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Periplum #7

Periplum is a section that is devoted to 20th and 21st century haiku from around the world. Periplum is overseen by David G. Lanoue. For an introduction to this section, see Periplum.

Periplum #7: Saša Važić

BY David G. Lanoue

Some haiku—let’s call them “special haiku”—take hold in our minds and imaginations so deeply that we can never, ever forget them. We revisit them often, reminded of them by random words or situations. We meditate on them compulsively, joyfully. Many of the world haiku that we’ve pondered together in this “Periplum” series, by this definition, have been special. I think of Keiji Minato’s “In my luggage” (“Periplum” #1), Petar Tchouhov’s “night storm” (# 2), Fay Aoyagi’s “ants out of a hole” (#4) and Casimiro de Brito’s “From song to song” (#6)—just to mention a few. The haiku of Saša Važić are also special in this way, including three that follow in Serbian with English translations provided by the poet.

As always, my comments do not pretend to unveil “the” meaning of a haiku but rather “a” meaning. I hope my musings will stimulate your own. If these three haiku take hold in your minds as they have in mine, you’ll be thinking about them for a long time to come.

Seoski vašar
U gornjem levom džepu—
licidersko srce

Country fair.
In my upper left pocket
a candy heart.

A candy heart lies in the poet’s shirt pocket, close to where her real heart beats. But her real heart goes unmentioned in the poem. A heart-shaped candy serves as its proxy, suggesting the sweetness and vulnerability of childhood.

Does the poet’s “candy” heart brim with memories of earlier country fairs, triggered by the familiar sights, sounds, tastes and smells of this one? I think so. But the exact nature of these feelings and associations lies tucked out of sight, inside her pocket—so easy to reach for her but, to the eyes of the world, hidden. Her poem announces a secret: only she knows the sweet treasure in her pocket. Other fair-goers—hundreds, thousands?—may look at her or ignore her, but either way, none will understand her, none will perceive her pocketed heart.

And how does she feel about this fact? How do we, putting ourselves in her place, feel about it? Are we happy to keep our hearts to ourselves? Do we smile with the pride of ownership? Or have we walked too long in the Country Fair of Life, hoping that someone would understand that which has never been given; hoping that someone, someday, would ask us for our candy hearts? Važić leaves plenty of suggestive space for the reader to build in. The answer to all the above questions depends on each reader’s experience and each reader’s relationship with his or her own heart. A poem that at first glance might seem pure whimsy opens to a world of resonance.

Yes, it’s special. And here’s another:

Srušeni most
Kroz oblak dima
preleti ptica

Broken bridge.
Through clouds of smoke
birds fly.

In one breath the haiku captures both a moment of history and one of history’s tragically recurring themes. Bridges connect people; wars destroy connections. In this instance, a Serbian bridge, bombed and broken by NATO forces in the spring of 1999, is a powerful metaphor for the brutal tendency of all wars to end converstaion and understanding, to demonize “the enemy,” and to thereby justify acts of outrageous violence. Human history happens in the poem, but “Through clouds of smoke/ birds fly”—suggesting that Nature endures along with (I hope) the nobler human feelings that connect us.

Bombs and cruise missles rained destruction on Belgrade from March 24th to June 11th, 1999. In October of 2007 I visited Saša Važić at her home in the Zemun neighborhood of Belgrade. We walked past a flower-stuffed shrine marking the spot where a young girl died from the NATO air attacks. Later, I sat in Saša’s house, listening to her stories of the war, when suddenly the power went out, leaving us in blackness. She lit a candle; explained that the power plant and electrical grid, bombed in the war, still wasn’t completely repaired.

During my stay in Belgrade, enjoying the hospitality and spontaneous generosity of Saša, her daughter Ana, and my other new Serbian friends—including editor and poet Dragan J. Ristić—drinking with them, dancing with them, eating with them . . . I discovered something about myself. I can never again support the bridge-breakers of this world. Instead, I’ll fly with the birds: through the smoke, over the river.

This haiku’s imprint in my mind is deep, indelible. Here’s a third, just as special:

Zimsko veče
Glas što pozdravlja komšiju
na moj mi liči

Winter evening.
A voice greeting a neighbor
sounds like my own.

It’s shocking to hear, out of the blue, a voice sounding like one’s own. In this case, amid the gathering darkness of a cold winter evening, the poet has a sudden out-of-body experience: someone else greets a neighbor using her voice. For just a second, she slips away from herself, becoming a ghost, while her doppelgänger takes her place. An ordinary neighborly greeting—part of what would normally be viewed as a lackluster moment of everyday life—suddenly becomes extraordinary and strange.

Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky saw literature as a “making strange” of language. Važić’s third haiku takes this a step further: it achieves the making strange of reality. But this evocative strangeness hints at a truth: something oddly familiar, comforting even—something we knew once as children or, perhaps, even before that but have forgotten. There is a stranger out there, somewhere, in the night: someone we have never met, who sounds like us, who looks like us, and who is perhaps, just as we are, even now, thinking the very thoughts that we are thinking. We are not alone in the winter dark.

Notes

Važić, Saša, “Country fair,” first appeared in Haiku novine, 2002, in Serbian; “Broken bridge” won 2nd place in the English Tanka and Haiku Water, Lake and Sea Contest, sponsored by the 35th Annual Conference Committee of the Japan Society on Water Environment, 2001; and “Winter Evening” first appeared in Simply Haiku, 2004.

“Victor Shklovsky.” Wikipedia. Accessed 16 January 2010. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Shklovsky

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Periplum #1: Keiji Minato
Periplum #2: Petar Tchouhov
Periplum #3: Masahiro Koike
Periplum #4: Fay Aoyagi
Periplum #5: Jean-Pierre Colleu
Periplum #6: Casimiro de Brito

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