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You With Hands More Innocent: Selected Poems of Vesna Parun

Kurt Luchs

You With Hands More Innocent: Selected Poems of Vesna Parun
Translated by Dasha C. Nisula
Exile Editions, 2019

With this volume, readers in the English-speaking world have the chance to know what those in Croatia have known for three-quarters of a century: that Vesna Parun wrote the best love poems ever written in her language, and was—is, because her work lives—one of the most remarkable of 20th-century European poets. In truth she was much more than a poet, producing works in practically every genre of literature. But poetry is how she first made her name, and it is what she will probably be most remembered for. Parun is also important as an icon of female empowerment, being the first Croatian woman to live by and for her writing. At the time she set out to do this, in the war-torn 1940s, it was an incredibly brave and daring thing.

Her first book, Dawns and Hurricanes (1947), hit the postwar Croatian cultural scene like a burst of sunlight coming into a sick room. These are marvelously optimistic, sensual, vibrant, life-affirming verses, especially given when and where they came into being. From the beginning, her imagination is large, generous, empathetic. Take these lines from “I Was a Boy,” where she recounts a night of dreams in which she assumes different forms:

I was a grape from a red cluster
in the teeth amidst kisses
a fox that ran out of a snare
a boy, who throws shouts with a sling;

The poem ends: “What haven’t I been, what haven’t I dared, / a mirror of a fish in the pupil of an otter?”

The love poems brought something new to Croatian literature, being from a woman’s point of view. They are honest and poignant. In “Olives, Pomegranates and Clouds” she recounts an old story—waiting for a lover—making it fresh and vivid by letting a host of other sensations wash over her:

When I meet him on the road, I turn my face after clouds
yet three days I waited by the fence for him to pass.
Since, pomegranates have begun to bloom, the sea has swelled.

As if to say, she too is blooming, her heart also is swelling. Farther on she says, “But already I am tortured by what is to come.” The poem concludes: “Already three days behind the fence, full of youth, I wait / for your steps among the dark olive trees.” Who is this idiot man who never shows up? Here is one enchanted reader who wishes he could take the man’s place.

Born on the island of Zlarin off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, Parun grew up surrounded by the sea, which figures prominently in her poetic imagery. One of the poems in this collection, "Before the Sea, As Before Death, I Have No Secret," is as good as its title, and there are a number of other standouts, such as “Harbour” and “A Coral Returned to the Sea.”

While Parun pondered philosophical and spiritual questions throughout her career, they become more evident in her later poems, some of which also display more of a satirical wit. In the final poem in this volume, “Epilogue,” from the book Ashamed to Die (1974), the combined feeling of reflection, melancholy and amusement reminds me somehow of the mixed autumnal moods of Shakespeare’s later plays:

I shall never be
a trampled grass
and I will rustle clearly
so the children
understand me.
Who passes by me
will be happy.
And the bell, the old sinner,
will cease to toll.

I don’t speak Croatian, so I am no judge of the fidelity of these translations by Dasha C. Nisula. However, I can judge their felicity and beauty in English. It takes a poet to translate a poet. Based on this volume by Parun and the volume of poetry she translated by another Croatian writer, Slavko Mihalić, we can surmise that Nisula is a fine poet in her own right, whether or not she ever produces any verses bearing her name. Thanks to her, Vesna Parun now lives in English as well as in Croatian. For this great gift we owe her our undying thanks. We should look forward with keen interest to whatever poetry she decides to translate next.

Kurt Luchs

Kurt Luchs