Saturday, 2 April 2016

Some Poetic Playing: Mrtva Luka, or Dead Harbour

The new writers group I've just joined here in Split talked about inspiration. What inspires us, why are we here in Split, what is making our lives colourful? Although I have yet to put pen to paper about that, the previous day I was incredibly struck by a meeting I had with a PhD student from the University of Split. Although we were initially having a coffee to discuss klapa, we covered pretty much everything within our broad range of interests. Talking about music naturally leads to discussion of poetry. In my opinion, writing about music in a cold academic way is one of the hardest things to do and whenever I've tried to do it for fun, it seems best expressed as a poem. After all, what is poetry but music expressed as words?
Knowing I was studying the language, she gave me a couple of modernist poems, which her seminar group would be discussing. One of them, she reassured me, was in relatively simple language and she thought I'd like to read and translate it. My interest was growing, especially when I was able to understand the first line. What I want to do is explore the meaning without initially looking for a translation to assist, and then check to see if I was even vaguely right compared with a few formal translations.
Dobriša Cesarić (1902 –1980) was a Croatian poet and translator born in Požega and he is considered as one of the greatest Croatian poets of the 20th century. His work as a poet consists of ten books of poetry and a few translations. He translated from German, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian to Croatian. So it seems presumptuous to translate him badly into English. Oh well.
This was the Croatian text: 
Znam: ima jedna mrtva luka,
I ko se u njoj nađe
Čuti će ujutro pjevanje ćuka.
I vidjet će umorne lađe.

Brodovi u njoj vječno snivaju
Kako se brodi,
Al njihova sidra mirno počivaju
U plitkoj void.

I tako u snovima gledaju sreću,
A plovit se boje.
Na jarbole šarene zastave meću
I – stoje.
This is my version with some amendments and corrections from other translations:
I know: there is a dead port
And when it's found
You will hear the morning singing owl
And you will see a tired vessel
Boats eternally dreaming
Of how sailing is
But their anchors rest quietly
In shallow water
And in dreams they look for joy
But a-feared to sail.
On masts colourful flags hang.
And - are still.
Although I have the English sense of the words, I don't have the depth of language to full appreciate the native subtleties of boats, vessels, ships, or even the difference of joy and luck, however the imagery is clear. For me, he cleverly conjures a sense of atmosphere without me needing a linguistically precise meaning. Here I feel a winter harbour, early morning mist just clearing, with hibernating boats holding still in the sleeping watery air. The sparseness of my writing, in comparison to the rich sibilance of the Croatian language is immediately obvious; for me the ch, sh, dj produce the sounds of the sleeping port. Again, needing no meaning, just the musical onomatopoeia.
A wonderful essay about the poet tells me that this was one of his earliest poems. It explains that his work is full of expressive, lyrical subtleties, it says, 'Cesarić saw the sea when he was a child...His first poetic experience seems to have been the lifeless harbour of Kraljevica and its tired boats, either standing in it or, wounded, leaving on yet another journey...The sea thus also becomes Cesarić’s sea, a world which gives rise to a sensibility and emotion that are already within him. In this way it becomes a longing for the unreachable, for the far away, for the depths and - for voyages, in fact, within the dead harbour, but nevertheless voyages which never end'.
Although this could be described as a melancholic sketch of the harbour, for me, there is an optimism
in it. We know that although the boats are dreaming of sailing and what might happen, it is actually the agency and bravery of the people who get in and unfurl the sails. The colourful flags offer that glimmer of hope, and after a period of rest and stillness, the frenetic activity of the sun and summer will follow to bring the dead harbour to life. And as the author of the essay mentioned above suggests, he had a fine sense of time and inevitability of the seasonal cycle.
With thanks to Tash Pericic
Alternatively as a piece of social commentary, and with an acceptance of the surface melancholy, it works as a description of the early morning sea fishermen heading out towards uncertainty and danger. If you go down to the port early enough, even whilst the owl is still awake, before the workers get there, you will sense that they are still asleep. Perhaps they have no wish to leave their safe houses, and like their vessels, and they dream of the day they can hang up their own sails? Who knows.

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