Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981) is a major Slovenian poet. For the past few months, I've been carrying around and traveling with Nothing Is Lost, his selected poems eloquently translated by Michael Scammell and Veno Taufer. This marvelous body of work spans more than 40 years and confirms that Kocbek belongs in the company of other notable East European poets, such as Vladimir Holan, Vosco Popa and Zbigniew Herbert. He combined a keen, almost pantheistic feeling for nature with a powerful historical consciousness ("History rambles through nature," he wrote in the poem "Pentagram," "man is mysteriously hawk-eyed.") I admire his independent imagination ("As a writer I am completely independent, no force on earth can tell me what to do") and deep faith in poetry: "I feel now, as never before, that/ a poem is the condensed power of all human/ abilities, and that its ideal lies/ in the power of language to transcend itself."
Kocbek was born in what is now eastern Slovenia but was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The poems in his first book, Earth (1934), are deeply rooted in his native region. Reading them now, one feels that his pastoral sensibility and vital intimacy with nature, which at times feels mystical, were always infused with a painful sense of time, an agonized feeling of cosmic sorrow.
Earth, I Get Everything From You
Earth, I get everything from you, earth
to you I return, my flesh smells of holy
sacrifice and mortal sorrow, long will I
look upward by day and by night.
Earth, our grave, how lovely you are, earth,
I am a sweet dark grain among grains, bewildered
by your depths, birds chirrup over our heads,
one of them will peck us up.
Kocbek had a complicated political history. He fought with the communist-led partisans in World War II and played a key role in the new Slovenian government until he published unsparingly honest excerpts from his war diaries (Comradeship, 1949) and a book of short stories (Fear and Courage, 1951) that realistically portrayed the war crimes committed on all sides. The self-incriminating portrayal enraged the communist authorities and brought about his official disgrace and downfall. He lived under virtual house arrest for many years in Yugoslavia, which accounts for the nearly 30-year gap between his first and second books of poems. Dread appeared in 1963 and re-established Kocbek as a major literary presence with a gift, as Scammell puts it, "for personalizing the political and politicizing the personal."
There is a strong sense of existential dread in Kocbek's work and a recurring dialogue between faith and skepticism ("Faith and unfaith burned with a single flame"). As Charles Simic formulates it in a lucid foreword, "Kocbek is a connoisseur of philosophical paradoxes and impossible moral predicaments." He defied dogmas ("The law of freedom of the human mind," he explained, "is like the quiet defense of ancient rights") and took responsibility for his own actions. Freedom was his watchword. Here is the revealing but unfinished poem that he was working on at the time of his death:
I Haven't Done Playing with Words
I haven't done playing with words
that have meaning, now I would like to give myself up
to the dangerous game of words that mean nothing
and are a mystery to themselves. Freedom is
the terrible freedom of nothingness. Which side
shall I choose now that the decisive moment
has come? Till now I have played, but from now on,
hidden in the earth, I shall utter
unknown words through the eons, perhaps
through all eternity . . .