Featured review

The Golden Apple: A Round of Stories, Songs, Spells, Proverbs and Riddles

The Golden Apple: A Round of Stories, Songs, Spells, Proverbs and Riddles

By Vasko Popa

Translated by Andrew Harvey, Anne Pennington

Anvil 2010, 104pp. paperback, ISBN 9780856464195
Series 3 No.15 - Poetry and the State

Review by Sophie Mayer

Also a review of:

Verónica Volkow
Arcana & Other Poems.
translated by Michael Smith and Luis Ingelmo.
Shearsman, 2009.
Bilingual edition.124pp paperback, £9.95, ISBN 978184610569

Both Vasko Popa’s anthology of Serbo-Croatian folk literature and Verónica Volkow’s poems, collected from volumes published over fifteen years in her native Mexico, resonate with the influential ethnographic projects exemplified by the Brothers Grimm. As translators Andrew Harvey and Anne Pennington demonstrate in their introduction, Popa selects (apple-picks?) his material principally from the compilations made by nineteenth-century linguist Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, who rejected Russo-Slavonic and revived Serbo-Croat. Volkow’s translators Luis Ingelmo and Michael Smith argue that ‘Octavio Paz’s influence is undoubtedly evident in the content and technique of Volkow’s work’, which also draws on the Spanish Baroque represented by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, regarded as the first Mexican poet. 

Yet both Popa and Volkow engage critically with the nationalism that informs their influences. Popa, writing his elusive and allusive introduction (translated for this edition by Francis R. Jones) in 1966, issues his own version of Bob Dylan’s contemporary song ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’: ‘Today the voices of a new Generation are making themselves heard all over the globe, first faintly, then loud and clear – a Generation which this time seeks to build on the rediscovered foundations and pillars of popular art. In this we can only pride ourselves on the poetic wealth of our own people: now we do not need to roam the world, because this wealth makes us one with the whole world.’ Popa offers a distinctive (perhaps Titoist) Internationale that sees the possibility of a global revolution, rather than a nationalist one, rooted in the particulars of a culture – and particularly a folk culture; as John Berger would later, Popa anchored his poetics not in a Romantic-cum-fascist evocation of horny-handed sons of toil hymning Blut und Boden, but in what he beautifully defines as the ‘one, true, untarnishable tradition of folk poetry [which] is constant invention, constant discovery’. It renews itself formally through adept linguistic play but also responsive observations, as in wry poems that refer to the Sultan or to Vienna, engaging with Serbia’s situation on the faultline between two equally neglectful imperial powers. 

Volkow’s work engages similarly with the constant discovery rooted in the complex folk traditions of Mexico: not only its Spanish Catholic inheritance shot through with Mudejar borrowings from Arabic poetry and culture, but the immanent ecology of indigenous cultures, historical and contemporary, imperial and oppressed. In so doing, her poems often read as striking responses to the syncretic visual mythologies of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, themselves a discovery/invention of Mexico, internationalist in Popa’s sense, but also through the global movements of Surrealism and Communism. Volkow has published on Mexican and American post-Surrealist visual artists, and her poems share with Surrealism (which itself drew on folk poetry) an ability to make manifest the illogical, impossible shifts of matter found in dreams, achieved through an intense focus on a small catalogue of powerful objects: the mirror, the night, a stone. 

‘Templanza/Temperance’, the fourteenth of the Tarot-inspired poems, does in miniature what the Arcana sequence does as a whole, ringing the changes on the elemental:

Tú eres fuego
yo soy mar
soy el mar del fuego
tú la flama
en el incendio del océano.

You are fire
I am sea
I am the sea of fire
you the flame
in the blaze of the ocean.

An unusual view of temperance: yet the poem itself reuses fire, air, stone and water in a model of ecopoetry, and the eroticism is spare and electric rather than objectified. Ingelmo and Smith point out in the translation that one inheritance from the Spanish Baroque is the ‘displacement of the personal as the centre of things’, and others accrue, including a deeply anti-utilitarian view of language that Suzanne Jill Levine identifies as the hallmark of Latin American novels in The Subversive Scribe. Rather than those novels’ proliferation of puns, Volkow destabilises language through dream-like repetitions with a difference predicated on full rhymes and complex alliterations that the translation cannot match. Volkow’s poetry mobilises the influence of Elizabeth Bishop, whom she translated, however, to bring a precision to the often diffuse, if uncanny, symbological language of Surrealism, and this allows for a clear and concise translation. As in any good spell, the words have to be exact to enact the magic.

The spells collected by Popa bear this out; while riddles and proverbs depend on a precision on the level of image and metaphor – ‘no teeth, no hands, but still it bites’ is winter in any language and latitude – spells and curses require both invention and exactitude for their effects. Harvey and Pennington pursue a transparent translation in an easy and familiar English, foregoing the blandishment of archaisms while maintaining the specificity and strangeness of encountering another time and place. While proverbs and riddles offer universalisable observations, spells against scab and jaundice speak to a particular historical configuration as well as a nice perception of the equivalence in a metaphor (jaundice is a yellow cock or candle) that cosmopolitan postmoderns appear to have foregone.

Popa thus offers us poetry that does something, that believes in an active language whose intention derives not from an author but from the power of words themselves, simultaneously avowed and disavowed in the impossible exactitude of the curse: ‘God give you a gold coin weighing a ton, so you can’t carry it or spend it, but have to site beside it begging.’ There is a swift, witty and pin-sharp (il)logic at work here that is a million miles from the do ut des practical magic of the English alchemical tradition down to Harry Potter, an immediacy of language and its effects that belongs – as J.L. Austin showed – to orature worldwide. Volkow, likewise, works at an evocative intersection of sound and (non)sense, word and image, each irreducible to the other. ‘Its nakedness is magic’ – ‘su desnudez es magia’ – Volkow writes of a garden; this is what her poetry moves towards, a naked word that is magical (a conjuring or enchantment) and magical (enchanting and conjuring things into being), flowing from the ‘fecund underground river [that] penetrate[s] into the world’s innermost heart’ that is Popa’s metaphor for the source of folk poetry.

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