Sasha Dugdale on Vasko Popa


European Poetry and Why it Matters: Quartz Pebble



Vasko Popa was born in 1922 in Serbia. During the Second World War he was imprisoned by the Nazis in a concentration camp for several months before joining the Communist underground. After the war he became an editor and an influential voice in Yugoslavia’s cultural policy and his many collections of poetry make him, in his current translator’s words, a major Serbian, Yugoslavian and world poet.


His poetry was first translated by Anne Pennington, the notable Slavic scholar in the 1960s, and then by Francis R. Jones, whose magnificent work revising Anne’s fine translations and adding to them has given us access to one of the finest and most distinctive poets of the Balkans. Modern Poetry in Translation published Popa’s work in the very first issue of the magazine in 1965 and co-editor Ted Hughes played a role in getting Popa’s work published, writing an introduction which still serves as the introduction to the Complete Poems (Anvil, 2011).


Hughes’s abiding interest in Popa is an expression of the hunger of a poet who knows he can learn something from a new poetic world. In his introduction to the Complete Poems Hughes writes:


The attempt these poets have made to record man’s awareness of what is being done to him, by his own institutions and by history, and to record along with the suffering their innate creative transcendence of it, has brought their poetry down to such precisions, discriminations and humilities that it is a new thing.    


The cycle ‘The Quartz Pebble’ was published in the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. We know from letters from Ted Hughes to Danny Weissbort that Hughes was particularly keen it should be included in the magazine. It opens with a short poem ‘Quartz Pebble’ which was apparently written as a stand-alone poem in 1951, before it was added as an epigraph to the full cycle which also dates from that period.


What follows here are some reflections on that poem. I edited the poem for our website, changing words and phrases from the original in the 1965 magazine issue to reflect the new translations, and it affected me very much. The poem left its mark – and what better way to reflect on the importance of European poetry than to simply describe that mark.


In the MPT issue the author added a footnote about the quartz pebble, found colourless and almost translucent on the riverbeds in Yugoslavia, washed smooth and pure by the water. One of those pebbles you might pick up from the river and handle compulsively, feeling it in your palm and twisting it over and over from one smooth side to the other. The unexpected and tangible perfection of natural form. Children know all about these things, their pockets are always filled with the water-blasted fragments of river beds and beaches, and they have eternal curious patience for the presence of collectible minutiae.


Popa’s cycle itself has a quartz-like verbal transparency: nothing is metaphorical in this poem, it is not worth straining to find another truth through the opaque lustre of the poem, you might as well read like a child, and twist the words over and over in your mouth. The poem’s surface is hard and clear; it is its own truth.


‘The Dream of the Quartz Pebble’ is that a disembodied ‘hand’ flings it into the air:


Where is the pebble

It hasn’t come back to earth

It hasn’t climbed up to heaven


Where has it gone, truly? I wondered that idly the other day when my daughter was skimming flat stones into the river and one disappeared. It didn’t land in the water, and it wasn’t gathered up to the heavens. But Popa answers my idle questioning: ‘Here is the pebble | stubborn it has stayed in itself’. Things obey themselves, no transitive action will affect them, except in a fleeting dream. All things are ‘worlds amongst the worlds’. The flat stones bounced along the river in tiny, fascinating steps and vanished, unchanged.


How frightening it is when something is inanimate. You cannot reason with it (like fate). You cannot appeal to its better instincts. I knew that once when I was climbing a mountain. When you are climbing or wandering lost, and your head is a tangle of fears and dreams and unwise intuition, then the inanimate grows darker and more frightening and becomes openly malevolent. Perhaps indifference is a repelling force? Perhaps there is only attraction and what is not attraction is repulsion? I don’t come to a single answer, but I am occupied with the singular thought. A parallel thought concerns Popa’s time in a fascist concentration camp which he describes in other books of poetry. He has poems which document the insensibility of fate: the random shootings and sudden deaths of compatriots. Fate’s indifference can only have seemed as malevolent as her uniformed workers.    


The stone is not without energy. It has an intense life-force and an ability to shape-shift: when they break it open they find its heart and in its heart is a dreamless snake which shoots into the air and swallows the horizon – a reverse creation myth. But afterwards there is no trace of the happening. Some body smiles, some body winks. The energy is transferred, although I do not know where or how. Perhaps the energy is dissipated, although no – the poem has no dissipation. The stone returns hale and whole for the next poem in the cycle, like a cartoon protagonist, untouched by its own death.


The pebble has a heart and a dream and it falls in love with ‘a frivolous endlessness’. Her embrace and his desire are both ‘dumb and boundless’. So perhaps the pebble desires an end to the flawlessness of itself, its smoothness. And why not? After all, the smooth roundness of the pebble is the mark of a transitive action: abrasion, deformation, scouring by water. Why shouldn’t it desire to escape the cyclical poem, its imposed form? Is that in fact what love is? A desire for boundlessness and non-definition? A desire to be known only by the strength of the heart, the vitality of the imagination, and the dumbness of the all-seeing soul?


 Vasko Popa’s poetry affects me in the way that looking through a telescope or a microscope does. It affects me and I understand it in the way I understand when someone explains string theory or globular clusters. Honestly, I don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand, but I have wonder and I can grasp some things intuitively at a higher level than I can intellectually understand them. I can almost see the pebble. Sometimes it has an expressive face and sometimes it is blank, ‘petrified in blissful convulsion’.


I don’t like the last part of the poem: ‘Two Quartz Pebbles’: all at once what was particular is eroded in a chain of nasty similes. You can only have one perfect pebble in your pocket. Only one pebble comes home at the day’s end, clasped in a small tired hand.