poetry

Ivan Goran Kovačić: The pit

Illustration: Pablo Picasso, La Fosse Commune (The pit), Etching, 1947. From Ivan Goran Kovatchitch Book.

Ivan Goran Kovačić (1913 –1943) was a prominent Croatian poet and writer of the 20th century. Death is a central theme in much of Kovačić’s poetry, however this is not a reflection on his life outlook. His melancholy subjects came from outside events—such as his own and his brother’s affliction with tuberculosis—rather than from an internal disposition toward the morose. Jure Kaštelan, one of Kovačić's contemporaries, expressed that Kovačić was inclined both toward romanticism and realism in his poetry, and that Kovačić had an intense perception of life. His best known work is "Jama" (The Pit). His work is an example of anti-war poetry with messages against torture, mass murders and war crimes.



 

"As long as the last man speaks Croatian and the language of the humanity in general, THE PIT, with its reach of artistic strength, is going to be everlasting condemnation of crime and hymn of the human freedom, truth and beauty, hymn of the human dignity."

 

Jure Kaštelan  (1919 - 1990)  about Goran's THE PIT

 

I

BLOOD is my daylight, and darkness too.

Blessing of night has been gouged from my cheeks

Bearing with it my more lucky sight.

Within those holes, for tears, fierce fire inflamed

The bleeding socket as if for brain a balm -

While my bright eyes died on my own palm.

 

While played, I never doubt, God's feathered creatures,

Reflected still in them, and clouds’ procession;

But all I felt were my blood-spattered features,

Bruised gulfs in that once brillant profusion.

How radiant lay my eyeballs in my hand,

Yet from those eyes no tear could more descend!

 

Then over other fingers ran the warm

Coagulating blood my slaughterer found

By the profounder agony of holes he formed

For better grip, more sensuously to wound;

But me the softness of my blood enthralled,

And I rejoiced as blood were red tears falling.

 

The final light before the frightful night

The lightning swooping of the polished knife,

The cry too white still in my blinded sight,

The bleach-white bodies of the murderers,

Who stripped their torsos for their sweaty task -

Was dazzling even to my blinded mask.

 

O painful daylight, never so hard yet

Or penetrating did you break the East

With fiery arrow; I might have thought I shed

Teardrops with leaping flames that seared my cheeks

Through all that hell so many lightnings brent,

So many cries of other victims rent.

 

What time that furious conflagration fanned,

All that I knew of time were callouses for eyes,

Hard-grown and aching; and could hardly stand.

And only then my slippery eyeballs fingered

And knew — and cried: My sight, O Mother mine, is gone.

How shall I weep when your life too is done?

 

Then dazzling daylight like a myriad carillons

From endless gleaming bell-towers in my crazy

Brain illumined like the lights of Zion,

A lovely light — a light which sanctified —

Bright birds, bright river, trees and, brilliant

Boon pure as mother's milk, still brighter moon.

 

Now came a torture I had never guessed -

My murderer commanded „Break your own eyes!“

I nearly prayed for mercy to the beast,

But slimy-fingered spasmic hands obeyed —

And then no more I heard, no more could tell,

To empty nothing faltered, and I fell.

 

II

WITH chilly urine woke me, and with blows

Belaboured fire back to my head, and then

These executioners pierced our ear lobes

With blunted, clumsy spikes, each one in turn —

„Laugh, laugh!“ they ordered, as they thrust their tools,

„Ear-rings are fine for force-converted fools!“

 

Then horrid laughter, sobbing, loud and wild

Reverberated as if dead men laughed;

But crazy humour hindered those defiled —

To silence us our wilted flesh they flayed;

But endless now in our long choking wit,

With gaping sockets our dead sorrow wept.

 

Then suddenly like corpses we were still

(No doubt from fear lest we were still alive) —

Tugged by our swollen ears they dressed us, till

The silent torture turned us all awry

(But birds that sang to us, not one did tire)

While through our tattered lobes was drawn a wire.

 

So each man of us if the least he starts

Howls dully when he feels the frightful pain.

„Silence!“ — the executioner — „we know it smarts,

But we're not going to let you go again!“

Not one of us could even shake his head

But give another blinding pain instead.

 

That warder wire appeased our cruel captors,

And, tired, nearby they sat down in the shade;

Refreshing water gurgle then was heard

Down parching throats, loud pleasure as they ate,

As if they'd laboured hard, till they began

To pass foul, slimy jokes from man to man.

 

Then even seemed our presence was forgotten;

We heard them yawn and break their wind at leisure.

„Oh boy, I saw a skirt today“ — a rotter

Spued dirty observations from his tongue.

Thus passed their noon, in wine or cooling water —

Ours passed on burning wire, strung for the slaughter.

 

III

NOW in my rank a girl went mad and shrieked

Her warning — „Men! Fire! the house is burning,

Fire!“ And now the wire strung through us wreaked

New agony and rent distorted gaps

In all our monster ears until she fell

And choking lay, oblivious to hell.

 

„Blind sockets, deaths-head skulls, you purblind rats,

We'll doctor you with hot coals in those holes

To make you see again, blind blinking bats!“

And, as he spoke, a drunken murderer lent

Leering forward, and slashed down through a face,

To leave its ear still dangling, wired in place.

 

We heard the victim’s cry, his frenzied pace

As, thus released, down maddened dark he ran;

Through mortal silence then we heard the chase,

And, as the knife struck twice, his heavy fall.

So one is saved, I told my night of it,

Nor knew they led our steps towards the pit.

 

I heard the heart dull in my hollow breast

And through the wire to others’ beating harked;

To that dumb drum we pressed our steps ahead

(How loud it rumbled through the weeping dark!)

By that tattoo I saw through holes for eyes

My thoughts assemble as in bright sunrise.

 

And saw again, as I had seen at dawn,

The hollow pit which yesterday we dug;

I strained my hearing and at last it came —

That sudden flat sound as each victim fell —

Knife-edged, my thought itself began to tell

The forty-nine before me, known so well.

 

And, waiting fingered memory’s index,

Ticked whom they took before, behind, all round —

So add, subtract, until the following blows

Descend and new men die; till all my strength

Of mind to dazzling clarity was grown,

To let no change take place, and pass unknown.

 

Somewhere cicadas sang; a single cloud

Brushed fleeting shadow over everything.

I heard one murderer nature easing loudly,

The while another, heated, wildly slew —

All this engraved like sight, and glittered clear

As sun upon the knife-edge, in my ear.

 

IV

WHEN the first sacrifice began to choke

I heard a silken sound, a fleshy sack

Which settled slow. I knew that first the throat

They stuck, then in between the shoulder-blades

A second thrust, then swiftly pushed away

To fill the pit, together to decay.

 

Before my blindness, limp and dead, one fell,

Then with a yell of fear, behind my back,

While my keen senses noted down each blow

And every person dead, struck from my list —

Nor man nor girl who cried or sudden wept

But in my heart — my wound — their agony leapt.

 

A comrade in the pit now whimpered like a child,

Throat but half stuck — that sound so ominous

Alarmed me lest I lost the list compiled —

Then down below a hand-grenade they tossed —

The firm earth rocked. A weakness bent my shape;

What hope now had I that I might escape?

 

Yet consciousness triumphant still possessed me;

Now nerves and blood and flesh and skin became

A straining ear; I counted thirty-one —

Sixty and two more strikings with the knife —

I heard a blow which fell with savage force,

And once again my folly took its course,

 

When now another cry for intermission

Brought yet another hand-grenade, new dead

Began to fall with thuds of less precision,

As if on water, o'er a slush of flesh;

And so in blood I feel my foot-soles sink —

A spasm shook me — I had reached the brink.

 

V

OH, THEN I saw, with suddenly better sight,

As if my eyes returned — but to my back —

That whitened skin, that knife prepared to strike,

The victims too who while last seconds tick

Stand stiff and still, yet automatic steal

By inches toward the knife their nerves can feel.

 

Uninterruptedly the ranks moved slowly on

— As if some distribution was ahead —

Not one that shouted, started back or groaned,

While steadily in sultry air death mowed

The deadripe corn, which fell with only sound

The fluent blood which spurted to the ground.

 

Thus step by step, with briefest pause between —

The croak, the knife, the thud; the queue pace

Nearer, nearer still. Strained on a rack,

I backed, felt on my lips the bitter taste,

Another's blood, and thus became the third

Who waited at the pit till it — occurred.

 

The darkness more disgusting through my blindness

Blasted my mind and cluttered every sense —

And sense bevond a thousand daybreaks cried

Intense — O arrow! O flame! O bewildering snow!

Light, come at last devoid of any shade,

With needles in my aching eyeballs played.

 

The comrade next bent suddenly towards me,

As if a cramp had gripped him, then he groaned,

And, stumbling forward, set a soft sigh free,

That lonely sigh, consumed in his death-rattle —

Swung downward, flopping like a fish. With this,

Before me gaped the bottomless abyss.

 

Each detail fresh today — my body swayed

In space — as if upon the final rung

Of endless nothing balanced there before me,

And at my back another nothing hung.

A whitened arrow was my own throat slit,

Black death the stab behind; before — the pit.

 

VI

BUT in the pit, by quivering heart made keen,

I felt the chilling corpse that pressed me down,

And my own clamour too, that webbed me in.

Fear flared my senses when a woman shrieked!

I am in the pit, cold maw that took our flesh,

That took our corpses clammier than fish.

 

I lay upon a corpse — a mould of brawn,

A flabby slimy thing in bloody steep;

Yet thought was rescued by that human cold,

And flashed new lightning when a woman screamed.

I turned in fever quick towards the sound

And stretched my hand — to touch a soft, wet wound.

 

For the first time my every ounce of strength

Knotted together over all the dead;

To hide that shriek I held my breath and pressed

Deep fingers in my sockets — bodies naked

Shrieked together in the darkened pit,

And hell re-echoed with the din of it.

 

Then my new fear awoke — grenades would fall!

With awful spasm at first I thrust and gripped

A woefully butchered limb — the body crawled

To writhe with me, and, writhing, slipped,

The blood-lapped gurking gullet gaping wide —

When footsteps came and voices spoke outside.

 

O heavens above, a woman’s tense embrace

Of second death contained me and I felt

My fingers ridging in her wrinkled cheeks —

O whitened hairs! O Granny! and I held

Her bony hands and warmed them with my breath,

Felt I had caused my own dear mother's death.

 

I heard how she lamented as she died,

How passionately still che longed to live.

I begged all those now dead for absolution.

I felt a twisted lip grow swiftly stiff —

And fainted then. When once again I stripped

The darkness from my mind, my flesh still wept.

 

VII

STOPPED — alone —of all cold corpses, first!

But chill of death crept subtly up my spine;

My limbs — congealed in choirs of dead men — thirsting

With gums and tongue and gullet throbbing fire.

The ice of death is still. Inside, hell flamed,

Though not a cry, to give that silence shame.

 

Yet that lewd burden pressing on my body

Not even with the ice of death can slake

My burning throat; that ever deader sod

Confines me — till I nearly shriek for water —

Then water sprinkles, near and far by turns,

Oh, cooling shower! that burns, burns, burns!

 

Over the naked skin, the vale of ice,

Down belly, breast and flanks and thighs at once

That cooling rivulet sets teasing fire,

And hollows angry furrows in the flesh.

A burning droplet on my stiff lips traced,

My tongue revealed to me the quicklime taste.

 

The pit chockful, on carcases they poured

That fire, to spare the world our stealing stench:

I thanked them that, now dead, they tried to warm

Us with that charity... I felt wrench

Of naked corpses as their sinews turned,

Like long dead fishes by crude saline burned.

 

That final spasm of nerves yet not quite still,

That wondrous shudder on which I now floated

Compelled me bless the guilty one for this:

When look! a corpse beside me was alive —

Grey-haired old granny’s icy hand caressed

Me, now she knew I still had not found rest.

 

VIII

WHEN that dead wave of life again subsided,

I caught the sound of steps as from afar —

Somebody twice walked slowly round the site,

Then peace shone steady, like the evening star.

I bent, to rise, hitched feet up, one by one,

Like digger when his graveyard job is done.

 

Then what surprise! The corpses moved about,

Slid over me and slowly settled in;

They laughed and wept, groaned and sighed and shouted,

Reached for me — gripped me — furiously throttled —

I felt their nails, their buttocks, and their thighs,

Their mouths and bellies corner me alive.

 

From terror I was still — then they still too —

Their weight decreased, a dead leg on my shoulder

Dangled limp. They had pursued, but now

Pursued no more! — my climbing had undone

The dead — I told myself. — That mangled noose

About your neck, a dead girl's locks have tangled!

 

Soft air now brushed its coolness on my mouth

Between the dead — then I was near escape!

And as if drowning, gulped; and thickened blood

Through nostrils spurted down my parching throat.

I laughed aloud — yet who saw me with gob

Of comrades blood bedecked, would sorely sob.

 

Or fear would petrify him, smite his speech

Before monstrosity like me — for why

Deceive myself when must think I grin

If I am weeping, or, if smiling, cry?

Yet, in these empty sockets none may now forget

Like their tenebrous depths, the deadly pit.

 

For I could not relieve myself of guilt

Were I to leave my dead in that dark hole.

The air's alive — but do I also live?

I half expected they would clutch me to them —

But then my mortal wounds „You live!“ declared.

Be brave! Day's done — the evening damp is here!

 

IX

OH, NEVER did I wait for darkness’ coming

With such desire. For now the dew was seeping

Over the upper bodies down to me!

My inflamed tongue set greedily to lick

Drops from the arms and legs of those now dead,

And down contorted gutters nectar bled.

 

Like a wild creature, maddened then, I tried

To clamber out, on bosom or on belly

Treading, nor when those things like bellows sighed

Did I pay heed, but clutshed and cramped my fingers

In the still hair, wherever dead flesh held,

Like maddened dog by burning thirst compelled.

 

Now was I free from pain and fear and shame,

Free to betray and spurn the dead, and crawl

On bodies as on sodden ground that crumbled.

Was it my sister that I trod — I cared not;

Some friend I mauled, girl's fragile bones I shattered —

My maddened thirst was master — what else mattered?

 

When like a beast I'd clambered from the pit,

All wisdom, caution, fled, I cared not any more

Who saw, but in blood crawled about and dragged

Myself to pasture, quadrupedal snorted,

Rooted burning lips, and gaped, and sank

My oblivious body as I crept and drank.

 

At last twas done; with grass-filled mouth I lay

Twixt fire and ice, exhausted beyond sense,

But saved! though baffled — whither could I flee?

A shudder broke me. Far off the tyrants sang —

With dirty catch their dismal triumph they shared.

When my soft mood was gone, and hatred flared!

 

X

My nostrils suddenly had caught the scent,

The wind-borne echo of our burning homes!

From ashes rose my youthful years’ content —

The weddings, harvests, dances, and long hours

Beside the hearth — the funerals with bells and wakes,

All that life’s sower sows and death's scythe takes.

 

That simple happiness, the window's glint;

Swallow and young; or windborne garden sweet —

Where? — The unhurried cradle's drowsy tilt?

Or, by the threshold, sunshine at my feet?

 

The spindle's whirring, or the sweetish scent

Of bread — the chairs, the nook, that all require

But peace — that square of sky the window bent —

Door hinges’ gentle creak, the cosy fire —

 

The cowbell clanging stately from the byre? —

Afar, it seemed, through the floor boards seeped in

Drip drip in sleep, while one by one the stars

The ages lit, o’er villages and kin.

 

No weeping — only oaths and bawdy yells.

The moon above a ruined village stands.

No more below the house the well-hoist spelling

Peace. Death's odour only fills our land.

 

Is there a place where suffering and pain

Men suffer, and endure, but yet alive?

Is there a place where men forget again

And live with those who wronged them by their side?

 

Is there a place, where children cry delight,

A father has a daughter — son, a mother?

Where even dreaded death is calm, and white,

With lilies for farewell, placed by a brother?

 

Is there la place, where flowers on the sill

Enhance a pleasure or a grief diminish?

Could there be happiness or wealth more full

Than oaken table, chest, and humble bench?

 

The forest suddenly rattled, magnified

From hill to hill, and bullets scattering squeaked

Like thunder children near me; high and wide,

Their errand missed, they sighed, and disappeared.

Comrades were come, the avenging battle started!

Light as strong as health lit up my heart!

 

All the hearths of home blazed up in me,

And every sinew swelled with vengeance for

Our bodies they had pillaged — I could see

The midday sun shrink gloom to liberty.

The smoking village as my nostrils’ guide,

I strove to take my stand my men beside.

 

Then it was you found me, still by the path

Oh my own kin, my unknown warriors!

Singing you came, like the first quickening swath

Of fruitful light, which, heralding the day,

Bathed me. I tried to ask —for had I swooned,

To dream of singing hands? o bowhund my wounds?

 

Upon my forehead moved a girl's cool fingers,

Upon my ears sweet music „Comrade partisan,

Rest now in peace, your agonies are requited.“

I reached my hands in dark towards her voice,

Without a word I touched the tender face,

The hair, grenades, and rifle of my grace,

 

Began to sob and never have ceased yet,

With throat alone, for now I have no eyes;

With heart alone, for now my tears the knife

Of murderers gouged away. I am deprived

Of eyes to see you, and that strength is gone

Which I so need, to fight too, till we’ve won.

 

But who are you, and whence? I only know

That your light warms me. All — Sing! for I can feel

At last I live; even though I'm dying now,

’Tis in sweet Liberty, with Vengeance stolen

From death. Your singing gives my eyses back light,

Strong as our People, and our sun as bright.

 

 

(Translation by ALEC BROWN)

  

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