The Golden Boat by Srečko Kosovel

According to the dust jacket, Srečko Kosovel is ‘often called the Slovene Rimbaud’.* Mainly, as far as I can gather, because he wrote all his poetry very young; not, like Rimbaud, because he decided to run off and do something else, but because he died at 22.

I found The Golden Boat: Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel while I was browsing through the Salt website, looking for something I could buy to support their ‘Just One Book’ campaign. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy it as my book from Slovenia for the Read The World challenge. As a point of geographical and historical pedantry, Kosovel wasn’t actually born in Slovenia. As far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, Slovenia never existed as an independent nation before June 1991, so anyone born in Slovenia is still under 18 today. Kosovel was born in 1904 in Austria-Hungary and died in 1926 in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia three years later).

EDIT — Just to add to the historico-geographical confusion: Tom points out in the comments that Kosovel’s home town was in the part of modern Slovenia that was annexed by Italy after WWI. So he actually died in Italy.

Kosovel wrote in free verse from the start, and if I’ve understood the introduction correctly, he was the first person to do so in Slovenian. But in subject matter and language, as far as one can tell in translation, the early poems are fairly conventional: low-key, atmospheric lyrics which are rooted in the Slovenian landscape, and particularly the Karst,† a rugged limestone plateau where a wind called the burja blows down from the Alps. I rather liked this early work, but I can see that if he had died even younger and these were the only poems that survived, he might not seem to be a particularly significant poet.

On a Grey Morning

On a grey morning
I walk the streets downtown,
the fog cuts into my burning eyes,
it cuts into my throat,
and is cold around my heart.

Then, from the bakeries,
the smell of fresh rye bread,
but the bakeries are still dark,
the street silent, nobody yet around
and I feel tight in my soul.

It is the memory of the Karst:
a village strewn among the rocks
that this black bread reminds me of,
this healthy scent from the bakeries
that smells so much like a caress.

Later his poetry became more avant-garde. He called himself a Constructivist, although apparently the connection with Russian Constructivism is not especially close.‡ Whatever the terminology, he is certainly part of the broader movement of European modernism, of Dada and Surrealism and Futurism and God knows what else. The poems become more fragmented, more opaque, more aggressive, there are sprinklings of mathematical symbols and typographical experimentation with different sized text and vertical text. There is some continuity of theme; the night and moonlight which are such a feature of the Karst poems are still constantly present, the Karst landscape and the burja still appear from time to time. But the poems become wider-ranging, more political. The death of Europe becomes a recurring theme, no doubt a response to having lived through the First World War: Kosovel was too young to fight, but he didn’t have to go war because the war came to him, or the town where he lived as a teenager.

Delirium

A martyrdom of thoughts.
Blue sea.
Grey prison.
A soldier is impaling
hopeless thoughts
on his bayonet
in front of the window

Pardon me. ‘O, nothing.’
Sigaretta.
Eine Edison.

I hear the blue sea
butting monotonously
into my skull

And another example:

The Red Rocket

—–I am a red rocket, I ignite
myself and burn and fade out.
—–Yes, I in the red vestments!
—–I with the red heart!
—–I with the red blood!
—–I am escaping tirelessly, as if
I alone must reach fulfilment.
—–And the more I escape, the more I burn.
—–And the more I burn, the more I suffer.
—–And the more I suffer, the faster I fade out.
—–O, I, who want to live forever. And
I go, a red man, over a green field;
above me, over the azure lake of silence,
clouds of iron, o, but I go,
I go, a red man!
—–Everywhere is silence: in the fields, in the sky,
in the clouds, I’m the only one escaping, burning
with my scalding fire and
I can’t reach the silence.

I enjoyed the poems enough, and found them interesting enough, to be glad I bought the book, though I don’t know that many of them will really stay with me. As ever with poetry in translation, you never quite know what you’re missing, although at least with free verse you don’t have the added complication of the translator having to produce some kind of rhyme and metre in the English. Not that I have any reason to doubt the merits of this translation, by Bert Pribac and David Brooks ‘with the assistance of Teja Brooks Pribac’; I just have doubts about the whole exercise of translating poetry. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

*Not, as I keep hearing inside my head, the Slitheen Rambo. Though poetry written by the Slitheen Rambo might be quite interesting, as a piece of xenoanthropology if nothing else.

† Or indeed Kras. Rather like the book about Cyprus I was reading the other day, this is one of those regions where everywhere has several different names in different languages. The translators use Karst, the Germanised form of the name, perhaps for its associations with the kind of geological landscape that is named after it.

‡ I’m just repeating what it says in the introduction at this point. I don’t know enough about Constructivism or its relationship with the many other isms of the time to make that judgement.

» The photo is Škocjan, © inyucho and used under a CC attribution licence. inyucho says: ‘A large collapsed doline, typical for the Kras region from which the term “karst” is derived.’

4 Comments

  1. 16 June 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    If the photo is Kosovel’s landscape, it is quite daunting.

  2. Harry
    17 June 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Dramatic, isn’t it. I think it’s probably unusually dramatic even for the region, but the general rocky hilliness is probably about right.

  3. tom
    25 February 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Historically Kosevel died in Italy, because Sesana was at that time italian state

  4. Harry
    25 February 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Oh, OK, my mistake. Thanks for the correction :)

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