Friday, September 24, 2004

---> CROATIAN PORTRAITS: VIKTOR VIDA

This essay first appeared in the book "Hrvatski Portreti" – (Croatian Portraits) published by Hrvatska Revija in Switzerland (Book Eleven - Munich - Barcelona, 1973, edited by Lucijan Kordic and Jure Petricevic; translation - Vicko Rendic and Jacques Perret).

The book "Hrvatski Portreti" is now available on this website.

CROATIAN PORTRAITS: VIKTOR VIDA

VIKTOR VIDA: HIS POETIC VISION


By Lucijan Kordic



"Dead poets are not really dead,

They live on...

deep in the subconscious soil."


Viktor Vida



In that deeply indented bay on the romantic promontory of south Croatia, Boka Kotorska, the erstwhile gateway to the Red Croatia, Viktor Vida was born in Kotor in 1913, poet of his own destiny and recorder of the vicissitudes that beset the life of political exile. Vida is the poet of the Croatian exodus following World War II. In it and through it he encountered his human and poetical maturity and left behind his tragic grave as a symbol of the harsh destiny of a subjugated nation.

Since the distant Turkish conquests of the 15th century and then through the Austro-Hungarian oppression and exploitation to the fanatically anti-Croatian tyrannies of both Yugoslavias (that of the monarchy and that of Communism, both Serbian oligarchies), Croatian people became a nation of fugitives, migrants and exiles, driven to emigrate in the first place by a brutal political system and ruthless economic exploitation. In a huge mass movement two million people emigrated from the Adriatic shores to places as far away as New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego, to the shimmering plains of Argentina on the Atlantic shores which in the difficult days of 1948 kindly granted asylum to the Croatian poet Vida.

The populous city of Buenos Aires became Vida’s second home in the second half of his life. Finally he settled down there on Avenida Alvarez Thomas where grow the "legendary jacaranda trees – clothed in blossoms of a gentle violet hue". In the first years of exile in that new country, in a foreign environment, his life was not very easy. He was confronted with the struggle for bare existence. Therefore it is no wonder that the poet drew from the resources of his pat happiness, from his youth, continually harking back in fantasy to his native land: Boka Kotorska, which he could not forget, for which nothing compensated. In effect the private life and "Weltanschauung" of his youth, that nexus of mind and body, became of an univocally rich and charming fountain which nurtured his life and poetry in exile.

The poet is full of overt pride for his birthplace and in a moment of inspiration confessed openly: "I was born in Kotor, a brown fortress, but when they ask me for my birthplace, as fingers seeking and plucking the loveliest flower, my soul chooses Perast – my place of birth was nought to envy white Greece where twins lead horses by the castle".

The birthplace of Viktor Vida is full of charm and enchantment. "Belfries, houses, brambles and cultivated gardens – Out of mounds of shells peer sprays of rosemary which decorate the window sills – The sea resounds which the shrill cry of the wagtail and the pine, its needles tipped with gold. The sea is a mirror. In it one can see, peering between the algae, polyps and molluscs".

The Dalmatian littoral and the Mediterranean panorama or still nearer environment that creates and produces the inlet of Boka Kotorska is a diamond mine and heritage in which the entire universe of Vida’s poetry lives. Without such an environment it would be difficult to produce such a varied and original poetry. Boka’s navy is famous for its long tradition. Its people are mariners who sailed all over the world, but returned to their homes. Vida’s imagination was fraught with the poetry of life on the sea. With the acquaintances he had learned to play the gay blade, assuming the role of Boka’s mariners and admirals. In the meantime he was driven across the sea by the apocalyptic gale unleashed by the war, unwilling navigator and traveller. Due to this he went every day back in mind and spirit to this forefathers, in the abandoned courtyards back home where nature’s chimes echo and the nymphs still recline and chant. In his first poem "Voyagers from Boka" (1932) and "Boka"(1933) the attachment to that piece of native soil is so evident that it could never wither as long as there was life. His two collections of poems "The universe of the person" (1951), "Victims of the times" (1956) and his inspirational works to the last evidence the attachment to his native place found in Vida’s poetical verse (1). In his last poetical works "Metamorphoses of J. R. Jimenez" (1960) and as in a transformation of his spirit he harkened back to episodes in his boyhood, in his native surroundings.

"Free from bread, from the whip and the frontier

I go ever and anon to the Mediterranean

In the radiant dominion

Of the cricket and wagtail."


The poet makes a nostalgic return to his home in the spirit of his ancestral traditions. He expresses this very enthusiastically and gives free rein to his fantasy in describing it: "Behind the doors of a corridor, I go recklessly in silence before a harnessed cloud of glass, those immobile blue spheres around which gyres a seagull observing my movements with a beady eye".

The Adriatic-Mediterranean environment is the focus of Vida’s poetical universe. The Mediterranean represents to Vida the feeling for life, the substance of poetry and the panorama embracing all life. He lived as a citizen of the world caught in the tide of emigration. But nonetheless he is constantly fixed on the narrower ambit of his Dalmatian homeland. In it he sails far over the seas. The sea with its Adriatic aquarelle is for him the correlation between his poetry and his actual experience. All his poetic symbols, images and fantasies have been drawn from those areas, from his childhood and the Mediterranean outlook formed in his youth: "How much of the sea does the small casement overlook." (Windows on the sea) The poet himself wonders and to him only a small inset of that sea is enough to hear "the shriek of the seagulls, cry of the Mediterranean." He remembers unfailingly and with particular reverence how he was "on that sea over which the sun passes, on fragments of glass, his mother rocking him." He wishes to remain forever in those horizons…"Let me remain alone among the algae." Vida’s very vocabulary issues out of that Mediterranean panorama: minerals, aquarium, calcium, phosphorus, heather, agaves, algae, lizards, swallows and seagulls. The gamut of Vida’s poetic expression is imbued with the sea and the salt, with all the prisms and colour of light. As a child and high school boy he grew up and blossomed in those surroundings. Although he completed his further education in Zagreb and became professor of South Slavic literatures, it did not deter him at all from his primary purpose of being a classical Mediterranean poet. Orienting himself along the lines he created a way of life to go with his poetry: "On the sea was I born, but I like Zagreb with the moon on the Cmork." (Moon and Machinery)

The reality of modern poetry, as also the modernity of Vida’s verse, will not prevent the historian of literature from ranking him in his own way among the classical poets who in the genres of modern poetry have found their own particular classicism based on the culture of the past and on the feeling for nature containing in itself the ideal of artistic finesse and clarity of though. The very association of ideas and poetical elements are predominantly classical. In his poetry the Dioscuri and the Minotaur, Adronicus and Palmyra still move; Odysseus and Electra are still alive. The water clock chimes in the labyrinth of time; out of the wisps of fog on the sea loom Diana and Medusa. In order to see how powerfully and anciently the classical world breathes through and permeates the poetry of Vida it is enough to approach the gates of his "Hortus conclusus", "Ithaka" and "Recollections upon Dalmatia". It would be hard to find a poet – not only in Croatia but also even in Europe who belongs to the school of modern poetry while at the same time using so preponderantly the techniques of pure classical poetry. The only poetical inspiration from which Vida drew he conceived of in classical terms. That phenomenon is for him some kind of "Archangel Michael" who "touches the forehead as some down from the firebird, bringing noble verses." For the poet Vida poetry represents some mysterious, inconceivable drama. He classifies and ranks modestly with all classical refinements in a cosmic relief "in which chime the hours of happiness." That cosmos is "the work of the Great Poet who succeeded in reconciling the spirit of geometry with the spirit of finesse." Vida himself considered the mission of the poet grandiose. "Before the poet the earth was deserted." Later he says "I would not give anything for it". About himself he says:

"Here, dear Lord, I am born to blossom

With the heritage of this azure earth

Encircled by icy whales." (New World)


Vida was very familiar with Romance literatures and languages, particularly Italian and Spanish literatures. Nonetheless his poetical world is neither Jimenez nor Lorca, neither Urgaretti nor Quasimodo whom he translated and particularly liked. He was not a Southern Mediterranean. Rather by his poetical character he was paradoxically nearer to the Northern European represented by Rilke and Eliot. He translated Rilke and read the English poets while still a young student strolling through Tuskanac Park and forming his poetical vision. About his poetry the poet himself says, "He succeeded in creating his won style". That poetical style results from his total poetical work, which it might be possible to define as new specimens passed through the mill of Vida’s poetical spirit. That intricate and happily created literary amalgam, which in the case of Vida represents his own poetry, combines in like measure classical dithyrambs with the modern versatility of poetical language. He calls "his preceptors in poetry" Matos and Wiesner. In the meantime no matter how much he resembles them in his poems "Caravan", "Wicked mannequin" and "Fireworks", he nonetheless differs form them as is revealed in the poems "Recollections upon Europe", "Harlem Nights" and "Three Stones or Night of Love".

When Vida wrote the poems "Universe of the Person" or "Captive of Time" – it was not poetry of a universal scope or of one universal world. Above all it did not contain the dimensions of unity of time. Vida’s poetry is very intimate and personal. It is a spark and an echo of his personal universe of feelings experienced in a definite time and place. With all these shortcomings it does not mean that it could not become a universal poetry for all. The poet himself is the focus of poetical experience, of his aspirations and disappointments and of his love. According to this, his poetry could be called "centrifugal" because in the first place it expresses the personal experience of the poet within the scope of his life. But his poetry is at the same time objective because is stems from objective circumstances which have become the substratum of poetical personality itself. Moreover it is concrete, born of everyday life, events and feelings and from dreams themselves, which more often have significance exclusively for the poet. "All those useless objects in the intimacy of one apartment to which the artist’s presence imposes a particular impression." These make up quite a few of his poems, converted by the spark of his poetic genius into a subtle, artistic and highly creative product.

Vida is a poet-novelist. In his poetry he does not speak with the language of contemporary abstract art, but with the language of the story anecdote. All modern poetry tends in the direction of the pithy adjectival phrase, of brevity of content and imagery. Vida indeed moves wholly in the field of modernity, but in the direction of another paradox. He employs freely the poetical novel. He is very interested in the drama of events out of which he takes and analyses entire portions to ten elaborate them in detail in his poetry. Even the poems containing a high proportion of abstract expression have in them just such a characteristic feature. Typical poems of this sort are "Biographical Note", "The Iron Curtain" and "In a Baroque Niche". He is at the same time a poet-miniaturist who with small jewels creates diminutive cameos of brief and pithy expression, such as "Eternity", "The First Dusk", "The Call" and "The Arcade". Here the poet emphatically represents himself as a brilliant classical and at the same time modern rhapsodist who with the enchantment of his verse weaves his miniature tapestry.

One significant part of Vida’s poetry carries explicit patriotic meaning, whether by its localization, content or patriotic accents that can be extraordinarily dramatic and ardent. For the poet Vida, Croatia is something more than the earth, than a national or geographical name. It is the idea and mission, entailing one inconceivable and tragic destiny.

"Croats are – he writes in ‘Spiritual Croatia’ – an ancient folk and as such experience the feeling of injustice as a deep and exemplary distress of the soul…from this stems her eternal agony… I imagine the Croatian land as a white fortress high on a glacier beneath which mists roll and fiery dragons hiss. Here is then Croatia several miles above the earth in elevated spheres. It reigns above the clouds with a hoary smile and white roses all around…"

So much the more in the contemporary world is such a pure and genuine idea and mission of Croatia necessary. For according to the poet "over the great spaces of the globe brute force rules and diplomacy is the teacher of insincerity." In the "The Disbanded Army" evokes the Croatian disaster and tragedy of Bleiburg. And in the poem "European October", he celebrates the Hungarian uprising and its warriors and freedom fighters in 1956. He himself makes his vow about his life and poetry:

"Freedom, I like you as bread

Freedom, I like you as a star and bird

Freedom, I like you as a beloved dream."

(Freedom)


His cult of freedom grew to such an extent that the voluntarily ranked himself among the conspirators and warriors whose destiny is clearly determined and sealed. "Never will I surrender – In the fight I will fall" (Warrior’s Destiny).

Vida could be considered without hesitation as a religious poet. It would be hard to find a poet of his generation and calibre who was so deeply and intricately connected with the ideas of deity and the sacrosanctity of human life. His poetical piety is not so obvious and forceful, being neither official nor traditional, but rather a personal and composite part of his poetical élan. In his religious poems – although in essence none of them were created with this purpose in mind – there are some mystical accents. This is all the more significant because when Vida was a student he belonged to the left although he came from a very religious Catholic background. In this respect his emigration and its variety of experiences enabled him to develop his poetical talent to the full and to preserve his original love for his fatherland. The scope of his religious comprehension underwent a change. His poems are the most authentic attestations of these changes. With his religious enthusiasm he traverses the whole spectrum of life’s reality. He descends to the miner in the mine, among machines and mechanics praising God who "with the fire of his heart melts the glacier of indifference"(Mine). God is present everywhere even in the most hushed life, in all things for which "the Almighty with his finger describes the limits" (Hushed Life). And when poverty looms over the earth and darkness descends then the poet cries out to his God…"invisible, obscure, immortal one who is hidden behind the architrave" to sculpture "a spark of light." There are moments when the poet finally feels concretely God’s presence reflected as in a mirror"(Burning Bush). Vida feels the need for a single spiritual culmination. In the poem "The Ladder" he states his case with the following symbolism: "Last night I dreamt of Jacob’s ladder rising out of the shrubs in the darkness. Those shrubs were my heart." Here the culminating point of his religious conception and enthusiasm has been reached. The piety of Vida from time to time takes the form of the ardent monastic mystic. St. Francis is particularly near to him and he recurs time and again to the image of the saint. "Umbria, sacred Umbria, Franciscan, bluish in the distance (Autumn in Umbria). With Vida’s tragic death his "summa poetica" comes to an end, just at the time when on the soil of the fatherland new movements, new lights on the cultural and literary horizons began to emerge.

Vida was not only a poet but also a very prominent prose writer and essayist of incontestable quality. In poetry he was for the most part an optimist despite personal setbacks and moments of grave doubt. He was a "bon viveur", full of effusive charm who nevertheless by a grey autumn morning disappeared under the wheels of a running locomotive – perhaps for the reason that everyone has "his particular death" (Rilke). And often it is enough that only one bolt in the motor of one’s life bursts loose…and the motor stops forever. Or perhaps that bloody death was the fatal reward of the poet’s unlimited sensitivity. At the appointed time he was unable to carry the world on his shoulders. This is not the first time a Croatian writer died far from his people. For Croats are scattered all over the globe. In 1910 Janko Polic Kamov died in Barcelona. Ljubo Wiesner, "a typical scion of Zagreb" died in Rome in 1951. Srecko Karaman was buried in Buenos Aires in 1964 while Fran Mazuranic, a romantic son of Croatia, surpassed all in his sufferings and death in exile. So the exodus of immigrants from Croatia included its poets as well. The hard lot of the exile was not spared them. These Croatian poets represented themselves as the voice of their nation’s higher life, as heralds of its faith in it own ideals. Trumpeters of our national identity throughout the continents they proclaimed that word which we designate by the magic name of freedom.

In that gallery of immortal Croatian bards, seers and prophets of the nation, of messengers of the enslavement of the motherland, belongs also this Apolline victim on his Parnassian height. This religious poet issued forth from the sunny soil of Dalmatian Croatia at Boka Kotorska – the poet Viktor Vida on whose grave in Buenos Aires, in the Chacarita cemetery, is engraved the inscription: "Ars longs, vita brevis" (2). That is, above the exhumed and premature grave rises the inextinguished beacon of his ineradicable and irresistible poetical words.




SPIRITUAL CROATIA

All the earthly experiences undergone by Croatia reflect on her own significance. Her true national character corresponds more to the formations, which gleam at us from the depths of eternity, as stalagmites in bluish caves, the deposits of geological millennia, than to the political expediencies of empirical reality.

She became acquainted with politics "par excellence" at an early age, in the Machiavellian world of Byzantine treachery. Now she is entangled like a Cinderella in a web of ugly intrigue trammelled by her envious sisters. As long as these suppress her nationhood and distort it in false reflections her name will lurk in the subconscious of this world’s mighty potentates, like a long repressed guilt, which an enlightened perspicacity might remove.

Croats are an ancient folk and as such experience the feeling of injustice as a deep, exemplary distress of the soul. On this earth justice is persecuted and Croatia, although desirous of life even in this profane world, finds it difficult to renounce that tenet whereby she is all that she is. In her eternal agony she stands in constant tension between the extremes of Caesar’s claims and those of the spirit.

She was always waiting for the moment when the Lamb grazing among the lilies would appear out of the wondrous portents in the sky rather than looking out fro her mines, arable lands and fields of golden wheat.

We are in a hurry, indeed, but what does a handful of centuries mean for her?

In the end justice must triumph at last, when the hawthorn stake is planted in the vampire’s burial mound. Then the jewels of her diadem will sparkle as a tear of consolation over the heads of her children and her martyrs.

So the mother Helena through her goatskin discovered the beauty of her soul when with feeble hands she questioned the orphan, despising the luxury of the palaces crumbling and decaying as heaps of sand.

I imagine the land of Croatia as a white fortress high on a glacier beneath which mists roll and fiery dragons hiss. The mire bubbles in the ravines and furrows, yet will never defile the holy threshold of the fatherland.

Here, then is Croatia several miles above the earth in elevated spheres. It reigns above the clouds with a hoary smile and white roses all around, as a beautiful woman in the apotheosis and quintessence of light and sound.

In her hands a sceptre; her locks of hair the silvery moon. Deep down below her the iron raven crows late in the centuries.

Viktor Vida

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FOOTNOTES:

  1. All Vida’s poems are posthumously published in the book Sabrane pjesme (Collected Poems). Edited by Vinko Nikolic, Introduction by Ivo Lendic, Knjiznica Hrvatske revije, Buenos Aires, 1962.
  2. According to the regulations pertaining to cemeteries the grave of Viktor Vida was exhumed on December 6th, 1965 in the presence of Vinko Nikolic. The remains according to the explicit wish of Vida’s widow were cremated. His ashes are now preserved in Gallery #17, row 1, Chacarita, Buenos Aires. See Vinko Nikolic, Before the Doors of the Fatherland, v. 1, Buenos Aires, 1966, p. 224.


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