Reviewed by Timothy Henry
In his introduction to Novica Tadić's Dark Things, Charles Simic suggests that the reader of this haunted collection is led by “a nameless recluse, mistrustful and fearful . . . surrounded on all sides by monsters and apparitions generated by his vivid, guilt-ridden imagination.” With the guidance of this recluse, we are taken on a full-frontal tour of the narrator’s neighborhood, where this brilliant, delicate elder has lived long enough to lose any hope for his land's salvation. A lifetime spent on these dreary streets takes its toll on the speaker’s own hope for salvation, which remains at stake throughout the book's 48 poems, and, like all of the troubles presented by Tadić, is left unresolved. Yet with a terrifying beauty, our guide still manages to fulfill his vocation: to endure this dark and dreadful world as both witness and poet, or, in Tadić's own words, as “God's messenger.”
The scene is Belgrade, Serbia's capital, where Tadić has lived for virtually all of his life. Born in 1949, he draws from nearly 60 years of violence and decay that ransacked Communist and post-Communist Yugoslavia as well as from the emergence of the nation now known as Serbia, complete with the subsequent terror that has plagued the young country. But Tadić's poems don't seem to describe a typical city or nation, establishments usually designed to unite and define a group of people dwelling in a geographical region. Rather, these poems seem to portray an isolated universe, often void of logic, always void of hope, where man, beast, and the supernatural live, suffer, and, most noticeably, die side-by-side. No one wants to claim ownership of this forsaken land, yet everyone seems to be responsible for its constant decay: “Poor us, we are all kings / when we gaze upon the starry sky,” Tadić states in the opening lines of “Night Passes.” Only when an inhabitant gazes into the unreachable outside, Tadić suggests, does he realize his own role in the darkness that consumes the stale, cold city.
The scent of death is apparent throughout all of these poems, sometimes from corpses left to rot or rabid animals dying in the vicinity, but most often this scent emerges from the terror lurking around every dark corner, in every abandoned hall, and in the unfamiliar faces of those who call this unfortunate neighborhood home, as in “About The Dead, Briefly”:
We sniffled and sniffled,
but nobody shed a tear.
May the earth be easy on him;
since it was only today that we noticed
he had been alive.
An immense amount of power lies in both the poems and their settings, but a stranger, stronger power seems to exist in the zombie-like surroundings of the town: “Amidst the noise, the moving crowd, the live maelstrom, / I know your powers, street.” This uncontrollable, unseen power has an enormous effect on our recluse-guide, whose poems show him crippled with paranoia (“My blood wouldn’t let me rest”) and utter fear (“Let's turn and lie on our backs forever”). Tadić’s strength lies not in his ability to depict the external evil that haunts this neighborhood, but rather in his ability to show how this external evil can infect itself inside the already hopeless human soul: “Evil spirits will rise out of the palm of your hand,” perhaps, even, through osmosis--“An ocean of hatred splashes over me everyday.”
The speaker is constantly concerned over his role in the deterioration of the land, and his inability to bring an end to the horrors creates a poignant guilt that radiates from these poems. A spiritual presence, too, is peppered throughout, though often in a futile tone: “Now, what will I cover myself with? Only with prayers,” and “I wandered everywhere / like a God's fool.” God is far from absent in these poems, as Tadić addresses God more than anyone or anything. However, the only thing worse for Tadić than an absent God, it seems, is an inactive God; the sheepish, poetic prayers of the recluse remain unanswered, the darkness and decay never cease.
Tadić's poems recall A.R. Ammons' statement that, “The end of the poem is to reconstruct silence . . .” Tadić has the ability to shatter silence each time he begins one of his beautifully haunted poems, yet his endings do what Ammons suggests: they bring the reader back to silence. These uncomfortable silences gradually become more familiar to the reader, as each poem concludes with a feeling more terrifying than what came before. Perhaps Tadić's most dreadful ending comes from the four-stanza “A Bird Started To Sing,” which concludes:
Wind lifted the ashes
and spread them
over other ashes.
Since most of these poems barely reach a page in length, Tadić works with diligence and speed, as if the scenery he is describing is so vile that he can only muster a few stanzas before the horror again breaks him. One may wonder why our recluse guide doesn't flee his current state for the hope of finding a brighter land, but, as Tadić shows, fleeing is an impossible task when one doesn't have his bearings: “I don't know where I've come from / nor where I'm going.” Again, credit must be given to the work of Simic, a master of diligence and stealth himself. A weaker translation would not have been capable of depicting the sudden silences of Tadić's nightmarish world to an English-speaking audience so effectively. Simic's own Serbia-influenced poems are drawn from childhood memory, often contorted, filtered, or presented with an admirable naïvete, sometimes even making light of atrocity. There is no lightness to be found in Novica Tadić's collection, only darkness. A crippling, ubiquitous darkness.