Two Slovenian Poems Found in an Abandoned House
"Nevarna basen" and "Misel" by Benjamin Gracer
In west Slovenia, the Dinaric alps separate the green Ljubljana basin from the dry Obalno-kraška region. Curiosity brought us here, atop a terraced hill overlooking the city of Koper and the Adriatic sea. We were driving a windy road, through villages that got smaller and smaller until they almost disappeared: an isolated house, a forgotten shed. A graveyard marked the end of the inhabited part of town. Only a few more twists and turns up the hill and we arrived at our final destination: an abandoned village.
Most of its buildings, made of rough, uneven stones, with roofs of clay tile, looked like a good wind would push them over. Overgrown bushes blocked rotting doors and boarded windows; glass tinkled underfoot as we stepped around their thorns. Wild grape-vines, trying to escape the mess, sprawled up and across the roofs. Inside, the floorboards whinged beneath our steps, occasionally disappearing into the black hole of a sudden basement.
One building still looked somewhat livable, but all of its entry-points were locked, save a window held shut from the outside by a log propped against its shutters. I opened them and peeked within.
The room was overflowing with junk: empty drawers, dusty magazines, smashed-up furniture, wobbly chairs—and their severed chair-legs—sagging mattresses, chipped glasses, crushed boxes. It was hard to even see the floor. Worst of all, I had awoken a family of bats, the only inhabitants remaining in this village. Now they were flying around all the rooms of the house.
I hurled myself through the window and walked through the house in a low crouch, my jacket pulled over my head in an attempt to ignore the 6 or 7 bats whirling above me. In the hallway, I noticed a crate of wine bottles, most of them unlabelled, but one from 2007. That seemed to agree with a plaque outside which noted the death of the town’s last resident in that same year.
In a musty back-room, I finally managed to shut out the bats, and got a chance to properly sift through some of the junk. A bright little tea-set of Yugoslav porcelain. A sewing machine. A winter jacket. A couch with no feet. An off-cream-coloured CRT monitor. A dot matrix printer. A box of magazines.
One of them caught my eye. It was an edition of some magazine called “Borec”, from 1973, with a group of soldiers playing bugles on its cover. I flipped through its pages and took some photos of what appeared to be poems for later analysis, assuming I ever made it out of the dark lair of angry bats; if I died, at least it was in the service of Slovenian literature.
I know almost nothing about this language, but a mixture of translation tools, dictionaries, and friendly Slovenians helped me to prepare English versions of my two favourite poems, both by Benjamin Gracer. Thanks are especially due to Bojana Žigon and her family.
Živimo v grmadah cvetja, v morju blata — z večnim šepetom konca. V sebi nosimo ogenj v zublijh: LJUBEZNI SOVRASTVA In z njim upepeljamo sebe in druge — kakor vulkani, ki bruhajo. . .
We live in a bundle of flowers, in a sea of mud — with the eternal whisper of the end. We carry fire within us in embers: LOVE HATE And with it we cremate ourselves and each other — like erupting volcanoes. . .
The speaker seems to be addressing his (or her?) beloved. Their relationship lives in “a bundle of flowers”, “v grmadah cvetja.” The exact word for bundle, “grmadah”, can literally mean “pyre”, as in, a bundle of things to be set on fire.
Hate and love inevitably follow each other. The lovers carry a fire within them, awaiting the moment it will set them aflame. This is a fire that has burned before, but it did not burn itself out entirely. Now it lies dormant, “v zublijh”—“in embers”. When it catches again—and it will catch again—it will utterly consume them. Their love won’t survive.
Volkovi spet zganjajo ovčice v svojo smrtno stajo. Počasi z grmečimi plohami »velikih besed« Z odprtimi gobci nabrušenih zob, misleč, da s fantazijo sam padel jim v šape bo svet, da ovčice se same bodo poklale kot doslej so to znale Toda kaj če je staja že trhla in se v gneči spoznanj razleti: potem vam volkovi z milijoni rešitve več ni. . .
A Dangerous Tale
Wolves they are driving the sheep again to their deathplace. Each one stands at his door. Slowly, with big thunderous words their mouths filled with sharp teeth, they fantasize how the world will fall into their paws. Yes, the sheep will slaughter themselves like they’ve always done. But what if the stable has already broken and bursts open in the density of their realization? Even the wolves, with their million solutions, would not be able to stop them. . .
This is a more ominous poem, and much harder to translate. You can see that the English version doesn’t have the same terseness and tenseness as the original. Nonetheless, this is an old fable in which the sheep are deceived by the wolves, who lead them to their death. The word “nevarna” (dangerous) takes on a curious significance: glossed literally, it means “without safety” or “not safe”—as though danger were the default state of being.
The wolves delight in their power. They fantasize about how their victims are going to walk themselves to the place where they will die (“v svojo smrtno stajo”). This has already happened before; it is the nature of sheep to be helpless.
But then the poem turns. The fantasy bursts. What if the door of the pen (“staja”, literally “stable”) is already broken? What if the sheep aren’t doomed, aren’t merely destined to be led to their own death?
The word for broken, “trhla”, means something like “decayed”, “rotten”, “fallen apart”. The walls that kept the sheep locked up were not as strong as they seemed. It’s hard not to read this as a socialist parable: if only the people, the workers, knew the fragility of their society, they would surge forth in the realization, breaking the chains that enslaved them, overpowering the wolves that deceived them, winning the freedom they were long denied. But the tale’s ending is ambiguous: will the final triumph be the sheep’s—or the wolf’s?