“The Thin Lash of Silence”: On Monika Herceg’s “Initial Coordinates”

May 6, 2022   •   By Cory Oldweiler

Initial Coordinates

Monika Herceg

THE SHAPE OF the poet’s journey is delineated, in the words of Jim Harrison, by “artifacts, each one a signal, a remnant of a knot of perceptions that brings back to life who and what you were” at a particular moment. Over the course of a career or the span of a life, those knots can be tied out of almost anything — joy, depression, a war — and the material limited only by the poet’s experiences and imagination.

Initially, however, the artifacts will be somewhat circumscribed by the particulars of origin, by the where and when and under what circumstances the poet was born or found their voice. These specifics can demand themes that will persist throughout a poet’s career. Or they can exert their effects more slowly as they are processed over many years. Or they may find themselves placed deliberately upon the slab to be dissected in a single work of art.

The Croatian poet Monika Herceg chose the latter approach in her aptly named debut collection, Initial Coordinates, published in 2018 and out now from Sandorf Passage in a lyrically svelte, yet textually weighty English translation by her compatriot Marina Veverec. The setting for these poems is intensely personal, Herceg told Najbolje knjige in 2017 after the collection won Croatia’s Goran Prize for Young Poets; its motifs “were part of my childhood and remain a part of my identity” (translation mine).

Herceg grew up “cut off from the rest of the world,” in a small village, just a few houses on a hill surrounded by forest. The poems in Initial Coordinates progress through the seasons as well as through an ordeal of escape, exile, and return. And though these journeys are ultimately cyclical, death is never distant, announcing its presence in the foreboding first stanza of the collection’s untitled introduction:

with caution we step beyond the tree line
aware below our feet lies
intact death

Themes progress over the course of the four sections, from the autumn of “snake deaths (origin)” and the winter of “bird deaths (escape)” through the subtler seasonal correlations of “cat deaths (exile)” and “rabbit deaths (return).” And they proceed in individual poems as well, such as “ouroboros,” which opens in the fallow darkness of a basement stocked with autumn apples before escaping into the wind-borne safety of spring.

That poem also explicitly introduces the book’s narrator for the first time: “i was a newborn when they carried me / through labyrinths of beech limbs / astray.” The other characters in Initial Coordinates are all villagers, mostly members of the narrator’s family — grandparents, mother, father, and brother. It is a world of “teeth-hollowing poverty,” where women either work or nurture or both. In autumn, they are “knee-deep in ice-cold water / cracking open like spiny husks of chestnuts.” In winter, they are “knitting socks / and mumbling on the lord’s prayer.” And when the brother hurts himself, the mother grows “a third a tenth / a hundredth arm” to help him. God may be revered, especially by the older villagers, but superstitions are respected as well.

While the village’s close ties to nature are self-sustaining, the manufactured world presents a threat. A city spreads “out like tuberculosis,” its chimneys “perforating the clouds’ guts.” Grandfather is scolded for drinking “store-purchased” rakija, instead of the “hundreds of liters of homemade” derived from the village’s plums that “inhale the flavors of the sun.”

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Herceg’s poems are precise, written in stripped-down language that is light on modifiers except when they are essential. There is no punctuation or capitalization, and listening to her recite them in Croatian emphasizes the fact that the Croatian word for song — pjesma — is also the word for poem. (Poetry in general is the more Latinate poezija.) Herceg’s songs are redolent of oral stories passed down between generations, stories that “close along with eyelids,” like those the narrator’s grandma and grandpa tell her when she climbs into bed with them in “same old stories.” The poems flow like limpid rippling rivers, rushed along by the sibilance of Slavic c’s, j’s, and hačeks, textured by the prevalence of k’s, g’s, and d’s. The overall effect can’t be duplicated in English, but Veverec achieves similar results at times. In “early autumn,” she teases out the sibilance:

cyclamens sense
somnolence seeping in bolder
eroding the bulbs
as it settles on their fertility

And she stresses the hard consonants with an agglomeration of d’s in “inheritable diseases”:

she was a half-doe half-grandma
mud dripping off her hooves
we feared she would dirty us up

There are numerous indelible images throughout, for which credit accrues to both Herceg and Veverec. In “deaf cats,” the neighbor kata is struck by lightning that she subsequently “wore […] underneath her heart / now skipping / like a broken toy.” In “blackberries,” the railroad has been neglected and “nothing remains of the tracks / but the untaken journeys / meandering through the hills.” And in “tiny deaths,” “the child in us burns / like birthday candles.”

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Herceg was born in 1990 and grew up near the then-Yugoslav city of Sisak, which today sits in the easterly arcing arm of Croatia, about equidistant between Zagreb to the northwest and the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina to the south. The area is not far from the northern edge of the Krajina, which became disputed between Croats and Serbs in 1991 when Croatia declared its independence from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. While the region around Sisak was never overrun during the ensuing Bosnian War, the Krajina remained a major front, its control changing hands and remaining unsettled until 1995, when Croats drove back Serb forces and retook the region for good. This combination of place and time means that Herceg’s initial coordinates put her in a war zone for the first several years of her life, a war whose scars can be felt throughout this affecting collection.

When the autumn of the collection’s opening section gives way to the winter of “bird deaths,” snows come and the plains turn to “killing fields.” Winter often feels explicitly analogous to the war, as in the poem “hunt,” when the winter morning “broke out with deaths / like autumn with red berries.”

One of the most sinister poems gets the title “goblins” in Veverec’s translation. In Croatian, that poem is called “bjesovi,” literally the plural form of rage, anger, or fury. On the poetry website Versopolis, which includes 15 of Herceg’s poems in Croatian and English, a different translator, Mirza Purić, rendered the poem’s title as “wraths.” If a winter is cold enough, the poem begins, a pack of wolves will descend from the mountains, and (in Veverec’s translation):

goblins in heaths multiply
and enter villagers like a seasonal flu

grandma says it’s always been like that
the goblins crawl inside the mouth when you least
expect it
then after midnight visit the wolf dens
the wolf children grow in the wombs of women

we mustn’t be deceived says grandma
by the children’s faces they put on
wolves in them grow faster than humans
and sooner or later
they shall bite

An Amnesty International report after the Bosnian War drew attention to the actions of a special police force in Sisak that carried out atrocities against their neighbor Serbs. The police force was nicknamed the “wolves,” lending yet another possible interpretation to the poem. Herceg’s imagery — seasonal flu, deceptive wolf children in the wombs of women — darkly hints at the scourge of homegrown nationalism that sprouts up far too often, especially in southeastern Europe.

The next poem, “heads,” continues the zealous martial imagery, introducing hunters “pushing ahead as if possessed / by the need to find a prey.” It doesn’t end well for them, however. Once an unspecified “they” arrive, along with an echo of Martin Niemöller’s Holocaust confessional,

first they came for the hunters

their heads
still full of sunny meadows
they set
around the village
like streetlamps

That chilling final image calls to mind a disquietingly similar one in Bosnian author Lana Bastašić’s spectacular 2018 novel Catch the Rabbit, when her character Sara remembers being surrounded in Banja Luka during the war “[u]nder the only light bulb, which hung from the old department store building like an execution.” Imagine growing up in a region where death is so prevalent that, later in life, two women from different sides of that war will associate light with death.

In the collection’s third section, the explicit war imagery gives way to scenes of life in exile, the narrator and her brother playing together and getting in trouble, mother and father getting injured and raising their family. The major exception is “barrel,” my favorite poem in the collection, which recounts a recurring dream the narrator has “running back to our house hoping I’d make it / just in time for us to flee.” Back then, she was still tiny enough to “vanish in an oak barrel.” The poem concludes in the kind of nightmare you would never wish on anyone, let alone a child:

everything reeks of rakija
and i refuse to believe in a god
i can’t talk to
as i’m biting my nails trapped inside the barrel
as i’m catching my breath running through the forest
as i’m digging tunnels
holding fireflies in my mouth
beneath our house

In the book’s final section, death comes often, but usually from natural causes. Grandfather is standing over the narrator’s bed with a knife in his hands trying to protect them in “escape,” and by the next poem, he is “withering,” gone, unable to “return with us.” Grandma may be losing her mind in “inheritable diseases,” but we never find out because, by the next poem, she too is dead. Father’s death animates several poems, including “bonding with death,” where mother cannot bring herself to “close the windows or the doors,” perhaps afraid to lock his ghost outside their home. Later we learn that father hanged himself, devastating both the narrator and her mother.

i still feel the thin lash of silence
stripping the space inside and outside of us
of its dignity
for there was nothing to say

she complains of backaches and his fists
somewhere in between her left and right ventricle

Yet all these journeys are cycles, and so even the dead aren’t completely gone, lingering on in the concluding poem as “ghosts that wander / buckshot-packed / out of their heads.”

While the war, and Herceg’s personal experiences of it, distinguish this work, her poems resonate on their own terms as well, outside of time, like the best enduring art. In fact, substitute cheap red wine for rakija and many of these poems would be right at home in Jim Harrison’s northern Michigan.

Since Initial Coordinates first appeared in Croatian, Herceg has published two more volumes of poetry and continued to work toward her doctorate in physics. This debut collection may merely hint at the shape of her journey, but so far, it is one well worth following.

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Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.