Ian Duhig on Ivan V. Lalić




Before the referendum, Remain campaigners frequently imagined the vote as one between bridges and walls: both suggested Lalić to me, then and now. He was part of that artistic intellectual bridging process after World War II, appearing in Modern Poetry in Translation’s first issue, chosen by the editors Ted Hughes and Danny Weissbort alongside the likes of Miłosz, Popa, Herbert, Holub and Voznesensky to introduce eastern Europe’s riches to the English public. Lalić bridged the Serb and Croatian traditions, Catholic and Byzantine histories, traditional techniques with a Modernist intellect. It has been pointed out by Justin Quinn that these poets were more open to broader US influences than British many poets at the time, Jan Zábrana for example, translating the Beat poets into Czech where they have the proverb, Kolik řečí umíš, tolikrát jsi člověkem: ‘You are as many times a person as the languages you speak’.


The walls won our referendum vote but in Lalić, even walls can sing (‘Byzantium’) and Francis Jones writes “In his poetic world, as lucid as crystal, so intensely seen, opaque barriers turn transparent.” In a BBC interview once he stated, “My childhood in the war marked very strongly everything I wrote”; too obvious to remark on, you might imagine, but for the ignorance of the war here, particularly of the Eastern Front and the Balkans, where its legacies remain active. Brexit reflects this sad, dangerous ignorance and therefore doesn't understand that the roots of the European Community were put down to weave a new peace between lands, something that doesn’t love a wall.


My own walls include languages, hence my stress on translation here. I studied French, Latin, German and Irish and I was diabolical at all of them, managing only lowly O-levels in the first two. Nevertheless, while I appreciate that Jones’ dutiful translations attempt to suggest the original rhymes and rhythms (even with Lalić by his side), I generally prefer Simic’s; consider this from the former’s second line to ‘Fresco’: “The contorted air ignites at your gaze, which recalls / The forgotten”; there is an awkwardness solved by Simic who incorporates the air contorted by fire into the verb “shrink”, capturing both its physical and emotional impact and overall Simic’s music swells beautifully in the first verse:


Angel of wrath on the border of pure flame,

The air is on fire, it shrinks from your gaze that remembers

the forgotten. You come from the wall, armed

and serious, the way you soared out of the waning night

contemptuous of the visible order of stars,

for you were like a metal

heated with dangerous beauty that time ripens.


In ‘Inventory of Moonlight’ (not translated in Simic’s selected translations of Lalić, Roll Call of Mirrors), children killed in the Belgrade house fire become angels, the smile of one “emerging from the ashes / Like a leaf from a tree” or a poem in Keats’ mind. I feel able to make such connections because Lalić was so immersed in English-language poetry himself (think of his analysis as to why his Byzantium differs from Yeats’) and by triangulating Lalić through different versions. In his introduction to Roll Call of Mirrors, Simic writes, “Translation is the closest possible reading one can give a poem ― a lover’s reading … In the end, all poetry is translation of an uncertain and often absent original (cf. James Merrill on life itself being translation with all of us being lost in it). Developing his line of thought, Simic brings in Charles Wright: “Poetry is an exile’s art. Anyone who writes it seriously writes from an exile’s point of view”: this is a common enough observation and I recall Richard Murphy in an interview saying he felt his real home was in the language. I don’t think this condition is peculiar to poets, but we articulate it as a matter of course without being accused of disloyalty. Working in the homeless sector in York, where I’m sending this commentary, we used to explain ourselves to its good burghers by saying that while homelessness is a brutal and immediate reality, home is largely an illusion “We don’t live in places, we live in descriptions of places” in Wallace Stevens’ formulation. Our purpose was to stress that our clients (mostly British) were not hopelessly alienated from “homes” and capable of resettlement, working often against quite reactionary notions of “community”. Now these notions are in the process of retracting links to Europe at exactly the time this country needs them to understand what is happening to it, to recognise the stain being born on the wall in Lalić’s ‘Face’, a portrait in mould and damp, a mirror of decay, without eyes or mouth or power.