An unknown number of years ago a rockfall closed the entrance to a cave in the limestone gorge of the Ardèche river in France. In 1994 three speleologists found air wafting from an opening, cleared a way in and discovered caves and grottos running 400 metres or so into the rock. The walls are lined with drawings of animal species – bison, lions, bears, horses, aurochs, deer and rhinoceroses. Some show whole animals, standing or in motion, others overlapping rows of horses’ heads, delicately outlined and smudged. Rows of lions’ heads cross the wall like a hunting pride. What is right is so right that you nearly believe a rhinoceros with a huge curving horn really existed too.
Collected Poems of Vasko Popa translated by Anne Pennington
Anvil, 464 pp, £12.95, January 1998, ISBN 0 85646 268 3
It may well be that the most interesting literature of this century cannot be subsumed under the broad label of Modernism or be said to have originated in the great literary centres, but was actually the work of outsiders and mavericks, starting with Kafka, who created something without precedent from a mix of native and foreign traditions. The poetry of Vasko Popa, who died in 1991, is of that eccentric company. He was the best-known Yugoslav poet of this century, and the most translated: his Selected Poems were first published by Penguin in 1969, as part of its series of modern European poets. Popa was then usually grouped with Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub, two other astonishingly original East European poets, whose work was plainly unlike anything being written in Britain and the United States. Encountering in Popa an exotic blend of avant-garde poetry and popular folklore, the foreign reader tends to think that this is what all poets from that part of the world must be like. In fact, no other Serbian poet sounds like Popa. He was both the product of his time and place and the inventor of his own world.