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This review is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

LIFE SENTENCES NINA CASSIAN, Life Sentence, trans. William Jay Smith et al (Anvil)
NINA CASSIAN, Take My Word For It (Anvil)
VASKO POPA, Collected Poems, trans. Anne Pennington and Francis R. Jones (Anvil)

The revised and expanded edition of Vasko Popa's Collected Poems brings together everything from Bark (1953) to The Cut (1981), and includes a number of previously unpublished poems. Though first and last a poet of Serbia, its myths, folklore, landscape and history, Popa displays here an enormous range of interests. He writes in sequences of several poems on a single theme. His approach is to pick up an idea, hold it up to the light, turn it round to examine it first from one angle and then from another, meticulously noting all the possibilities before putting it down and moving on to the next idea.

The close observation of everyday detail frequently grades into a kind of mystical surrealism. The intermingling of the strange and the familiar lends much of Popa's poetry the quality of a dream-vision. His dream-visions are seldom without a nightmarish aspect. In the sequence 'Games', from Unrest-Field (1956), Popa transforms the innocent order of children's games into gruesome rituals:

One is the nail another the pincers
The rest are workmen

The pincers grip the nail by the head
Grip him with their teeth with their hands
And tug him tug
To get him out of the floor
Usually they only pull his head off
It's hard to get a nail out of the floor

Then the workmen say
The pincers are no good
They smash their jaws and ...


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