Anomie & Dis-Ease: Kurt Brown on Novica Tadic’s Dark Things

Dark Things, Novica Tadic, translated with an introduction by Charles Simic, BOA Editions, 2009

To get a sense of the atmosphere in which Tadic’s imagination thrives, think of F. W. Murnau’s landmark film from 1922, “Nosferatu,” especially one of the early scenes in which Count Orlok’s creepy coachman arrives to take the unsuspecting traveler, Thomas Hutter, on to the castle and ultimately his doom. The scene is all the more horrific for being silent (except for the eerie organ music someone has added) as though the action were taking place in the ghostly, soundless realm of a dream. The coach arrives to collect Hutter at the precise border between the happy sunlit world of illusion, and the crepuscular “land of phantoms” which exists beyond, and into which Orlok’s dour servant whisks Hutter despite his obvious reservations. To enter the world of Tadic’s poetry is to experience a similar sense of anomie and dis-ease. It is a world of madness, if that word has any validity anymore, which is part of Tadic’s point, one he hones in poem after poem with a fine, unsettling irony:

A straightjacket
is being woven
and cut to measure
on you.

If Simic had chosen to translate the last line as “for you,” the poem would suggest a slightly different meaning than it does here. “For you,” would mean that the jacket is meant only for the individual for whom it is being woven and that the individual, perhaps, is destined to become mad. “On you” suggests the individual may not be mad—yet—or is perhaps mad already, but doesn’t know it. It may also suggest that the person in question is being used as a kind of tailor’s dummy for the making of straightjackets that others may wear as well. In either case, madness is inescapable, a fait accompli, to which everyone will inevitably succumb, if not now, then later in the natural course of human events.

Of course, what makes human madness twice as mad is the fact that almost everyone is blithely unaware of it most of the time. There is a sense, throughout Tacic’s poems, that our own evil is largely hidden from us except during moments of inescapable horror. The madness of the holocaust is undeniable (regardless of those who deny it), as are countless other instances of human atrocity throughout history, though we dispense with them by reasoning they are aberrations, and we congratulate ourselves by observing holidays, building museums, and instituting laws to “make sure these things never happen again.” This blindness, this self-deception, is what Tadic means in the following poem when he has a magpie bear witness against us:

What you took out
on a newspaper
to throw out in front of the house,
you showed to a magpie
who flew away

full of greed and malice

to spread the news about your crime
of which you know nothing
before royal thrones
and humpbacked judges
and testify against you finally.

What are the crimes we’ve committed about which we know nothing? It could be that something bloody and unspeakable is wrapped in that newspaper, but it could also be the daily atrocities filling its pages; television reports we watch with our mouths full, then go back to eating dinner; suffering in a thousand guises resulting from someone applying the instruments of torture to someone else around the globe at any hour of the day or night. “Mankind cannot stand too much reality,” T. S. Eliot assured us at the beginning of the last century, which proved to be one of the bloodiest on record. We live our lives in the light, on Hutter’s side of the border, just beyond the shadow of the land of phantoms. “I have committed a terrible crime, of which I have no knowledge or memory,” is perhaps the darkest fate we can imagine. But don’t think those humpbacked judges will show much mercy when the time comes to face them.

It is only in dreams that we sometimes catch a glimpse of our crimes:

Someone whispered to me in a dream
that on this Earth, there’ll be no
more water, only blood.

We’ll drink each other’s blood
as we have always done
and won’t dream of it anymore.

Over dried out springs,
bones of dead animals and last humans
will pile up.

Young hyenas with our faces
will titter and fight
around their gnawed and dry remains.

“As we have always done…” Tadic’s indictment of humanity is timeless and complete. This is Eliot’s “Wasteland” transmogrified into B-movie horror. It is a painting, Simic reminds us in his introduction, by Bosch. Tadic’s “dark things” exist both within and without us. Their provenance is the shadowy recesses of our own hearts and minds, and when they break free they are projected into the world with brutal force. Their natural results are torture, barbarity, and war. As in an earlier volume of selected poems, Night Mail, also translated by Simic the literary source of Tadic’s poems seems to be the fable, the often macabre primitive folk tale of central Europe where Hancel And Gretel shove the witch into an oven and Dracula revives at dusk to spread his wings. In Night Mail, owls gather for a black mass, cats march on strike, dogs roam through a ghost town. If Tadic’s poems arise from a child-like pleasure in the grotesque, they seem to come to us out of the Dark Ages long before any renaissance or enlightenment has occurred. Superstition and paranoia reign. Yet, for all that, the poems seem to point toward the future as well, an apocalyptic landscape in which the faces of hyenas are young, and only the bones of humanity remain.