July 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


Some are Nights Others Stars: Reading Vasko Popa

I had a nightmare last night, but I don’t remember it. I woke up scared, confused about whether I was alone or not. I’d been thinking about Philomena, this girl in Ovid who gets raped, and her rapist cuts out her tongue to keep her quiet, and the discarded tongue writhes around in the dust without her. Maybe the nightmare was about that. I’d been rereading Vasko Popa’s poems, which are some of the most chilling things ever written. A bunch of them are out in a new volume of translations by Morton Marcus, and I still love the old Anne Pennington and Charles Simic translations. I want to describe them to you but my throat is all stuck in my skin, I can’t say a thing about them. Maybe some part of me will sing them soon, from some part of the room that’s always behind me, and the song will call to you in an ugly shriek, you won’t be able to stay away from it.

Vasko Popa was born in Serbia in 1922. During WWII, he fought as a partisan and was held in a Nazi concentration camp. He never won a Nobel Prize, but there’s an award given out every year on his birthday, for some new Serbian poet, in the town of Vršac. He died when I was fifteen. Maybe later, when I come all the way out of this nightmare, I’ll quote him to you, with his words coming out of my mouth in the wrong language. Philomena makes me think of Echo. Maybe my nightmare was about these poems -- the Little Box sequence, or the Games sequence. Poetry isn’t as private as it seems. Each of us has holes and cracks that others can penetrate. Vasko Popa writes about this.

Other potential sources of my mysterious nightmare: Victorian vampire stories, which I’m reading because Michael Sims has edited a volume of them and I love Michael Sims; reading John Waters on the Manson clan and thinking about how ordinary people, outside of a war or a camp, sometimes go all Bacchae on each other and tear each other to shreds in ordinary living rooms or basements. A close friend is numbly moving through a tragedy. I love someone but won’t say it. I wonder if a poem can be a nightmare-poem and a love poem both at the same time. Popa writes some nightmare-poems about love, especially in the “Games” series. There’s “Seducer”:

One caresses the leg of a chair
Until the chair moves
And motions him coyly with her leg

Another kisses the keyhole
Keeps kissing it and how
Until the keyhole returns the kiss

A third one stands to the side
Watches the other two
And shakes and shakes his head

Until his head drops off

And then the next game is “Wedding”:

Each takes off his skin
Each exposes his constellation
Which has never seen the night

Each fills his skin with rocks
Starts dancing with it
By the light of his own stars

The one who doesn’t stop till dawn
The one who doesn’t blink or fall
He’s the one who earns his skin

(This game is rarely played)

And then next is a game called “The Rose Thieves,” where some people are thieves and other people open up the thieves’ chests -- “In some they find hearts/ In others so help me nothing,” and in one chest with a heart is the stolen rose. And then all the game-players take a break, but really none of them rest, one keeps re-locating his eyes all the time, putting them on his back and walking backwards, putting them on the soles of his feet and walking upside-down. Another turns into an ear, a third has uncovered all of his faces and keeps tossing them over the roof. Another stretches his view of things between his thumbs, and the final one tosses his head up into the air, “And catches it on his index finger/ Or doesn’t catch it at all.” And after that, the games in these poems get really disturbing, although not as scary as the first one, “Floornail.” And none of the Games poems are really as scary as “The Victims of the Little Box:”

You should have nothing to do
with the little box
even in your dreams

If you see her full of stars
You’ll wake up
Without heart or soul in your chest

If you slide your tongue
Into her keyhole
You’ll wake up with a hole in your forehead

If you rip her into pieces
with your teeth
You’ll get up with a square head

If you ever see her empty
You’ll wake up
With a belly full of mice and nails

If you ever have business in a dream
With the little box
You better not wake up

Maybe I tangled with the Little Box and never did wake up. Maybe I’m still dreaming now, and you are in my dream, and Vasko Popa’s poems are in your dream. Maybe I’m in hell, and you’re in my hell. Borges says: “What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible.” But, probably, I am in limbo. The human body is limbo. The Little Box is limbo, especially at the ending of that poem cycle, which is an ending and a beginning, just like the first sentence-last sentence of Finnegans Wake:

But none of the little boxes
Inside the little box in love with herself
Is the last one

Let’s see you find the world now

What do you do when you live in a nightmare? Well, you reread Vasko Popa, and you sing him back to yourself in the wrong language, even if it gives you more nightmares, I guess. I can’t think of anything better to do. Why would we want to read such a thing, though? A song of hell, a song of limbo, a song that shows us how hard it is to find the world, a song that traps us in the inarticulable? Why would we want to be reminded, to remind ourselves, that we are living on borrowed time? If, in fact, we are even living. If, in fact, we are even awake.

Borges had nightmares about mirrors and labyrinths. In the mirror dream, his reflection is wearing a mask. He’s afraid to pull it off, “afraid to see my real face, which I imagine to be hideous. There may be leprosy or evil or something more terrible than anything I am capable of imagining.” The teenage Michael Sims, after reading the ghost story “The Monkey’s Paw,” dreamed that his dead grandfather limped up the gravel road from their family cemetery in eastern Tennessee and tapped on his bedroom window: “He wanted me to join him. Of course he did; the dead always want us to join them. They frighten us because we know that someday we will.” The living terrify us too, of course, and we terrify ourselves. I wonder what kind of nightmares Popa had. Maybe he didn’t remember his dreams. The thing about nightmares is that they are all real.

Do we do art, make poems, to try to escape our nightmares? Or to try to remember them? Or to conquer the dreaming bodies, the waking bodies, of other people, to have that vampiric power, like John Henry Fuseli’s nightmare creature perched on the torso of a pale, sleeping maiden? Or to harm people? In her fabulous book on this subject, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock, Marina Warner talks about Goya’s gruesome painting of Saturn devouring one of his children. We have a terror of dying, of being chewed up, of being spit out, of being murdered, of having our blood sucked or finding our faces eaten by leprosy. But we also just have terror of nothing -- of things we can’t remember, of things we can’t allow ourselves to know, that “indefinite indescribable Terror” that Coleridge wrote about when he knew that his addiction had triumphed over his poetry, that his throat was all stuck in his skin, that he couldn’t sing right anymore. Maybe, since the world is a nightmare, since history is a nightmare, it is this suppression that art answers to and unseats. Warner mentions the rasas (“juices”, “essences”) of creative work that are laid out in the Nātyasāstra, an ancient Sanskrit book on dramatic theory: wonder, joy, sexual pleasure, pity, anguish, anger, terror, disgust, and laughter. Imagine the power of a work that has all of these components, that saves you and tortures you with each of their corresponding moods.


In his new book Role Models, John Waters has a chapter about his friendship with Manson Family murderer Leslie Van Houten, now in prison and sick with shock and shame about her inexplicable deeds. “I took a lot of LSD myself when I was young…” he writes. “[My friends and I] had a ‘family,’ too. But as nuts and angry as we were, would we have committed the atrocious crimes of my movies in real life if we hadn’t had the outlet of underground filmmaking?... My ‘family’ knew how to say no to me. Why couldn’t Leslie do the same in her distorted world?... I certainly knew that what Leslie had done was anything but ‘art.’”

We know the difference between art and horror, between the bhavas (moods) that correspond to the rasas -- between the astonishment we feel at reading Vasko Popa and the artless astonishment the world brings, between our disgust at a movie crime and our revulsion at a real murder -- right? Don’t we?
Waters is a devotee of indie pornographers Bobby Garcia, who’s recorded himself blowing an impressive number of straight-identified Marines, and David Hurles, a connoisseur of rough-trade gay-bashers. “Am I a pervert for loving [their] work?” he asks himself. “Well, yes, I guess. But a healthy one. I made friends with my neuroses through psychiatry. I believe in the talking cure and you should, too… feeling down can make you feel up if you’re the creative type… Use your insanity to get ahead.”

Role Models is an interesting exploration of the Freudian relationships between sex, art, and life, of why we do the things we do, of what’s batshit crazy and what isn’t, of how to make friends with ourselves, with our erotism and anguish and compulsions. In the final chapter, he invites us all to join his cult, but of course he won’t be attracting any real cult followers. He’ll spawn a bunch of psycho trailblazers, inspiring them to do their own work, to say no to the leader.

Then again, art-making is often compulsive, numbing, uncontrollable, springing from the severed tongue that’s writhing and muttering from somewhere over there on the floor. So, maybe being part of the Waters family would help, after all. He promises intense spiritual reading and LSD and magic prayer cloths, uniforms and new names, the performance of secret miracles. Even awful nightmare figures -- the kind that straddle your body like in that Fuseli painting -- are transformed into something pretty great: “I will make your sex life better by encouraging your fantasies. Believe in incubi? I do. Bisexual demons in male form who lie upon sleepers in the night and have sexual intercourse with them. No dating. No unsafe sex. No alimony. Just demon sex when you want it!”

Ted Hughes called Vasko Popa’s work “a Universe passing through a Universe,” which is true, but where are we? What are we doing? And are we going to wake up? “Some are nights others stars,” begins “Ashes”, the second-to-last poem in the Games sequence, and then the last night becomes both the star and the night: “It sets fire to itself/ Dances the black dance around itself.”

A curator asked Richard Tuttle, a favorite artist of John Waters, why he makes his works. Tuttle answered “with obvious clarity”: “So I won’t have to do them again.”

Marina Warner writes about Circe, whose most awesome power is that she can speak in a human voice. In Machiavelli, her tongue quivers like a snake between her beautiful teeth and lips. In Homer, after she turns Odysseus’s men into swine and then back into men, they come back taller and handsomer and younger than before. She’s a “feared and even derided witch, herself a figure of art, with her song, her voice, her sway over mutations, combinations, and metamorphoses that can challenge thought and make settled values twist and turn.”     

We’re the stars and the night, the dreamers and the dreamt, and maybe this is all a nightmare, a frightening, astonishing, disgusting process of voluntary enchantment. And maybe it is all a game, maybe it is all a poem. “We can draw two conclusions, at least tonight; later we can change our minds.” Says Borges at the conclusion of his lecture on nightmares. “The first is that dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression. They take a strangely dramatic form. We are… the theater, the spectators, the actors, the story. The second refers to the horror of nightmares. Our waking life abounds in terrible moments; we all know that there are moments in which reality overwhelms us… Nevertheless, these do not pertain to nightmares. The nightmare has a particular horror, and that horror may be expressed by any story.”

Maybe last night I wrote a poem in my sleep. Maybe I reread the poems of Vasko Popa, and felt love and mirth and sorrow and anger and energy and terror and disgust and astonishment. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles wrote a combined total of between two and three-hundred plays -- only thirty-three of which survived. So maybe last night I met these men in hell, I set fire to myself and danced around myself, and I read all of their missing tragedies. Maybe last night I played a game against tragedy that I lost, again, because I was the theater and the spectators and the actors and the story. Maybe I am exhausted. Maybe I’ll always be scared, confused about whether I’m alone or not.

The tenth game, “Leap Frog”:

Each is a stone on the other’s heart
Two stones like houses
Neither can budge under his stone

And both strain
To lift a finger
To click their tongue
To move their ears
At least to blink

Neither can budge under his stone

And both strain and strain
Exhaust themselves and fall asleep
And only in sleep can their hair stand up

(This game lasts a long time)