| Diwan Special issue|

Marko Vešović

Born in 1945 in Pape (Montenegro), lives in Sarajevo (B&H).

CHRIST THE TRAFFIC POLICEMAN
(analysis of the poem by Radovan Zogović)

We will examine a satirical poem, which are not very frequent in ”The Articulated Word”, because it possesses a lightness of expression and playful wording that are met in this book only from time to time, but the poem is nevertheless, deeply Zogovićian: All roads lead, each screaming to race with the other from west to west, from north to north Along them go – not go, drive lying down

foreign currency pets, foreign-currented darlings.

With powdered milk, with canned fruit starch.

All they are – all-satisfied with themselves.

That region where they drive? All those meadows? So lively? –

The region is – before them – to unravel like a carpet!

They are to come, to raise dust or garbage,

to speed – to be comets through the trees!

Christ is to stand – a traffic policeman at the cross-roads,

to be illuminated, to open the region when they enter.

Bare-limbed, without a tunic, without even the white sleeves, with sways of his wreath – he greets, wishes health.

And as if crucified, and cut of like a coach,

he gives, gives directions – without rest and without relief.

And dusty, snuffed, when there’s a quiet pause,

he closes his eyes, frowns – to inhale and sneeze out.

This is the second section of the poem ”Seriously Funny Variations with Jesus” that is among the best offered by ”The Articulated Word” – the first section is somewhat weaker than the second – but it is, without a doubt, a successful poem that has gone by unnoticed by critics, probably because the poet in it, while talking about Jesus in a ”seriously funny” way, which is quite a ”touchy” matter, at the same time ridicules a country in the Balkans, today a former country, all of whose ”roads” led – not to Rome, as the medieval saying goes, but ”from west to west, from north to north”, a country that, therefore, lacked two of the four known world directions, and this image of the world shifted by humour makes up the framework that partly motivates the shifting of viewpoints and lexical meanings in most of the statements in this poem. We see, actually, that it is a country where ”all roads” led from the West to the West (because the north is also the West, here); this is a political poem, which does not preclude it from being truthful, because the Aesopian duality and the humorous playfulness of language (a playfulness that is implied right away by the anagram rhyme: ”reve” - ”sjever”1), prevent it from remaining linear in meaning and flat.

From the very beginning, there are difficulties in understanding the explicit meaning of the lines, because what does the expression ”all roads lead” mean, and why is each of them ”screaiming”? Cut of by a comma, the verb ”lead” is left to hang in the air, until we realised that along with the verb ”screaming” it is connected to the same adverbial ”from west to west, from north to north” which is ”burdened” by a dual meaning: not only do all the roads (evoking a pilgrimage: this reminds us of the journeys of the followers to Rome) lead ”from west to west” and ”from north to north”, but each of those roads is racing with the others (the word ”to” here means ”in order to”). This particular sentence structure is why, on

1 This rhyme occurs in the first two lines of the poem.

first reading, meanings of the verbs ”lead” and ”scream” appear and later prove to be ”only apparent”, but we cannot completely disregard them, because they too enrich the implications of these verses structured so as to force us, as we decipher their meanings, to move ”back and forth”: to assume meanings and abandon them, to return from the ”side-track” to the ”right” path, which shows that the language of this poem is deeply dynamic, and what is poetry if not – happening in language? Namely, on first reading, we assign the verb ”lead”, since there is no preposition (where do they lead?), a ”temporary” meaning of: being first in a race. And when the deterred preposition appears, the ironically shifted image of a race in which all roads are first – proves to be ”wrong”, but we should not consider it as just our ”hallucination”, because it is in concord with the also shifted image of a region where two of the four internationally recognised cardinal points do not exist, and it is in concord with other shifted images that make up the poem.

It is similar with the verb ”scream” that we initially read as a metaphor and think of car sirens and their noise: while it talks about the speeding of honking noisy cars, he casually passes judgement on those in the cars: this poet portrays no thing and no creature ”objectively” and ”neutrally” (for he could not even imaging the deceased as neutral!), which is why his language both portrays and evaluates, and in poetically weak moments passes harsh judgements. At the same time, the verb ”scream” can be understood as a synecdoche: no cars or people riding in them and honking are mentioned, but only the sounds produced by the cars themselves. However, the verb ”scream” can also be understood as a metonymy. In that case, as is well-known, one denomination is replaced by another based on extra-linguistic and logical relations: roads and the cars with sirens and with people on them make up a whole on the basis of closeness, proximity, logical association. Let us remember Njegoš’s verses: ”What is this time that’s come / when our forests have become mute?” Of course, it is not the forests that are silent, but the highlanders in them who are no longer fighting. It is similar with Zogović: it is not the roads that are ”screaming” but the cars on those roads in which both outsiders and insiders drive. This reading is supported by the fact that metonymy is one of the main characteristics of Zogović’s language, as Radomir Konstantinović has shown in his analysis. It seems, again, that Aesopian handling of language gives dynamics to tools of expression, wiping away the border between metaphor, synecdoche and metonymy.

But this sort of interpretation seems amiss when we look more closely at this sight: we feel something a bit artificial, even stretched (something not at all characteristic of Zogović’s language) in the statement that each of those roads is ”screaming to race”, that is braying, ”from west to west…” Then we realise that the verb ”scream” can also mean – flow!2 That roads bore and impel with roaring and noise ”from west to west, from north to north”. Let us remember the folk saying: ”A shallow river flows stronger”. Let us remember an example from Vuk’s Dictionary: ”heaps of sequins started flowing from the stone”. (In Zogović’s poetry, especially the poems written after 1949, there are many proofs that the poet carefully studied Vuk’s Dictionary). The roads are seen as rivers of cars, roaring and noisy, that flow ”from west to west, from north to north”, but the primary reading of this image should not be discarded, because the ”seeming” meanings in it are not coincidental: this is a political poem in which the poet plays hide and seek with the reader: choosing a rare word, he leads us to ”wrong” interpretations, sends us off on a side-track, creates fake doors and windows.

It is clear why the roads ”flow” ”from west to west”, but it is more difficult to say why they also ”flow” ”from north to north”. We think: ”north” was put in ’so that the vlachs3 don’s complai’, a ”muffler” was put on the overly loud meaning of the word ”west”, the verse is enfolded in a bit of Aesopian mist, and mist is appropriate for the north. Furthermore, ”north” should, in accordance with Zogović’s anti-western attitude, imply the coldness of that world: a drive to the west (in the political sense) is at the same time a drive to the north (in a human sense). The meanings of the words ”west” and ”north” are, therefore, marked as different: ”west” has retained its usual sense, which, as we will later see, is not completely annulled in the word ”north”, but merely pushed into the background, and the meaning that was moved to the foreground turns ”north” into a value judgement, an adjective, so to speak. 2 In Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian the verb ”revati” can mean to scream, to bray and to flow (in archa

ic usage). 3 term predominantly used for the Christian Orthodox, sometimes generally Christian, population

of Bosnia.

They do not ”go” along the roads, but ”drive lying down / foreign currency pets, foreign-currented darlings”. The reference is, obviously, to foreign tourists, spoilt rich kids who were our pets too, for we pampered them because of their foreign currency. As can be seen, the carefully chosen word ”pet”, which denotes, on one hand, the youngest son, or a child liked best by its parents, and on the other hand, a favourite in general, hides a dual viewpoint, which is not an exception in this song made up of images whose significant characteristic is – the duality of meanings. The adverbial ”Lying down” is the semantic focus of the first line: the spoilt nature of those people is a sight brought to sardonic humour, and the meaning of this couplet is enriched if we discern a Montenegran nuance in it, that is, if we remember the anecdotes and jokes about lying down as the most essential expression of an entire philosophy, even a metaphysics of laziness. Of course, this drive in a prostrate position is also ironically suggesting that the pets are on vacation that they do not interrupt even while driving. And, finally, brought into connection with ”pets” and ”darlings”, the adverbial ”lying down” is also coloured with erotic meaning.

The neologism ”foreign-currented” is an excellent example of scathing wit: it refers t o the wives and mistresses of the rich who have no foreign currency of their own, but have made sure to be ”associated” with people who do, that is they have been – foreign-currented! This type of creation in which a noun is made into a verb with a suffix or prefix is such a frequent occurrence in Zogović’s work that it must be considered an emblem of his poetry: a large number of verbed nouns or adjectivised verbs suggests, among other things, that the poet is one of human action, who permeates his images, pictures, metaphors, epithets with movement and eventfulness, because the human act is an important substance forming his poetry. However, this line also draws attention with its unexpectedness and its lethal linguistic conjugations: the completely common, domestic, house-hold word ”pet”, that directs towards the sensitive idyll in the patriarchal world, is connected with the cold, official foreign word ”foreign currency”, which gives this association of opposites a wide range of ironic sub-meanings, it even reminds us of lines from one of Zogović’s war poems ”The Radio and Reality of Nedić’s Srebia”: ”Serbia lives. She stands at each cross-roads / and holds her shield like a tray – offering bread and salt to guests”. Suddenly, the word ”north”, from the introductory lines of this poem, shines with new meaning: German tourists used to come from the north and we would pamper them, because of their foreign currency, with all the warmth of our Slavic soul full of mythic hospitality, just like, in Nedić’s Serbia, the ”Serb hosts”, former warriors transformed into Nazi waiters, stood at the cross-roads hospitably offering the traditional bread and salt to the occupiers. But that is not all. The line: ”foreign currency pets, foreign-currented darlings” contains two linguistic compounds in which the resistance of opposites is felt, but on the level of sound, these opposites are melted into a whole. The entire line is based on the conflict between meaning and sound, and the impression it causes could be described as a bitter, even poisonous irony shining out of melodiousness.

Those foreign ”pets” who are ”all-satisfied with themselves” (this neologism reflects Zogović’s tendency to intensify expressions, that is often mentioned in this paper, but let us also note that the general pronoun ”all” is his favourite expression tool), those foreigners carry ”powdered milk” and ”canned fruit starch” – two syntagms that transport the significance of the poetic speech to a new level: these two achievements, the formerly recognisable symbols of the technological civilisation of the West ”all-satisfied” with itself, give a scathing political colouring to this witty, playful poem about foreign tourists in our country, because we are reminded of the powdered milk and cans that western countries sent as humanitarian aid to Yugoslavia. Again, a dual semantic perspective appears, within which the meanings of the words ”pets” and ”darlings” is made richer and more profound: those people were not dear to us only because they spent their foreign currency here, but also because they allowed to us cadge something from them. we must not overlook the ironic sting of the word ”starch” whose meaning is intensified and stressed by its position at the end of the line, that is through rhyme. The poet puts on the mask of a chemist examining the contents of the cans: inside, it’s all carbohydrates! He sees through the eyes of those ”pets” and ”darlings” who are, because of such products, ”all-satisfied with themselfes”, but he also sees through the eyes of the natives, gullible by everything foreign, everything western. Furthermore, the word ”starch” can also be interpreted as a folk, more precisely a Montenegran word for the food of the poor, but also of livestock – in the poem ”Motifs from a Monastery” ”bloodied starch from bran” is mentioned as fodder for pigs (1, 74) – which would mean that the poet is mocking those cans in which fruit has become mush, and also mocking the ones to whom the cans were sent. This line is richer in meanings than it appears, because it says much not only about foreigners, about their all-satisfaction with their civilisation that is naturally transforming into artificiality, but also about our collective psychology and our cult of the imported, the foreign.

The region through which those ”pets” and ”darlings” drive is portrayed through three questions and an answer that sounds ”wrong”. Because the line: ”That region where they drive? All those meadows? So lively?” – induces a betrayed expectation. With an irony not lacking in elegance, the poet will avoid saying: where that region is, which region it is, he will evade ”locating”, because it is more important to say: why that ”region” exists! The ”region” is there ”before them – to unravel like a carpet!”. That is its purpose, that is what it is used for! That is how foreign ”pets” and ”darlings” see the region through which they are travelling. But, if we were to judge by the ”meadows” that are ”so lively” and the carpetous unravelling of the landscape – it seems that the socialist scenery is doing its best to welcome the ”outsiders” as is fitting! The trouble is not that the tourist ”pets” saw our country like kings before which carpets are lain, it is that that ”subjective” truth had a rather ”objective” basis.

Speaking from a strictly linguistic angle, the syntagm lively meadows breaks a rule of combination: the adjective ”lively” (whose dictionary meanings are: energetic, active, spry; vigorous, vivacious; rested, bright, keen), is used in natural language to describe people or animals, it applies to beings. Breaking the linguistic rule personifies the meadows. This directs us towards an important characteristic of Zogović’s poetry: in it human emotion is very often exhibited, simply ”injected” into the surroundings: the content of the subject is ascribed to the object, so this ”liveliness” of the meadow is actually the ”liveliness” in the people who ”all-satisfied with themselves”, speed ”like comets through trees”.

However, even though these images say: that is what our country looked like in the eyes of foreign currency westerners, there is no doubt that we also strove to present ourselves and our country as such to foreigners: ”lively” and idyllic like a carpet. Finally, it should not be forgotten that carpets were the most frequent product we offered to foreigners.

This is, therefore, a profoundly political poem, and the story about tourists and our hospitality serves as a disguise. If the purpose of the ”region” is to unravel before the outsiders like a carpet before the feet of rulers, their purpose is ”to come, to raise dust or garbage, / to speed – to be comets through the trees”. The raising of dust speaks of the quality of our roads, while ”garbage” denotes what tourists usually leave behind, but the cloud of dust rising behind the foreigners is an image that says something about the cultural garbage that they brought us and still bring us, and if we remember Baudelaire’s ”Parisian image”: ”Garbage into the muffled air brings a dim hurricane”, we have an image of the technological civilisation that is deeply stigmatised by the overflow of garbage.

However, the raising of dust and garbage is an event of both physical and psychological aspect, and it says something about us, too. The idiomatic phrase ”to raise dust” also means to get the interest and attention of viewers, of the audience. The statement ”to raise dust and garbage” is actually a zeugma – a stylistic figure in which a verb (here: ”to raise”) applies to two or more parts of the sentence (here, two objects: ”dust” and ”garbage”). The zeugma eliminates an element of syntactic structure, whereby its function is taken over by an approximate word that is in parallel, grammatically, but not semantically, with the missing word. On the level of physical events, the foreigners raise dust on the roads and leave garbage behind; but this statement also has a psychological and a moral meaning: the foreigners incite great curiosity and they alert (raist to their feet, gather around themselves) human garbage!

In the metaphor ”comets” the earthly is ironically reflected in the heavenly, but why specifically – a comet? Why a shooting star? It is probably because of the shooting exhaust fumes that frequently feature in Zogović’s poetry. But through whose eyes is this sight seen? Again, the viewpoint is dual. The trouble is not with the foreigners who felt like comets in their modern fast cars, but in the Yugo-people who saw those cars as sparkling heavenly shooting stars! The dialogue, unification or succession of two viewpoints, the foreign and the native, is the basic strategy of this poem.

But why are those ”comets” speeding ”through the trees”? Without a doubt, they are watched by the natives, but the optical illusion (because cars pass by trees on the side of the road) is equalised, by the verb ”to be”, with literal reality: they are comets that speed through the trees. A slight linguistic shift causes a displacement in the image in which different realities have mixed: heavenly comets have descended into the Yugoslavia overwhelmed with tourist fever, and on top of that, the comets rush through the forest and not along the roads. This dually changed image also says something about our eyes, so feverish in the wake of the tourist season, but also about our madness. Our consumer madness. More precisely, about ”consumer zoology”, as Zogović puts in one of his later poems.

Those comets, indeed, did not completely cease to be cars, and hence Christ becomes a ”traffic policeman at the cross-roads” – an appositive metaphor that transforms the rural into the urban: the statue of Jesus, from a countryside cross-roads, reminds the foreigners, with its crucified arms, of a traffic policeman with stretched out arms, although he is bare-shinned, without uniform, and without ”white sleeves”, as befits traffic policemen in a country of paupers, but that does not keep him from diligently doing his duty: first he will become ”illuminated” with happiness when he sees the pilgrims – because the beginning of the poem: ”All roads lead” that seems like a fragment of the phrase ”all roads lead to Rome”, foreshadows the image with Christ – then he will ”open the region” as a traffic policeman opens the street that he had held closed with his outstretched hands, and finally – ”with sways of his wreath – he greets, wishes health” for the dear guests. That is, he sways the thorny wreath on his head like a police hat! The image is, let us admit, completely native: let us remember how the faces of traffic policemen are illuminated when they recognise a ”big timer” in a car, then follows a servile greeting, when they touch their hat, saying that they wish him all the best! These images, and this poem, do not only say what we, with the beauty of our country, with our Jesuses on cross-roads, were like in the eyes of foreign visitors, but what we truly were like!

The crucified Christ is, first, turned into a traffic policeman, and moment later, that traffic policeman looks – ”like he’s crucified”! This game of autological and metalogical meanings, this dance of linguistic perspectives, is extraordinarily witty. In relation to the statue of the crucified Christ from the cross-roads, which the primary-level, literal reality, we perceive the appositive metaphor of the ”crucified traffic policeman” as a secondary-level, conditional reality. However, the next couplet reveals that we are wrong: the comparison ”as if crucified” is a witty surprise, because it reveal that the ”crucified traffic policeman” represented, in the eyes of the foreigners, the literal reality.

The ”crucified” traffic policeman then becomes ”cut off like a coach” which incites the thought that there is a typo in the line perhaps, because this syntagm is, at first, indecipherable, so that we even tend to consider it nonsense and think that the ”coach” should naturally be ”cut off ”, as befits a coach. However, this is a word from the western variation of the Serbo-Croat language – to use the pre-war term – and it means ”serious, stern”4. And, although it is a minute detail, the adjectival ”cutoff ” implicates a characteristic of Zogović’s poetry that is not insignificant: Not only did Zogović make no effort to write in the pure ”eastern” variation, but, following his delicate ear for language, he freely chose, out of everything that the four peoples speaking the language had created, the most effective elements, and it is not a rare occurrence to find his expressions incomprehensible, like this comparison with a coach, in you read him exclusively on a linguistic basis – Montenegran and Serb.

In this comparison, Christ is ”translated” not only into Croatian, but also into the language of the foreigners, into the basic terms with which the 20th century has mythologised sports, into the language of the modern age in which sports have become a contemporary religion, and going to sports events has replaced going to mass. Just as the cars were both cars and comets at the same time, so Christ, at the moment when he is promoted into a coach, does not cease being a traffic policeman, so that (as if) crucified traffic policeman - coach continues to ”give, give 4 An analogy in English could be ”severed” and ”severe”. direction – without rest and without relief ” – a line whose meaning surpasses the context of the poem, and we can read it as an atheistic view of the Christian civilisation to which Christ as the main traffic policeman gave directions.

This chain of image transformations reveals that it is the grotesque that has shaped the principle upholding the poem, so it can be said that all the linguistic and imagery shifts in it assemble into a grotesque, imaginatively and wittily created flourish, which is most prominent in the final couplet: the dust that has fallen onto Christ at the cross-roads turns into snuff, and his face, with eyes closed and frowning in pain, is transformed into the face of a gentleman who, having inhaled some snuff, is getting ready to sneeze! Within the framework of the image as a whole, this is primarily a fact about the foreigners, about their way of looking at things, but its point raises the poem to a higher semantic level, because it turns is into a story about a profound misunderstanding between two worlds: although we have Christ in common with those foreigners, this does not prevent the ”foreign currency pets” from seeing, in the crucified Christ with a thorny wreath and a face frowning in pain, first a traffic policeman, then a coach and finally a gentleman inhaling snuff.

In brief: although id does not reach the highest poetic achievements offered by ”The Articulated Word”, the second section of the poem ”Seroiusly Funny Variations with Jesus” is inspiringly rendered, with indubitable mastery and a witty lightness that we, unfortunately, rarely have a chance to encounter in the books of this poet who, as he said of himself, wrote mostly ”about suffering and struggle”. And that is why this poem is significant: in it the mastery is very apparent, because it is not suppressed into the background, out of our sight, by something more important. The severe, intense, agonising, even vehement contents of Zogović’s poems often obscure the sophistication of their linguistic execution: we are not prepared, or inclined, to discern the witty manoeuvres in depictions or poems about difficult ”suffering and struggle”. Although, Christ is the essential embodiment of suffering, but the eyes of the foreigners have crossed out that suffering, they have emptied the image of the cross-roads of its difficult and agonising contents, and that is the basis for the playful mastery of the poem. However, if we wish to get the maximum from Zogović’s poetry, we must see his linguistic mastery even wehre we feel the enormous pressure of that poetry’s contents.

Let us take as an example the line: ”You are long, and large for shackled Montenegrans, little Montenegro” from the poem ”The Internment of Montenegro”, that was created, as the poet says in the Notes, ”like a reminiscence about the Austrian internment of Montenegro, written in the summer of 1936, upon the news that Belgrade police agents arrested tens of antifascist fighters in Montenegro and deported them to torture in Dubrovnik and Sarajevo prisons”. The line above is perhaps worth more than the rest of the poem, primarily because of the witty association of ”large” and ”little” (witty, despite the tragic content), and its poetic charm is in the intersection of two viewpoints: the poet identifies with the ”shackled Montenegrans” being led across Montenegro which is seen not only from the objective angle, as a geographic fact, but also through the eyes of the ”shackled”, measured by their steps, their suffering, the sum of their misfortune: its ”length” and ”size” speaks of that suffering. But that is not all: if, measured by their suffering, the objectively ”little” Montenegro becomes spatially ”long” and ”large”, that same suffering gives it another time of ”length” and ”size”. The adjectives ”Long” and ”large” sum up everything that is said in the second section of the poem ”The Internment of Montenegro”, beginning with the ”dusty road, the hard road” and the ”sun” that ”scorches”, and the ”stone” that ”burns blue”, to the ”rifle butt” that hits whoever ”stumbles” and the ”plaited whip” that beats ”whoever falls”, but the adjectives ”long” and ”large” contain the semantic ”sediment” with an opposite prefix: although ”little”, Montenegro becomes something large in the eyes of the people giving their lives for it, the suffering of the ”shackled” is the price for that greatness, even the adjective ”long” shines with a dual meaning: it is long in time, it is not from yesterday, its historical existence is long. Thus, this intersection of to viewpoints, inducing the co-vibration of the autological and the metalogical meanings of the adjectives ”large” and ”long”, can be called witty.

Translated by Ulvija Tanović

 

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