Saturday, May 28, 2011

My Grandfather: Vesna Parun

My grandfather sits in front of the house and leaves fall.

He looks at the figs that dry on the stone,

while the sun, very orange, vanishes behind the small vineyards

I remember from childhood.

The voice of my grandfather is golden, like the melody of an old clock,

and his dialect is rich, filled with restlessness.

The legend of “Seven Lean Years” follows right after the “Our Father,” short and eternal.

One day, there was no more fishing.

Now, there is war.

The enemy surrounds the port for miles around.

The whole tiny island trembles in eclipse.

All her sons disappeared in search of war wages—

a long time ago.



They’ll board them next for Japan.

It’s possible they’ll stay forever with their heads among the bamboo.

This is the second winter that they’ve marched non-stop.

Even the fish sound gloomy in their chase.

One grandson is fair and good, yet, we’ll find him in the snow one day

when the mountains are tired.

The girls sing as they prepare the picnic soup.

The children squat on the floor, very frightened

of the boots of the elegant old man.

One mother thinks of the sons and father who became a Malayan.

Strange, how this family has been scattered over four continents.

These big brawny people sound like children in their letters.

My grandfather stares at the red sun in the vineyard,

worn to silence, because death is near—old fisherman of the sea.

Foreign greed; strange hunger. Freedom is a bit of breadcrust.

Ah, tell the earth that watermills should run faster!

A storm took away leaves; whatever’s right shall be.

So, the young boys die, and the old men warm up their sorrows,

staring at the horizon.

Translated by Ivana Spalatin and Daniela Gioseffi

Note: I'd never heard of Vesna Parun until a couple of weeks ago when I read some of her poems in Esperanto translation. She was a very well known Croatian poet for much of the past century until her death last fall. She's often compared to Anna Akhmatova in what I've been able to read about her.

Some of her poetry deals with war. This one is on a subject that doesn't get discussed in the U.S. much these days, the wider meaning of war for the families and communities not directly involved. Here it's mostly rote repetitions of conventional civic religion, propaganda for militarism.

Finding out about major writers who wrote in languages with a relatively smaller number of speakers is always interesting, it makes you realize that it's not all about English and other "major" languages and what those cultures and traditions carry. And it makes you wonder what other thoughts you don't have access to, worlds that are secret to you.

Reading a poet in translation makes you wonder how much of what you're reading is the original poets thinking and how much of it is the art of the translator but the inspiration for the end result must have been present in the poem being translated. It makes you wish you had direct access but it's impossible to read every language and it's impossible to have the same kind of experience as someone who grew up learning the language and its culture. It would be a lot harder to go to war against them, if you could do that. Though the Balkan wars of the 1990s prove that even that's not enough when people are sold the lies of nationalism. Which is growing more dangerous here in the United States as well. Memorial day carries dangers due to its purpose in these days of corporate government.

posted by Anthony McCarthy