whatever elements hold the universe together. As the quest goes on, all that is “sinful and alien” seems to “fall away” and he seems to have the power to float across waves and clouds, the cosmos, as a spiritual being. And yet for all that he is afraid he will encounter the “terrifying nothing” for he is aware that “something essential is fleeting.” So the poet searches for the ineffable, an ideal, aware that he may find that there is none, only a nothingness, and yet it is the image and substance of woman per se that gives a quiet, mature strength. In the end, he understands himself as “wanderer, wizard and lover” in all senses of those word, fully ironic and so fully recognizing their possibilities.

It is not so difficult to understand, given this context, why Kocbek’s poet Orpheus in My Eurydice says "Everything I have accomplished with my poetic gifts so far has lost its power and worth" (Translation: Kravanja). Because he lost faith in his own words, because he felt the need to check them against the real, he found them powerless. But even as he recreated her he finds he must “press [his] eyes shut continually, so that her new and entrancing beauty won’t stun me,” for her beauty was such a daemon of temptation that he is lulled and convinced by the beauty of his own song for her, for her being as it exists in his song. Now, however, having checked his creation against reality, his part of a scheme of “mysterious rites destined to save mankind, [his] great scheme fated to overcome death,” he finds the “hidden fault” which is the very inadequacy of language. In fact, he becomes an alien in the very language he speaks: “I’m possessed by the feeling of a foreigner speaking in some strange tongue.”

Kocbek’s prose poem raises the problem of the validity of what the writer writes, and indeed, what the role of the writer ought to be, crucial and immortal issues especially relevant in today’s fragmenting world. Of course Kocbek has a political aspect to his poems, as in his poem, 'History' (Translation: Kravanja)--

you, so called leaders
of mankind, what is hidden in your whispers behind dark glasses,
what is the meaning of your silence
of your loquacity, of your continuous meetings
and secret talks, pilgrims knock in vain
on other doors, artists connect in vain arches
of palaces rising from new foundations, in vain children write
slogans on the walls, in vain are the discoveries in megaphones
in vain the sacrificing of women kind, in vain
parades and volleys, volleys as greetings, volleys
as warnings, volleys for punishment, too many
bans, too many orders, as if there were
no sky, as if there were no man.

What Kocbek asks is what we must ask of our technology: are we giving up wisdom for facts? Culture for paraphernalia? -- And so immediacy for detachment? Responsibility for excitement? a sense of ethics for a sense of triumph? Who has determined this but ourselves? Are these not our lives and desires, our ambitions, jealousies and hatreds played out on the screen? Have we come to act "as if there were / no sky, as if there were no man?" What Finally, can the poet do? What sort of poetry can do this and not participate in its own self-made imperialism? What sort of poetry can do this and not attempt to establish itself from an falcon's perspective, from a distant and austere Parnassus, looking down upon the very people it should serve? –
These are questions as important for readers as they are for writers, as Kocbek suggests in a more ironic vein:

If all the seven hundred million Chinese,
each weighing fifty kilos, say,
were simultaneously to jump
from a height of 2 meters
onto the land of their foe,
it would make for an earthquake of magnitude Four.
And if the Chinese were then to repeat this leap
every fifty-four minutes,
when the waves of the earthquake returned from around the world,
they would raise the tremor to such a pitch
it would raze the land of their foe.
All this would be true to the style of Mao Zedong.
Their enemies could stifle the quake
only by catching precisely the interfering waves
with counterleaps of their own.
The unknown is only the size of the population.
We, Slovenians, for instance, would need to jump
from such a height
that we would all be killed.
That is why we have to sign up with our neighbors.

(Translation: Lozar)

There is a lot to be learned from this, but most important is the sense of self irony. Perhaps most obvious is that to speak the last line one must have the confidence, self assurance, and independence -- as a poet and as a people -- to be able to speak this irony. In terms of the numbers set up by the poem's images it is true; in terms of the spirit portrayed in the poem, the savage wit, it is false. Here is a poem of great power, a political poem for our difficult times, and yet it has a large enough vision to be able poke a little fun at itself, to give us a sense of irony and perspective -- to suggest a way of embracing other cultures, not just of fighting them. Yes, on the surface it suggests "signing up" as a mode of losing national identity, but surely the tone I have suggested, and the satire against others earlier in the poem, suggests "signing up" as also a way of committing oneself and ones culture, freely, to the concerns of all cultures for freedom and integrity.
But we should not confuse this vibrant and great poet with a propagandist. For Kocbek, language is not only what is spoken but what is unspoken. The unspoken is the mystery, but it is also part of the spoken in an odd sense. The relationship between the spoken and the unspoken gives a sense of texture. The philosopher Heidegger writes: "Only where there is language is there world, ie, the perpetually altering circuit of decision and production, of action and responsibility, but also of commotion and arbitrariness, of decay and confusion." In “Afterwards to a Bride Dressed in Black” he writes “poetry remains the expression of the irrepressible human aspiration to freedom” (Translation: Biggins). “Imagination,” he goes on, “is the oxygen of modern man” that combats a world stifled with information and facts, and by the forces that control information, from big conglomerates to governments (“throughout his life he had been condemned to be a dissident, a double dissident: the bigots hated him because of his liberalism, and the communists were wary of him because he was different. Since he was no longer of use to the communist cause, the harsh logic of the revolution required that he should be dispensed with. After the publication of a collection of his short stories, entitled Fear and Courage, he lost his position; thereafter, he was constrained to live the rest of his life in cruel isolation” -- Boris Novak). The playfulness of poetry we have described and seen in action “is by its very nature disobedience, resistance, an outgrowing of rules, tradition and violence.”
As he tells us in 'One More Plea' (Translation: Biggins), the “world’s plunging through universal darkness / is closely linked to mistakes in language.” That darkness we saw earlier occurs when we lose sight of particulars, the things and stuff of our lives. But this is not to try to make a materialist of a poet that some early critics referred to as a writer of “spiritual realism.” In 'Song About Man', for example, he says "Everything is the Foundation of what is higher, the crown to what is lower, bindweed to whatever is at hand." For Kocbek, every little thing is both a word as well as an object, and it is the poet’s job, in a Heideggerian sense (see his 'The Thing' ), to transcend the very language he uses, to get at the “mysterious” realm beyond words, “some deep, nearly ungraspable meaning” (Reverence for the Word, Translation: Lozar). It is this “ineffable” that can be heard, say, in the rustle of dry leaves and other sounds, a sense that “Everything is full, beyond our sullen / perception”(Dry leaves Rustle, Translation: Lozar). In poem after poem, even a small lyric like 'Bliss', the speaker moves towards what cannot be spoken, and often what he meets there is the very essence of the self:

The evening sun, its shining done,
Has left a green glow in the ground
And caught me,

Walking, blissful and larklight,
Somebody’s darling in the warm night,
No foe can defeat me.

Converted to pure matter,
I come, and the world’s terrors scatter,
As I go to meet me.

Here the movement from the external world that catches the speaker and transforms him into “larklight” and then to “pure matter” suggests a process of externalization so that the ego can then be confronted as an “Other.” Far from any simple narcissistic entity, the self too is essentially a transcendent being:

Not this earth I grow from
And caress its shadow
Not this earth, but the other
Where nothing opened can be closed
Where no longer exist outside inside
Or the inside outside

(From: Sentence, Translation: Kravanja)

This doubleness also raises an eternal dilemma. For example, in 'Hands' there is little that can bring consolation for both hands (of the heart and of the mind) are “equally bloodied”( Translation: Kravanja). This dualism is given a more direct political dimension in 'The Stick'(Translation: Lozar)—

What shall I do with my stick
Now that it has outdistanced me?
Shall I throw it on the fire of a shepherd?
or give it to the lame man on the road,
or to scouts reconnoitering the promised land?
Or shall I raise it in the air
to still the people's tumult,
or use it to trip my brother
so he breaks his leg in the dark?
Or shall I throw it into the sea
to save a drowning man,
or plant it in a field
to stand in the wind as a scarecrow?
Or shall I hang it in a pilgrim church
to increase the number of relics,
or bury it in a wood
so the bailiffs can't find it?
Or shall I give it to an ignorant father
so he can use it to tame his son,
or leave it out in the dew
so it turns green again?
Or shall I hand it to a choirmaster
to harmonize the voices,
or give it to an eager boy
to use it to prop up his tent?
Or shall I divine a spring with it
in order to water the desert
or use it to conjure bread
from a stage magician's hat?

No I will do nothing of the sort,
for all that is risky and foolish--
I will break it over my knee
and throw it own a deep ravine,
so that its heavy notches
may measure my fall.

At the end of the poem is a loss, a loss that is terrifying. It is a loss we had better be able to recognize for ourselves. The stick, or whatever instrument the narrator has used throughout the poem, throughout his life, to act and so to define himself, is thrown away. It may be ethnic identity. It may be military force. It may be government bureaucracy. It may be the power of rhetoric. In any case, it is something by which the self is identified. In the end, even the self is lost. Identity is lost.

Among other things, the stick is the force of nationalism. A nationalism that starts at first as a sense of pride and identity within the individual. At first the individual thinks he or she controls the stick. It is a weapon. It is a help. It can be both positive or negative depending upon how it is used: to light the shepherd's fire or break a brother's leg, as the poem says at one point. But whether it is positive or negative at any point in time is not the issue. The stick-- nationalism, ethnic identity, whatever larger force one identifies with, eventually gains in power, transcends the individual, and controls him or her from the outside, controls by specific and local external forces-- whether they be ethnic, political, religious, social, familial, or simple pressures from peers, from a neighborhood or district. In any case, the self is absorbed, lost. It loses its identity by the very means it hoped to assert it. The suggestion is that at one time the stick was controlled by the self, but now it has outdistanced the self. The self, the narrator, becomes a function of what has outdistanced it. He has become the stick itself.

So it doesn't matter at the end whether the stick continues to be used by the narrator or whether it is thrown away. In either case, the self, the individual freedom remains lost, for the stick controls everything, either by forcing itself to be used (what instrument of power has ever not been finally dictated that it will be eventually used?) or by continuing to measure the fall of those who abandon its power. It does not matter if the fall described seems gentle, like that of a parachutist. One falls into a war zone, into a foreign country, into a past that no longer exists. The self is in exile from the self. Better, Kocbek would say, not to have had one's hands on the stick in the first place. Better to forget trying to carve one's identity around it. Kocbek reminds us that there is no ideal world we can live in. Or if we find one, we will pick up the first stick we see, probably an offshoot of the one we discarded from the last world.

'The Stick', then, represents an epitome of the sort of the “thing” as self transcending. It is experienced and yet also redefined by language. In other words, language is what moves us from a placid and generalized view of the world, a reductive world, towards complex, variable, interesting responses, that is, to the human. And yet, as we have seen, language and naming, imagination and reconstruction, are continual processes. So, for example, in 'The death of Words' (Translation: Kravanja), Kocbek writes:

I unable to sleep,
a big disaster
surrounds me, words that I have spoken
and sent out into the world
are suddenly returning weary,
ill, dreadfully anxious,
they seek a refuge from destruction....

So begins Edvard Kocbek's poem, 'The Death of Words', written at a time when perhaps the first tremors of the current crisis in central and eastern Europe could be felt by someone with enough sensitivity and vision. (Edvard Kocbek, the Slovene poet, philosopher, religious thinker, and dissident died in 1981 at the age of 77.) He goes on to list all the usual categories of failed feeling and thinking, of failed language, but at the end, in the midst of despair, begins to glimpse a solution:

I am unable to stretch my arm,
or open my mouth,
am unable to caress the words despair or
say anything to the words solace, deliverance,
the words toy and grace are choking me,
on my eyes land those shot as they fled,
man, mother, love, loyalty,
the unhappy ones are neglected or never uttered
settle on my chest
but one of them has nestled
right between my trembling lips,
never have I seen it in the lexicon.

Who is this neglected one? What word perhaps may have fared better? In a fragmented world where no universals bind together common assumptions, hopes and values, could any words have fared better? And yet this is not even a word in the lexicon he refers to at the end; it is a word beyond words, what all poetry aspires to. For Kocbek it seems we must escape all the previous categories held in our language or they will come back, misunderstood, mistreated, misinterpreted by an increasingly fragmented world, to haunt us. It is a question, then, of forging identities beyond the self, and therefore identities that are not going to be exclusive, but inclusive. It is a task our very language and symbol system seems, as Kocbek suggests, unable to deal with, but a task which we, as writers, must confront.

What Kocbek confronts in his art are all the forces that lie beyond us, that threaten us, that destabilize the world our language creates. They may be forces of ethnic identity, or military force or government bureaucracy, even the power of rhetoric itself. In the end, even the self’s identity is threatened when the language becomes unstable. And yet the poet himself must destabilize language in order to renew it. The problem for a poet like Kocbek, then, becomes an ethical one. The poem itself must question its own procedures and perspectives-- sometimes by shifting stylistic gears, posing hypotheses, suggesting alternatives, changing tone or course in the middle, keeping an ironic tone. The technique of a Kocbek poem often calls itself into question in order to widen the range of its possibilities. Kocbek’s poems have none of the ideological and rigid about them precisely for this reason. Their irony creates a richness of experience that is manifest in the ability of the poet to turn, like Keats or Stevens, a potentially bleak vision into a triumphant one. And these turns in Kocbek’s poems create an opportunity for the poet, and for the reader, to experience the very process of creating another, healthier, more hopeful world.
But of course there are always ambiguities, as there are in any great poet. In 'The crucifix In The Fields' (Translation: MacKinnon) presents the icon of Christ that has been gradually degraded by first making a ritualistic altar, then adding material odors and senses (of course these could also be considered positive), then the more sinister “smoke of fires, the smell of gunpowder; / strange shots whistled through his forehead” until he becomes a “scarecrow.” He becomes, in other words, a shadow of his former image and self and “Now” as “the world had run wild” we find that “he hangs on one last nail.” The future, then, seems just as bleak, for the poem ends by continuing to desecrate the symbol:

And some night when the wind leaps up
In huge fantastic adoration
He will pluck himself down,
Stand firm on the earth
And kiss it.

Nature itself performs its ironic blasphemy in this degraded world. Yet there is a doubleness here. Is the kissing of the earth an act of redeeming the earth? Is it a blessing? Is it a release from His suffering and so a release from his traditional obligation to redeem the world through his suffering? Is it a pure simple relief at being given a sort of reprieve by a world that misunderstands him anyway? The poem never answers but keeps us engaged in the process of interrogating our views of the world. As a catholic himself, but in many ways a poet first, Kocbek is more concerned with the mystery, and with the transformative powers of the world and its language that could enact the change described.

It is all the more remarkable for a writer in our own age to be able to maintain such an art. It is not an easy task for the writer, to be sure. Today, with so many fissures based upon ethnic, historical, political, religious and other differences that seem ready to push us all apart, poets often resort to propaganda, or simplistic world views. Kocbek doesn’t simply report on a world, he changes it; the responsibility of the artist to suggest something beyond our own limits is perhaps the driving force of his work Here is the poem, 'In The Torched Village':

I lean on the wall,
still hot
from the long fire,
no villagers,
the foe around,
the ground gives way,
the universe crumbles,
the stars perish.

A sudden ripple
of the scent of violets,
I begin to listen
to tender voices,
the grass raising
for new footsteps,
the ashes embracing
a new solidity.

A brook splatters
into the stone trough,
a cat returns
to a scorched doorstep.
I grow larger,
become a giant,
now I see over
the shoulder of all horror.

(Translation: Kravanja)

What we find here in the heart of this remarkable poet’s work is a kind of poetic optimism. The movement here enacts a reversal of positions and perspectives that is essential. The defeated man leaning against the charred wall at the beginning of the poem, dwarfed by the "universe" that is falling apart, and the dying "stars" becomes, by the end of the poem, the colossus for who these tragedies of war, personified by "terror," are themselves dwarfed by his encompassing vision. It is a vision, as the middle of the poem asserts, that comes not from huge political statements or poems, but tiny observations, the loving perspective of "gentle voices." Perhaps the turnabout comes most subtly in the sense that "ash embraces ash," the very images of desolation from earlier in the poem made here to enact a new beginning. What the poem does, what the writer can do, is suggest ways to transform our language of death into a language of life.

© Richard Jackson

Works by Kocbek in English
At the Door of Evening, Translation: Tom Lozar. Ljubljana: Aleph, 1990 (bi-lingual edition).
Edvard Kocbek, Translation: Michael Biggins. Ljubljana: Slovene Writers’ Association, 1995 (originally published under the title Le Livre Slovene, 1962).
Embers in the House of Night, Translation: Sonja Kravanja. Sante Fe: Lumen Books, 1999.
Slovene Poets of Today ( pp. 36-43), Translation: Alasdair MacKinnon. Ljubljana: Slovene Writers Association, 1965.


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