LANGUAGE AS A MEASURE OF THE WORLD
(“Pjena brzih oblaka”)
Boris Biletić is a complex poetic personality that we cannot meet every day. The same can be said about his poetry. This relationship between such an exceptional poet and his work also puts an emphasis on their place in the recent Croatian poetry he entered the early 1980s. It did not occur such a long time ago but, in this particular period, we had a chance of following the development of this extraordinary author who relied (in the best sense of the word, of course) on the experiences of modern European poetry, and whose opus does not only prove the high standard of his literary and linguistic culture but it also reveals his exquisite poetical talent and determination considering the established artistic criteria.
Biletić belongs to the Istrian literary circle but this is just a spatial indication, almost irrelevant in terms of this author’s significance and his real belonging to a wider cultural context where he originates from and where he now comes back as a fully formed poet. Indeed, he represents a generation which, in the mid-1980s, marked the definite quantitative weariness of the influential poetic wave that, in the early 1970s, started flooded the Yugoslav literatures, as these were called at that time, and proved all its authenticity and creative abundance in this prolonged rise. Of course, many things are much clearer today: this twenty-year-long period left no poetical school here but the trends were vivacious and specific; there were no charismatic names but there were many good poets.
As for quantity, it was perhaps the most abundant post-war period considering poetry which, due to its abundance in trends and tendencies, equally tempted readers and reviewers, as well as poets themselves, their authorial concepts and beliefs. Many trials turned out to have got lost in the culde-sac of quasi-avant-gardism, the avant-gardism which is relied on the shine of polish, on eccentricity and quick showbiz effects on the audience. This is a part of the general poetic destiny. Trendiness and modernism are always opposed to each other, in the constant and never- ending process of disagreement. Such a parallelism and separation were also supported by the poetry during the 1970s/the 1980s while, on the other side, we found quite understandably the poetry hanging on the subtlest but also the toughest poetical thread that is evenly interwoven and maintained by the primordial aspiration for freedom and beauty of form as well as almost utopian search for some hole in the immense metaphysical ice enabling us to slip off and dive into the depths of the unknown and unconceivable. For good, like a real seal.
Of course, provided that we do not understand the unknown and unconceivable just as the synonyms for that on the other side, as the modern civilisation, being displaced and dislocated, has also shown all the phantasmagoria and metaphysics of the world on this side, in its unique manner, decoded only by arts through the ceaseless sizing up and monitoring.
Following the same trace, Boris Biletić quite surely drew the two of his metaphysical circles concentrically spreading from their own poetical core towards some distant premonitions of the lasting and unconceivable. In its wave-like opening, one of the circles, narrower one, reveals us the complex inner personality of his poetical being while the other one seems to be the real measure of the world, according to the poet. It is language, a fully comprehensible labyrinth of essence, fossil and live substance of proto-Being, fossil and live substance of spirit.
In terms of sensibility, much closer to some previous poetic epochs and schools than to contemporary tendencies and endeavours, Biletić and his juvenile collection Zublja šutnje brought us a couple of chapters backwards, up to Expressionism, vaulted by Trakl’s subtle poetry which is undoubtedly so encouraging for the poet of dark sides of the world, the poet of melancholy and loneliness. Therefore, we are mentioning encouragement not influence, which is however more evident in Biletić’s next collection of poems Primorski nokturno. Zublja Šutnje is actually a print of the author’s inner restlessness which is merely softened by echoes of a soul, so kindred to himself. This work is entirely personal and, seen as a sort of experience, almost crucial for Biletić. Through his early verses, he found his own authentic poetical timbre but he also seems to have realised that you should run as fast as your legs can carry you from the two extremes that are disastrous to poetry: elementary spontaneity and emotional adulteration. Many poems in this collection, entitled very pathetically, were exhausted by both extremes but these were fortunately flooded by an abundance of beautiful verses as well as a couple of poems, whose value is anthological and from which all the distinctive verse-mongering of Biletić, so rare in our poetry these days, would soon spring up and crop up.
Zublja šutnje is an understated poetic enigma but it is still an enigma. It is a certain antechamber of a complex poetic labyrinth stretching from Primorski nokturna to Pjena brzih oblaka and his later verses, the labyrinth which is strangely rebuilt and constructed by rambling and mysterious outlines of one dark world as well as by seductive paths of language, words. The very phrase ‘flambeau of silence’ (zublja šutnje) is actually anti-ethic as zublja is the illuminating language, which discovers šutnja of the secret, dark, inner, inconceivable. The poet’s zublja šutnje is reflected in a dark mirror of soul, whose nooks in the semi-darkness reveal symbolic lineaments and signs aiming for clarity. ‘Tengono a la chiarità le cose oscure’, said Montale. Indeed, even poetry is not capable of resisting this primordial impulse. But in the case of modern poetry it seems that the crucial moment refers to the extent to which such an aspiration will be restrained, to the degree to which its tension and intensity will be kept without discontinuing communication.
From this point of view, we can freely claim that the poetic decoding of own worlds in the poetry of Biletić is achieved through an emphasised delayed action. This process becomes more complicated due to the complexity of experiences, entangled by abundant associations of literary, historical or mythological provenances, resembling some silver threads. Biletić is a poet-erudite who, starting from his quite spilled associations in the first poetry collection, has reached the very poetical quintessence in his most recent poems, which means the final condensation of verses as well as increasing multiplying of senses and meanings. The way in which to read them out must be the same, as well.
Being a prominent lyrist by nature, even in his softest and breeziest verses Biletić walks down the dark, shadowed side. The breath of black, mystical experience swamps his verses with some slight thrill at the realisation of released evil. Pandora’s box is still open. Chest, trunk made of ebony, box – specific symbols of hope but also of darkness, suspicion and fear, open slightly by themselves in his poetry from time to time, only just to invite hope to raise from the bottom with the help of glow of some forgotten tiny jewel. If it was no overstatement today, we could call him a cursed poet, taking into account what his poetry reflects. Of course, he is not as such, in terms of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but, in his own sense, he surely is. The distortion of the world, absence of harmony and equilibrium, disruption of proportions and inversion of perspective widening in the distance and overflowing into nothingness – doom the poet to loneliness and soliloquy. In one place in his collection Primorski nokturno he says:
Ceremonially in mornings
I thoroughly put myself to death
by looking at the mirror;
and like an octopus,
I put my arms and feelers down
among people whose slimy eyes
casually read my
distracted but complete
like a flower in the field,
I am the last one who shuts his petals
and absorbs the night
rejected by sunflowers.
If the world had the structure of language, and the language had the
structure of mind, the mind, along with its fullness and emptiness, was
almost nothing, offering no security to us.
This stanza from the poem significantly entitled (Form of the world / La forma del mondo), which is a specific counterpart to another Montale’s poem starting like this: ‘If God was language …’ (Language of God / La lingua di Dio ), somewhat also explains Biletić’s relation towards language as a measure of the world. Indeed, he perceives it as a relationship between light and dark but also as a relationship enabling senses to correspond to the reality anyhow. Grammar occupies the world. It is the framework and essence of everything. It is a possibility to bring chaos to meaning. Terminologically but also semantically, the language of grammar is more and more dominant in Biletić’s verses: ‘ Diggers of young / pearl-shells / live for a short time, like / phonemes, with their bodies / cutting phrases/ of heavy and dense / water…’ (Kopači bisernica); ‘barking is a stylem up to the sun’ (Veduta trga); ‘ … a trunk of darkness / thrown away through the window / into the text of a speaker’ (Lektira, zavjetni kovčeg); ‘always beyond the story / there is a laugh of a Castilian / fossil of meaning’ (Izabela); ‘Language remains in a root / in the last word / of army leader’ (Veslači); ’on the other side of script / séance’ (Anatomija, anatom i ja); ‘In the snow I’m crying / linguistically-creative (Dublin); ‘To the limit / of mark and sign’ (Orao); ‘the wind taking somebody’s vowels for a walk’ (U crnom); ‘Mahogany / and live shells / around wrong / adjectives …’ from the syntax / of awful millennium’ (Fotografije djetinjstva); ‘... Letters / whirl a leech. / Semantic leech / sucks, absorbs the sky ‘ (Brodimo)... (italicised by A. K.).
This concentration on language viewed by Biletić as a structure of the world has been favourable to an increasingly hermetic quality of his poetry but it is not hermetism in itself that is caused by the exotic or oneiric quality of poetic contents, as it happens in the case of Trakl, for instance. It is about something completely different this time. Language is an order. Ordering words in a poem means to create fascination. In ‘technological terms’, this is a procedure, totally different from Trakl’s one where fascination derives from expanding and mutual blending and transferring of almost allegorical visions and dreams. In Primorski nokturno where he is, to tell the truth, more and more sleepless, Biletić still sings about dream as a specific poetic code. However, this singing is not just the transcription of dream. Along with all its fascination, it takes a form of emphasised fullness, it is made meaningful by the word order, which stresses deliberateness of the fundamental sense and meaning of unrestrained and almost intentional visions, adding new meanings to it. Poem becomes logical, without any excessive and unnecessary elements. It is a pure creation as it is made to poet’s measure. This measure, as it usually happens with good poets, is however ascetic and demanding. It keeps any excessiveness back. It presses together all its literary connotations and appealing among lines or in lines themselves until it reaches the final pregnant polyvalence. Poem again seems to be impenetrable but it is just a complex labyrinth, and not some chaotically scattered meaningful brushwood.
In a way, we have entered the terminological space of Gottfried Benn’s artism. It is not a coincidence – Biletić also had to come to Benn’s absolute poem as he had crossed his own rambling poetic path with the traces of the most exquisite poets. However, let’s say it right now, if absolute poem, after being formulated by Benn, became the conscious ideal of many contemporary poets, it was and still is an extratemporal category after all. The theoretical formulation in itself could not affect its appearance. Absolute poem was earlier interpreted in different ways, as well, but the point was how to write it. Benn gave a name to it but never wrote it, just as many other poets had written it even before him. Obviously, the key to writing an absolute poem is not only in consciousness, critical control and formal aestheticism – let’s use Benn’s terms – but it is undoubtedly in something else, which he himself incidentally stated in Problems of Lyrics: ‘ … words have latent existence which impacts those who are adequately placed as a magic, enabling them to transfer the magic onwards. It seems to me that it is the last mystery in front of which our consciousness, always miserable, much analysed and broken only by occasional intoxications, senses its limits’.
Getting back to the poetry of Biletić, we would therefore say that, bringing language to the centre of his poetic attention, he still subordinated artism to the magic of words without discarding it at the same time. On the contrary, we are given the poetry which is familiar with pattern, poetry which is clear and pure but unrestrained in its arrival. In this sense, Biletić is closer to Ungaretti and Montale, the poets whose hermetism did not restrain the poetic magic, giving it freshness and intoxicating quality of the Mediterranean gentle breeze, instead.
Language is memory, so poem, even when it is made in Benn’s sense, is not and cannot be deprived of its own autonomy and almost insubordination. It is excellently supported by Biletić’s example. Aware of the role and meaning of fascination in the poetic decoding of the world, he searches for order but that one which is to be found in deeper, older layers of words. He invokes parallel worlds whose interrelations hide some universal secret, as well. Poet thus has a control over form. Absolute poem is absolute form, indeed, but as language is memory – it is also absolute contents, that always and irresistibly defies form, overflowing its edges. A particular form of language and, consequently, of poem, is merely a fixed moment, whereas the contents of language actually represents duration. So, the absolute quality of poem is nothing else but the elusive transcendent magic and poet is a sort of medium. This really sounds a bit spiritualistic but the history of literature, even the history of arts in general, taught us that – let’s paraphrase J. Aćin here – work can still know more than its author. If it was not so, Benn’s invocation of the South would sound more convincing and warmer although it could probably have never achieved the authentic Mediterraneanism found in the works by Ungaretti and Montale, previously mentioned in this text. The Mediterraneanism they did not have to pretend about nor to invoke. Making the poem about the South, Benn was preparing the formula where the South was just a word whose verified meaning and form are co-existensive but, out of there, no magic, colourful charm is seething. Benn was no medium for the South.
The poet of anachoretic personality, Boris Biletić certainly has the qualities of poetic medium, the qualities he is so capable of using. In his best poems, he has achieved the yearned-after identity of poet and language, soul and spirit, the identity of the two of his metaphysical circles. Poet in himself has reached poem. Let it be so. He must not surpass it, though.