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Music Is Everything

Kurt Luchs

Music Is Everything: Selected Poems of Slavko Mihalić
Translated by Dasha C. Nisula
Exile Editions, 2019


his is the second volume of Croatian poetry translated by Dasha C. Nisula, following You With Hands More Innocent by Vesna Parun. As well as bringing the distinctive voice of Slavko Mihalić to readers in English, it confirms Nisula as one of the premiere translators of East European verse in our time.

Mihalić (1928-2007) was one of those rare individuals endowed with multiple talents and the drive to indulge them all simultaneously. He was a writer first and foremost, and chiefly a poet, but also a translator, an editor, a musician and an artist. At certain points in his literary career, when his poetry fell afoul of the regime for one reason or another, or one word or another, he supported himself by his art.

The more enduring benefit of his nonliterary talents, though, was how they informed and transformed his writing. He viewed nature with the eyes of a painter and he heard the sonic subtleties of language with the ears of a musician. Not surprisingly, a number of these poems deal with painting. In “Artist’s Soliloquy” he writes about the artist as human sponge, who can be infected simply by portraying the world’s distress:

You pass the brush
over traces of evil.
Blood is found
on your hands.

Many more of these poems are about or inspired by music. Bach receives his due (“Coffee Cantata,” “Homage to J. S. Bach”), and other composers are mentioned or referred to in passing. However, Mihalić reserves his greatest affection for Mozart in “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” “Mozart’s Magic Coach,” “W. A. Mozart” and several others. The final stanza of “Mozart’s Magic Coach” is worth quoting in full, as it is where this collection gets its title:

Because music is everything since music can do everything.
When music ceases all the magic
is only a modest craft. As shoeing a horse
echoes flutes when the blacksmith is Mozart.
And a jug of wine sings if Mozart’s lips
touch the oboe. Rain begins to glisten, footsteps
make sense. hills turn azure, streets
race and curtains are the bare backs of women
when on its own plays Mozart’s piano.

Mihalić might as well be describing himself because, like music and Mozart, he too can do everything. This varied collection, the distillation of a lifetime, contains love poems (“First Love”), landscapes (“In the Snow”), seascapes (“By the Seashore”), poems of war (“Christmas 1991”), and poems that are somehow both metaphysical and lucidly concrete (the brilliantly titled and written “Who I Am and Am I,” among many others).

In a world that is forever writhing and mutating, often seemingly for the worse, Mihalić seeks for what is constant and meaningful. He finds it mostly in human love and in beauty, whether natural or manmade. Despite his passion for music, the key to his understanding all this and writing about it so insightfully is silence and inwardness, which he carries with him at all times. The brief poem “Solitude” ends with this line: “I knock on my own door, from the inside.”

Although he subscribes to no ideology and no religion other than art and love and nature and his native land, his central credo would appear to be an undefined spiritual yearning, as in the last stanza from “No Matter What That Means”:

Your town can no longer be recognized
neither in heaven nor on earth, and you must
continually go toward the light, no matter what that means.

Or, it could be that given where and when he wrote, and the need to say one thing by means of another, the word “light” may stand for hope and optimism. I don’t know, and for the reader it may not matter. As in so much fine poetry, the ambiguity, the openness is its own reward.

Kurt Luchs

Kurt Luchs