Knedla u Grlu: Female Voices of the Balkan Poetry Scene8 min read
In the last few years, female poets of different generations from the Balkans — Radmila Petrović, Monika Herceg, Tanja Stupar Trifunović, Maša Seničić, Olja Savičević Ivančević, Katarina Sarić, Marija Dejanović — to mention only a few, are gaining more and more affirmation in the system of literary contests and awards, and on the market as well. This tendency testifies to the intellectual and poetic maturation of the regional literary scene, which is reflected in the recognition and appreciation of different poetic voices and the gradual emergence of women’s literature from the framework of marginalisation. However, this development does not take place without contradictions.
One instance of this is the overemphasised exploitation of motifs related to women’s oppression and social position. This overemphasis consists of a one-dimensional understanding of women’s oppression as a dichotomy between a woman-victim and an abstract ideal of freedom, where there is mostly no room for showing the complex interweaving of the socio-historical and psychological content of women’s existence. The binary presentation of women and their fates occurs in different stylistic registers — from the banal, as in the poetry of Radmila Petrović, where the dead ancestress are most often abused, beaten or killed, in contrast to “the outlaw girl he would never marry” and “seductive-girl” (My mom knows what happens in the cities), to the highly aestheticized style of Olja Savičević Ivančević, who in the collection of poems Wild and Yours talks about the ideal of the emancipated woman-poet (“While she sings at the Sailor’s Cemetery/ Over a stone head Valèryja/ Yachts float casually in the harbour”), as well as about all the women erased from history and social consciousness (“You don’t read women”). Nevertheless, regardless of the scope of aesthetic expression, the impossibility of articulating women’s tradition as (po)ethical continuity, which results in emphasising the subordinate position of women as a constant resistant to change and without the possibility of nuance, most often leaves the impression of sadness and/or cheesiness, or produces a protective tone towards the figures that poetically shaped as victims of social injustice, which in critical interpretation is often seen as moralising.
By discussing poetry of two female poets from different generations, I will draw attention to the fact that their works, regardless of clear poetic and stylistic differences, can be read as a response to the problem of women’s tradition or simply its reflection, which can also be seen in certain metaphors that these poets use. We are talking about Katarina Sarić and Monika Herceg. In terms of thematic preoccupations, what connect the poem collections Globus Hystericus by Katarina Sarić and Time Before Language by Monika Herceg, is the interest in growing up, which is inseparable from the formation of the poet’s authorial voice, so, in the roughest terms, it can be said that one of the key topics is self-understanding of one’s own poetic expression.
When it comes to Time Before Language (2020), the new collection of poems by Monika Herceg, a multiple award-winning Croatian poet, the first thing that is noticeable is the harmony and refinement of the composition. The poems are arranged in three parts, going from general to individual, i.e. into theorems, hypotheses, and statements. What connects them into a whole is the motif of birds as an extended metaphor of home, as in one’s mental homeland, but also domestication, that of the violent restraint of human potential. It is a thought lyric that, by combining motifs from nature (birds, fire, air, water) with key constructions of culture and civilisation (such as language, trust, love), re-examines the formation of personality as a metaphysical category. Thus, in the Testimony of the Nest, the poetic voice evokes the conflict between the need for security and the lost potential of authentic realisation: “Because something always grows behind the back and prepares silence/ someone somewhere always painlessly turns over in a dream / on his own wings and forgets that he could fly,/ somewhere someone dies even though he lived/ like an unused chair that was punched out of the heart of a beech.”
Besides the carefully designed composition, a poetic turn can be clearly observed in comparison to the previous collection Lovostaj (2019), in which narrativized images of tragic female destinies prevail (“I, the beast in my apartment, killed my daughter a few months after giving birth, 1940. Nada Sremac writes that village women uncontrollably die from abortion as in Africa”). In both collections, you can feel the poet’s recognizable voice, mostly in the way she builds impressive poetic images — for example, when she says that “Love often lies in a puddle of silence/ long enough for revived rocks to emerge from it.” However, the impression that the poetic world of Lovostaj fails to imagine and shape women’s destinies independently of the symbolic presence of men, i.e. independently of equating the identity of a woman with the identity of a victim, which the critic Tomislav Augustinčić also notes, is confirmed in Time Before Language. Thus, in the poem “Theorem About The House”, the sketch of a woman-victim is outlined, unequivocally identified with the house: “Quiet earthen women walk unquestioningly for hours/ on the edge of hot ovens/ Life is an attempt at patience for boiling water“. Furthermore, in the poem “Theorem About Love,” the womb, as a metonymy of the procreative power of the female body, is used to create a broad idea of love as a female domain, since, as the lyrical voice says, love holds “with the womb all the little hearts/ that dissolve into the beginning of the world”.
It can be said that the simplicity of the way in which this motif is shaped consistently derives from nurturing the dichotomy of women as victims or as completely liberated. This dynamic of creating a female subject can also be observed in the opening poem of the collection Globus Hystericus by Katarina Sarić. This collection consists of a cycle of seventeen poems, and in the opening poem “Trojica,” the daughter stands in opposition to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — “unlettered, illiterate.” This motif is expanded in the poem “Kora,” where all the attributes of suffering are attributed to the female subject — “When she stands up and stretches herself/ dusty/ raped/ torn/ buried/ earth/ mother/ woman”. However, in both of these poems, the image of the victimised woman functions as a reference point from which to begin the review of the literary canon. The three that Katarina Sarić talks about are not only the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but also Njegoš, Andrić, and Lalić (male writers from the region), where the poet plays with literary authorities by exclaiming: “You three protectors/ avengers/ warriors/ you fucked my mother!”, it balances on the border between witty remark and trivialization. Globus hystericus is the Latin medical name for “lump in the throat.” It is a metaphor with which the poet summarises the experience of being subjected to and pulling through male dominance. The promise from the poem “Kora” — “I will become a ring of time/ verse/ that closes the circle/ far from the land of our ancestors” — by which the female lyrical subject is separating herself from tradition – seems somewhat naive, since only that lyrical subject is offered as opposite of the figure of the woman-victim. However, the author fulfils that promise in the next collection of poems, Death of Madame Dupin, which was published as one of the best manuscripts in the “Poeticum Publishing” competition.
However, the most important poetic breakthrough in the poetry of Katarina Sarić refers to the aforementioned promise of separation from the “land of the ancestors.” In the collection The Death of Madame Dupin, the poetic voice speaks of her own growth and intellectual maturation, but not through evoking specific events from the past or through elusive reminiscences of a time that does not belong to the domain of everyday life (Time before language), but, above all, through highlighting female role models, who are mentioned as dedications in the poems. The poetess dedicates the first poem “Putnička” to herself, and then Georges Sand, Simon de Beauvoir, Lou Salome, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Alexandra Kollontai. This idea of articulating the continuity of the female tradition in literature also develops on the level of metaphor. Metaphors related to labour and birth are no longer reserved only for signifiers of the feminine, but also for questioning literary heritage. Thus, in the poem “Pucanj,” it is said that Crnjanski enters the life of the poetess with forceps, which is an obstetric instrument used to perform a type of violent birth. Analogously, in the spirit of destabilising, the signifiers related to “male” and “female,” motifs related to the myth of Oedipus, such as digging out the eyes with a golden pin, here symbolise the emancipation of the woman as the author.
In the end, although she finds a way to formulate a women’s tradition in which she writes her own voice, certain motifs from the spectrum of women’s oppression feel trivialised or overemphasised in the poetry of Katarina Sarić. Often one even gets the impression that there is no organic unity between the authority of literary predecessors and the author’s poetic “I.” Nevertheless, the globus hystericus, i.e. “lump in the throat” is an important metaphor for the dynamics by which contemporary women’s poetry develops in the region. That “lump in the throat” is the (im)possibility of the polyphony of women’s voices, that is, the two-way dialogue of predecessors and contemporaries.