From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 8


Well, then – let us listen to Vesna Parun and glance at Ujević’s horoscope: “Great poets always have Mercury, the Moon, and Gemini and Sagittarius (Dante… Tin Ujević…) in the Meridian.” What is that supposed to mean? Influence of Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun with a stretched and eccentric ellipse, orbiting the Sun in 88 days only. “Such are its influences on people. Why? We’ll get to that later.” This is how Dupor, the beforementioned interpreter of Ujević’s horoscope, describes Mercury’s influence: “Velocity, agility, liveliness, elasticity, fast communication which adds up to the intellect, connections up and down, back and forth, trade, exchange and transmission of thoughts, paths, languages, analyses, speech, superficial yet versatile intellect, informed, an eclectic, a little bit of everything, mathematics, science, literature, quick in orientation, diplomacy, sharpness and desire to learn, skilful both spiritually and physically, able to do the low-level jobs but not to rule, power of expression, easy associations, desire to socialise, all mouth no fight, stays at the back, practical, versatile, a dialectician, formulas, a journalist, a reporter, a lawyer, a merchant, a liar when needed.”

And this is Ujević:

Wizard’s spells

What heavenly bodies are in the sky,

on earth are deeds and bodies that die.

Falling easily into hypnosis

people end up in the poses.

Each moving without contradiction

in the freedom by horoscope prediction.

People are mummies before their death,

we have future-age secrets down pat.

Aliens stop being so playful

and dance to our tune to the full.

Movements are lawful, they are nice,

the human flame is a chest full of ice.

No sceptre or sign in history and beyond,

is as worthy as a forceful wizard’s wand.

Each has wanted what they have dreamt of,

from there as parts they flutter above.

We in the world are makers from all sides

because each miracle from us derives.

When Mercury is in Cancer, as was the case with the great Tin, then there is this: a rascal, loves drinking, praise, stealing, variety, sleeping, music, mythology, insecure, medial. But he is also this, in the description of another genius, Nikica Petrak (who was said to be autistic): when he first heard a recital of Ujević’s poetry, he knew immediately that he needed to find out who Ujević was. He knew who he was, but now he really had to find out. “On the other side of the official literature, in the cafes and pubs of Zagreb at that time, there lived, obviously, another, ‘different’ poetry, officially forgotten and suppressed.” And then this episode: “As a fourteen-year-old kid from Zvijezda1 (even today, when asked where I am from, I pathetically declare that I come from Zvijezda, may they make whatever they want of it), I would take some lonely walks around the city, which were always parallel to the wanderings of the street scouts from Medveščak and Ribnjak2. I would go up Mlinarska Street in the early afternoon, then along Jurjevska Street to Gornji grad. On one of these clear June days, when ‘the marquis came out at five o’clock’, as I was walking down the desolate Opatička Street towards the Stone Gates, I met a passer-by. My age today, roughly. (At that time, Petrak was about sixty years old – AN). Early spring: a fedora hat, a faded grey raincoat. No bag. He sauntered, occasionally touching the walls of the houses. I remember his face. Grey-white, fully sculpted and striking, it looked at my foolish, naive eyes as if it wanted to see me. (“My daily reading is the head/but my eye horrifies me.”) Our eyes met, and it was my first déjà vu in life: ten steps later, the child started to wonder why this man, whom it had never seen before, looked so familiar. Who is he? He must be ‘someone’, but what is it?” Petrak, as if scorched by lucidity, continues to separate the important from the irrelevant, saying: “It was a moment of magic, which I understood as soon as I saw Miljenko Stančić’s charcoal drawing (and later the one by Vaništa, with one eye already dead while the other one was still speaking) of the same character that hangs in the DHK3 secretariat today.” The descriptions of the other portraitist of the great Tin contain magic, compared to which the official theories are like the rattle of an empty bucket. Vaništa lived in Rakovec and attended the fifth grade of grammar school. The railroad ran across the field right next to the school. There, with the help of a telescope, the mathematics professor explained the stars’ movement. “I remember (it was the first spring evening of 1940) the image of an illuminated train in the night, us looking at it distractedly, me hearing the sound of wheels fading at a turn. That night, as I learned later on, Tin Ujević was travelling on that train to Zagreb, his last residence. After the war, I watched him from a distance, scuffing through the streets of Zagreb. He was doomed to exile, starving, neglected, neurotic, inaccessible. He could be seen in the library of the French Institute in Preradović Street, sitting in the front row by the window, in a coat, motionless. He would read or write. After an hour or two, he would get up quietly, take his hat off the table and leave.” Who was he? Someone who knew this about Knut Hamsun around the celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday: he knew that Hamsun was alone, that we might not call this event a celebration because he received no one and had no contact with the world, that he had to return to nature, daydreaming, solitude. Ujević also knew that his novel “Glad” (Hunger) was a “school of inner words and gurgling.” Ujević, as Vaništa, talked about hunger, a topic he was well familiar with, and said: “the poetic meaning of a disturbing phenomenon of the stomach emptiness.” He knew that Hamsun did not exert the same influence as some masters of the form, yet he did it within “soft pieces of literature that do not embody the plasticity of form but rather a dissolved poetic ecstasy.” But well, one might say, Hamsun, of course – an untamed giant saw through the other untamed giant. But he wrote about Proust, too, and it seems as if he had already read Paolo Virno’s tiny piece “A grammar of the multitude”, because he says that Proust indulges the psychological importance of gossip. And Virno writes in the book’s best pages, contrary to Heidegger’s condemnation of “chatter”, about the importance of this transmission of information, not only information but the smells, everything. At the end of Ujević’s life, many peculiar things happened. Nobody celebrated his sixtieth birthday; it was not forbidden, but it was not welcomed; he was entitled to a pension, but he refused it, most probably fed up with the rejuvenation of the spirit advised by Kamov – who was surely just fucking around, there is no way for a normal person to think that. Many legends have been told about his relationship with Krleža, but one of these stories is indeed true. Ujević wrote a poem in which he mentions the scent of young linden trees in front of the University building, and Krleža tried to explain to him – be aware that this is the conversation of a botanist and a great writer – that there were no linden trees there, just a plane tree and many chestnut trees. “Krleža, please stop fucking with me,” said Ujević and resorted to a bar. Petrak also covered these two colossi, each huge in their own way, writing about them in “Tin”. For him, Krleža is an author obsessed with factual knowledge, botany, geography, geopolitics, a poet as far as the intent is concerned, “much more of a political writer aimed at ‘reality’ as an art object, not being able to understand this: there is no way for such a man to be the imitator, a maddened man who walks around worried – on a day when the linden trees give off their sweet smell in front of the University building – in a pair of greasy riding breeches and the worn-off half-cylinder, borrowed or taken from a gentleman who doesn’t need them anymore (von Kavalieren abgelegte Sachen), with the big question being arranged in the pangs of his conscience.” Finally, Petrak also despises the view of Ujević as a bohemian. “Today, bohemianism is a self-explanatory way of life of the histrionic public sphere that managed to escape the necessity of the victory of bread” – a sentence which sounds as if Ujević himself dictated it to him by just looking at him, long ago, two years before his death, while he still had two lively eyes that were able to tell everybody to bug off, including the dull present-day interpreters. In a race that was initially conducted politically, not poetically, Ujević was simply unbeatable. When you have greatness, all the objections to it are valid, but because you have greatness, these objections are like flies buzzing around a lion. Every objection against him could be documented and still, it would be nothing, nothing at all, a big, empty nothing. All that remains is the radiance captured in these words: “I am dust and life, and the entirety of light, and nothing more.”

  1. A neighbourhood in Zagreb.
  2. Neighbourhoods in Zagreb, as well.
  3. Abbreviation for the Croatian Writers’ Association.


Dario Grgić