How I stole Bagić
There’s something I love about the smell of earth mixed with sweat and sap, of barely woken and freshly mown grass engrained in every pore of the hand, a smell familiar to every child and every player who has taken a fall, and to every bare-handed goalkeeper: the pitch has been prepared, the nets are stretched, and it’s a Sunday, the day for football.
Not all smells are the same, though, or equally pleasant, even if from the strict point of view they are identical. Although it was not at a match, and in fact I had stopped playing long before, the same smell found its way into my nostrils and palms during my military service. I discovered from a chance conversation that there was a library indoors. This revelation was useful on more ways than one: it was the only refuge from mindless routine, the only place where silence offered a Sunday-like, almost religious atmosphere. Admittedly, when I checked out Camus’s “The Plague” the librarian did ask me whether I was planning to take leave of my senses entirely, but she kindly pointed out a few books of poetry piled up on the floor. I bent down to see what they had, and there it was, Svako je slovo kurva (Every Letter’s a Slut), by Krešimir Bagić and Boris Gregorić.
I returned the Camus as I was meant to, but I kept Slovo for myself without thinking twice. I made no life-long friends in the army, but I brought Bagić home with me. Because it was 1998, ten years after the book had been published.
From his first collection on, Krešimir Bagić has suggested (not asserted) that unambiguity cannot be possible in any respect. The very title, “Every Letter’s a Slut”, indicates that it is not possible to exhaust a designation, not simply because words acquire new and different meanings in every context, but also because the words themselves are subject to change as they shift into other situations; in the ceaseless process of speech, sounds, and letters as their images, audibly migrate from one word to another. By using the continuous present to portray actual situations as surreal, Bagić and Gregorić call into question the reliability of the rules of grammar. What is more, even if in this collection the borders which are supposed to be drawn in order to distinguish one literary genre from another are not actually erased, they are not straight lines but curved or undulating ones, whose regularity disintegrates to the endless distance within a circle.
Bagić’s next appearance was with his collection Između dva snažna dima (Between a Couple of Long Drags), where meaning continues to flicker. Here the poet in the first person continues to eavesdrop on language, its sounds, and its mute silences. Despite the fluidity of shadows, the alphabet of snows and the handwriting of the winds, motifs of brick and leaden letters are suggested here. The poems written in the first and second persons continue to express doubt in their own integrity, and it is impossible to avoid an off-side position. My goalkeeper’s reading of the situation might discern two goal lines in this, but I would rather leave, “between a couple of long drags”, the sense of smoke twisting gently, released in the organic process of breathing.
The fractal collection Krošnja (Treetop), central to Bagić’s poetry, is also organic in nature. Fluid motifs of snow “with a lovely name, winds blow falsehoods” reappear as in the cycles of nature; we encounter underground waters, the sea and the air, dealers in breathing are here, and like a actual treetop, Bagić’s is full of mottlings and rustles, repeating themselves like Mandelbrot sets, and to one degree or another displaying patterns which may appear similar but nonetheless have very visible, and audible, differences. Every word, in a different context, becomes another, and even the rhythms, repetitive at first sight, are only apparently alike, “the midnight tram hurries through the streets”.
Bagić’s auto-poetic views are perhaps most clearly seen in the collection that followed Krošnja, Bršljan (Ivy). His lyric subject is calmer in this collection: it has put down roots, branched out, and it clings to trees, walls and cliffs, to the linguistic and literary tradition from which it springs. The poems are filled with organic motifs which endlessly grow and change; like the ivy they penetrate the soil and branch into the air. Meanings are less demanding than in the preceding books and easily decipherable, yet, of course, metaphorically complex and they must be carefully sought out and handled, and the statements of the varied petals of the rose must be examined and listened to with attention, because here “breathing is transcribed”.
His next book, Jezik za svaku udaljenost (A Tongue for Any Distance), most of which is in the form of the prose poem, is characterised by a confessional tone, the protagonist discovering in Parisian motifs an analogy with those of his own home; in the cramped lodging of a foreign tongue he tries to hear his own, either in order to mimic situations where speech is physically limited, or in an attempt to locate an analogy, or a universal gesture. Interestingly, for a poet whose starting point is the impossibility of ownership in his own language, and partly following the interest of the youngest Croatian poets in the media, was one of the chief characteristics of the poetry of the 1990s, in this work Bagić sought to find his metaphorical “tongue for any distance” in football.
In terms of an approach to the interpretation of Bagić’s poetry, this is merely our attempt to determine the moment of coming out onto the green turf of a pitch marked by clear boundary lines and flags. These have only been painted provisionally, in order to mark out, as far as is practicable, a field of play, an area of vast possibilities for manoeuvring and tactics. This manoeuvring is displayed between the impossibility of anything being given a single and eternal signification through language, as a convention, and the impossibility of an individual, as a convention, being unilaterally determined. It unfolds between the organic, which cannot be comprehended, and an unconventional physical conditioned reflex like breathing. Any playing field allows that, at the very least, but it is hardly necessary to observe that a pitch is not a level surface: a pitch is a space.
I await our next meeting, Bagić’s next assault, with impatience. Knowing his game, it is certain that he will not kick the ball into touch simply in order to win the match – not in the sense that he will shoot a penalty, or that position the ball in order to tempt the goalkeeper outside his box. He will probably run onto the pitch in a white strip and try some tactic, some wild play and memorable idea that will throw the whole defence into confusion, and not just the keeper with his senses taut. This is the attraction of the game: the greatest challenge for any goalkeeper is to play against a great player. It is spring, the nets are stretched, the season has begun.
Translated by Kim Burton