The Four Most Still…

There are three men indifferent to politics: the sculptor, the flautist, and the man in the embrace of a woman. We can name this old-fashioned triad as: the laborer, the gentleman, and the saint.

William Butler Yeats, 1936

…or: the gentleman, the laborer, the saint, and the fool.

Đurđa Otržan, 1988






“Clocks are the most preposterous. Every time you raise your head they look different. There is no falsehood in numbers. Look to numbers…” he said, autos epha.

The school arranged itself. Before us stood the Teacher.

“He condemned himself.” And immediately afterward, “He worked in such a way that he lacerated his own face…” autos epha, he said.

The school rearranged itself. It placed itself in yet another sequence. And moved toward the garden. The myrtle smelled bitter like the soul of the dead. It was night. As always when we buried or studied, HE walked first in line. After him walked all the others at sacred, regular intervals, as prescribed by virtues 9 and 4. We prayed the whole way. The wind strove to blow in our faces.

“He was no ordinary emperor…” he said, autos epha. “He was remarkable…”

In ourselves we weighed every word and held the burial. It was night. As always when burying was done or when we studied.
We looked to the Teacher.

“How will he live in death?”

He prayed long and quietly. “As if afraid. Holy is the fear of power… ” he said, autos epha, “one should not crave it.”

We were the youngest. Long years of study lay before us. Setting a square was difficult for us in the morning. Those from the older class found it easier. They lived with no emperor and quaked before the Teacher. For them it was easier. We had lost our emperor. Afterward, each of us alone, we mourned his death to the soft noise of lapping sea waves, as befits those bereft of their mortal support…softly, so that he who walks upright, alone, would not scold us. We conferred among ourselves: “This is either the unraveling of the atom or dispersal of immutable and indestructible particles. Only reasonable beings were created unto themselves alone. We said to one another: ‘The rest of your life you must live in harmony with nature as if you had already died or as if you have lived only till now. For what could be more right than that?’ We weren’t disturbed by him who walks upright, alone, for he knew what mercy is and how swiftly passes the joy of grief. He had been the spring of all goodness.
“What dies does not depart this world” autos epha, he said.

What is it doing in the Cosmos? How long can it last?



How shall I call this…
Dead poet to dead poetess?
……………my fine and ever so beloved friend
……………Your poem written on the event of my death grieved and moved me. You must not wax sentimental over the two of us, over yourself. Poems are to be sung, not shouted. I know, I know, this is your last poem and you had the right to shout, but a shout has much too long an echo, and someone else, someone for whom the poem was not intended, might hear or think no one stands behind you, though you know this is not true. In other words a poet must keep firmly in mind the reverberation of a poem and the amount of emptiness that wells from it, or that it assumes. You certainly know all there is to know about emptiness so no point in dwelling on that further. Ah yes. Emptiness. You, too, have felt it, have you not? Though the word is empty we still fancy it as a word, as the word “emptiness,” and as such it is something quite different from what we have experienced, you and I, and your poem.
……………I, or what I was, can no longer see how I have become what I am, but I can see this rather clearly through your poem. Hence the value of the poem to me. And all your other verse as well. You were my finest reader and I, yours, judging by this poem, your last lamentation before you moved to prose. May I say that prose has only gained by the transaction?
……………For what can a poet gain from prose but the lilt of a sentence, and this, in all honesty, can only keep us from the true essence of a poem. Prose, however, has much to learn from poetry. I do not doubt that you have enhanced it, with, if nothing else, at least a poetic fumble that always so aptly ripples the safe seas of drowsy prose. Have you ever noticed that prose always slumbers if a poet with his noise and commotion does not prod it and rouse it from its lethargy?
……………My dear friend, what I tell you now cannot remain between the two of us for there never was anything to begin with between the two of us to remain. This is the most that one poet can give another poet, but that it will remain, alive, or sailing (a frivolous word), or even traveling with us, I am certain of it:
……………you were my opponent, though in a rather different way than you imagine–in your love for life. You so needed it to rise honorably to your vocation. I did not, nor did I need you or any of my friends and you knew and respected that, meaning that all in all you understood, which says again that all the while you wanted to be like this yourself yet you couldn’t or didn’t know how. Such is a woman’s fate, my dear. If it hadn’t been for me you would never have known such a thing was possible, that one could live as I do. You needed me to understand how incomplete you are and how that incompleteness seeks its antipode. That this is your most remarkable quality is proven by your stunning opus. I could not vie with you in love, and you cannot vie with me in coldness.
……………Emptiness has swallowed us both.
……………………………………..your devoted so-and-so Nether World such-and-such
……………There. That’s the sort of letter I should write her, but how can I when I died in the winter of 1926, and she killed herself in the summer of 1941 so that nothing of mine can reach her nor can anything of hers reach me? Poets and suicides share the same fate: no one cares about them until they die. Their paths then diverge: the former into a chasm, the latter into an abyss of seering light. The former is blind to shape, the latter deaf to summons. This is why we shall never meet. Her corpse lies here before me in the poem, but only I die in her, or perhaps I had already died by then, it is difficult to recall. I’d rather not remember when I see what memory has done to her, my sole true friend and most devoted, true listener. It killed her.
……………I do recall one of her poems while she was still quite a young poet at the beginning. She sent it to me and I told her: Come, we should talk. You have a gift and you say well what you have to say but you are still not clear about whom you are speaking to. I will teach you how to know that. She came and together we went over the poem several times. Listening to me raptly she started again in earnest for the nth time and then, glancing quickly at me, suddenly shifted her tone – and I knew then that this was she, the true poetess, and that I, a true poet of my age (as they were calling me at the time) had triumphed in my work with her.
……………The poem was called “Semi Veronica” and it went like this:

In storage I keep a frozen painting. The painting has an author. Not I.
When the painting speaks, it speaks through me. The painting has no.mercy.
The painting is pagan. It knows the way. We do not.
How did it freeze? They wept, and it was cold. It froze.
I did not force it to. So it was from the first.
It feeds on spleen. I hunt spleen on a city map.
The frozen painting has no name. Just Triptych.
It calmly cries and sleeps.
So has this always been. From the start when it was not yet mine.
They gave it to me quite by chance. Though I was expecting it.
Whenever I think of it alone there as it topples in the empty storage place, I feel
A leap.
It could shatter if it leapt out the window, so frozen.
I hunt for spleen on a city map. There is less and less of it. The painting does
…………………………………..not know this.
It will die of hunger, without even knowing.
The painting is my companion. It is a male painting. The painter was a man.
It is gone. It left. It leapt out the window. So they said.
The painting is mine. So it must be. On it nothing is left. But ice.
And so it must be. Most paintings end like this. As ice.
Ice is good for paintings. It best preserves the warmth. And betrayal.
In order to save it I must remove it from storage. And melt it.
That way it will be mine forever. And it will have no more worries. Nor will I.

……………To describe it:
……………In the background is a girl, still. In the foreground is the face of a man, calm.
……………Second part: In the background is a girl, still. In the foreground is the face of a man, convulsed.
……………Third part: In the background is a girl, still. In the foreground is the face of a man, charred. It is called Triptych.

……………The poem was later published in a progressive journal that had on its front page Veronese’s “Dialectic”, utterly irrelevant to its purpose, but those were times in which every perversion and irrelevance met with approval. That is why she, my dear friend, decided to save her ear for harmony no matter how ominous it might be and I admired her with all my heart and I always will, for unlike me she walked straight by God, deliberate and steady.
……………I am unused to writing. I’m tired.



We finished Venus’s hands today. It’s a marvel to watch how life takes shape at the Master’s touch. When I see him massage a crease on the left palm to form the lay of the veins, I wait breathless for him to be done: he’d move his fingers away and blood could pulse through the hand. I am still at the awestruck stage and this irks the Master. He says that it means I am incapable of judging whether or not I will be able to do the same someday. I am admiring the work, not him; in my mind they are not one and the same. I’m still young, he tells me, and I know that he expects me to come up with new techniques; this is why he took me on. He says that he has never had a student from my part of the country before and that my different background may guide my approach to his technique. I have no technique, I can imagine no technique finer than the Master’s.
* * *
Last night at the Carnival a young hand tweaked me from behind and afterwards I heard her chuckle: “Where did you learn to dance so well…” I saw her in the crowd, if it was she, with eyebrows darkly arched under the curls on her forehead like Perox’s Hermes. I was sorry I hadn’t gotten a closer look; it would be worth checking to see whether the arch is truly that dark, or merely seemed so in the oblique lighting. Pity that the vixen fled, yet she did pinch me hard, twice. I liked it, though she was young, perhaps a bit too young for me to return in kind.
* * *
Today we went to see Praxiteles’s Dorotheus. A remarkable work. The Master was seething. He says that I haven’t understood a thing. Praxiteles is a dignified and courteous man, and I also liked his son, Praxiteles, very much. He was silent all the while and didn’t look at his father or at us but, as far as I could tell, kept glancing at Dorotheus’s sandals with a sort of scowl that could easily turn to a smile at someone’s urging. I also noticed that the position of the right foot was slightly more angled than customary, without disturbing the fall of the chiton that hung as it usually does.
* * *
Today we worked on casting in the yard. It was hot and the Master asked me to sing him verses from the Book, which I didn’t mind, I’ve always liked singing. He forbade me to help because, he said, the only way to protect me from drudgery is to keep me from learning how. When my time comes, if it does, I should leave that sort of work to my apprentices and the laborers from the outskirts of town. I obeyed and sang slowly, handing him grapes and wine as he grew tired, but by watching him on the sly I still learned enough to repeat the procedure myself, should I ever need to. The Master might die tomorrow and if my time hadn’t come yet, how would I manage to learn everything I’d need?
* * *
The girl betrothed to the Master’s son came in today to visit. She is charming. The others wanted us to draw her but I was against it. I think it would bother the Master. Her name is Pausina.
* * *
Pausina came in again, today.
* * *
For three days now we have not been working at all. It is raining and we have stopped. The Master says that if this persists for another seven days we will not have enough time to submit our pieces and arrange for transportation to the city to display them. And if we do not win one of the first awards, it will be a disgrace to the school.
* * *
My Artemides with Robe was awarded first prize and my joy was boundless, but a glance at the Master spoiled it all; he had recognized Pausina’s countenance when I painted the eyes. He was angry and worried. Pausina and I have parted ways, sad, perhaps, but nonetheless satisfied in the end; she liked my Artemides and I was pleased that she was finally getting married. What had I to offer but a passion for stone? No house, no estate, no fine clothes. I am sorry she won’t be coming by any more. We may remain lovers if circumstances permit. I would be glad. She moves with lightning speed and I love to stop her short when she least expects it. Then her eyes have an almost divine expression and it helps me, thinking of that, while I work. Surely the Master had that in mind when he told us that the gods are first human and only then all else, and that we must always think of this when we begin working.
* * *
I was at court today, as expected, but did not speak in my own defense.
* * *
I talked with Praxiteles on the Square. He thinks we should work together. I asked him why and he said the two of us think alike. The two of us may think alike but our techniques are different and there can be no reconciliation. I’ll copy his Thermodore to prove my point. I begged the Master not to let him into the yard anymore, because I’d rather he didn’t stand there and watch me as I work. The Master thinks I am overreacting but he is glad to have a job of some kind now that he’s lame. He’s done nothing all day long ever since the hog bit off his foot but doze under the mulberry tree by the courtyard gate, slumping on his cane and hissing curses at the passersby. He has lost his strength and this enrages him most of all; he can’t even hold a wedge any more without it slipping out of his hand when he wants to demonstrate something to the novices.
* * *
Pausina had a baby boy and the Master and I made her a gift of a little Dionysius with a god. When Pausina broke the gift it didn’t bother me. Actually, she tried to smash it but she couldn’t. All she did was snap off the god’s hand holding the grape cluster, enticing little Dionysius. It is already clear that the child will look nothing like his mother.
* * *
The boy is completely free and romps or naps all day long on a pillow next to the Master, who looks after him. Pausina comes to fetch the boy and says nothing. She picks him up at nightfall and leaves. It angers me when the child starts to cry and the Master grumbles at him, “Why call for me…? I’m not your father…” He may not be the father but he is the grandfather, and besides he has nothing better to do.
* * *
I am ready for a serious talk with the Master. I’ve wanted to start several times, but my thoughts on what it is I wanted from him were not clearly set. Now I think I know. I’ll ask for some answers, I’ll make him answer my questions: I have the right. I’ve won first prize three times now, but since the last contest I can see that I’m no longer making progress. I need his help. The jealous goat, he hasn’t entrusted me with a single secret, though he knows that only I could keep them. I’ll get him drunk at twilight after Pausina takes the child away, and I’ll extract what I need from him, I am certain of it.
* * *
Since the Master died I have no news of Praxiteles. I have plenty of money to bribe spies, but what could those poor creatures find out that would be of interest to me; Pausina stood in the middle of the yard, today, facing me. She looked first at the sun, then at me, and said, “I am leaving and I won’t be back.” I suddenly knew that I’d make Athene the Victorious for the coming contest. I am grateful to Pausina. I’ve sought her so long. And there will be nothing to prop her up: I cannot abide Praxiteles’ contrivances. She will stand straight, upright, alone, as befitting the daughter of Zeus. I will start working as soon as dawn breaks, not to waste a single moment; it will be a huge job. I’ll feed my students well so they can keep up with my pace. And when I finish the piece and receive the prize I will move to the northern slope above town where it is cooler and more genteel. Why stay here where every blade of grass rustles at dawn, noon and dusk as if they: the Master, Pausina, the child are passing through the yard?



Michigan, October 20 –
Ohio, November 15, 1989

……………Michael is so right. I really ought to stop writing porn. I should give it up. Word will get out one of these days and then they’ll never consider me for Partisan Review. It is good to have a brother who sees things in practical terms and is not ashamed of having a dumb sister. He must have meant Maureen. He told me, “Melaney, we sure have a dumb sister, don’t you know?” I think I do. But is he saying the same thing to her when they are alone, out there in Oregon, in the hay, under the open sky staring at Mona’s white rabbits? Maureen, we sure have a dumb sister, don’t you know?” “Yes, Michael, I do, Melaney sure is dumb.”
……………It must be rough on Michael, stuck with such dumb sisters. Is it tough to be a man? He doesn’t know how fucking hard it can be sometimes to write a new porn piece nice and “quick, enticing, juicy,” as Wilsham, my editor, puts it. Well, Michael? Can you imagine how writing can suddenly become a Laocoonic wrestling match where no one knows who has got a grip on whose member, the son with the brother, or the father with the snake, or the snake with himself? All that matters is that Wilsham tests it out under the desk when I bring him in the stuff for a quick read and I go out to make a “phone call.” That’s how we play it.
……………Sure, sure. Michael is right. I must quit. For good. But how can I when I’m used to seeing the world that way now? Pornography. I’ll have to first get used to seeing things different and then I’ll be able to quit. How do I begin, Michael? How does the world look when you’re stuck with dumb sisters?
……………“First of all, you’ve got to get smart…”
……………That Michael. So practical.
……………“So I become a stripper?”
……………“Why not, you got the bod,” said Michael.
……………“I won’t shave my legs…” I shouted. The waitress stared at me.
……………“You’ll get used to it,” said Michael. The waitress was wearing pants so I couldn’t tell whether she was for or against shaving legs.
……………“And besides…” Michael went on and wiped the cocoa from his lapel with his sleeve, “they like ’em that way: clean, smooth, shiny legs that spin around like loaves of bread at the baker’s. I know they do. I do.”
……………I had no way out. I would have buy a razor.
……………“Why do you want to be a stripper anyway?” Michael asked, chewing a roll dunked in egg.
……………“Can’t you see… It’s my stories. Living the part?”
……………“How much do they pay you to live the part?” he asked.
……………“Ninety-nine dollars,” I said.
……………“Then live the part cheaper,” he replied.
……………“No shaving?” I asked.
……………“No stripping, hon,” Michael licked his lips, brushed the crumbs off his chin and got up to pay. Muttering, he said: “I can’t wait to tell Monica. Unbelievable.”
……………I spit out my pizza. There, that’s why I can’t trust Michael. He tells Monica everything, the dumb one with the rabbits in Oregon. Or Maureen. If they were worth a dime they wouldn’t be out there now, drying hay and counting stars while they feed those moronic white rabbits.
……………I said: “Look Michael, we really do have a dumb sister.”
……………“Sure, doll… ” Michael said, flipping a coin down the waitress’s cleavage that pinged as it clinked against the heavy cross on a long, thin chain, warming on her ample bosom. Wilsham always likes that. He said that nothing thrills him like a sense for detail in a tasty little tale.
……………“But Michael, I’m a writer… ”
……………“Sure you are, sugar, sure you’re a writer. ”
……………“… I’m a writer Michael, and I can’t go around shaving my legs any time someone says so.”
……………“So don’t. Writers shouldn’t have to shave their legs, is that what you mean?”
……………“No, well, oh, I don’t know… ” Outdoors it was so cold I’d forgotten what it was I’d meant.
……………Michael hugged me and said: “Look, Melaney, hon, don’t get so worked up about this, everything will be fine. Writers don’t have to shave their legs just because they can’t grow a beard, do they! I’m behind you on that one… ” and he kissed me on both cheeks and vanished into the crowd with that new swagger of his that I’ve noticed the guys from the south part of town are picking up again, most of them black. It bothers me. Michael shouldn’t be walking like that, it makes his age show; he still looks young when he doesn’t bounce on his toes.
……………I guess I’ll quit keeping this diary. I never can get to sleep afterward and a writer needs his, or her, sleep. Without rest you don’t do your best, like Wilsham is always saying. I don’t get paid for this diary stuff so if I stop writing it maybe I’ll have the time to start looking at things different and then maybe I’ll quit the porn. I’ll have to write to Michael and see what he thinks about whether a writer should keep a diary or not, but if he goes and rats to those dumb bunnies out in Oregon… No, I won’t write him anything. I’ll ask Wilsham. He knows what’s best for writers. He has sacked enough of them.


Đurđa Otržan

Đurđa Otržan earned degrees in comparative literature and musicology in Zagreb and works as classical music editor for Croatian Radio's Third Program. Other books include Prizor s kopljem (Scene with Spear, 1988) and Penthesilea (2002). Her writing was featured in "The Scar," an art show of work by Oxford painter John Goto in 1993, and she also wrote texts for the show "Dis" by London photographer Gavin Evans, shown in Edinburgh and Munich in 1993. She has written several screen plays: Volunteer (1984), award-winning Parthian Shot (1990), and Silicon Horizon (1991).

Ellen Elias-Bursać

Ellen Elias-Bursać has been translating stories and novels by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers for over twenty years, including writing by David Albahari, Daša Drndić, Antun Šoljan, Dubravka Ugrešić, and Karim Zaimović. Her translation of Albahari's novel Götz and Meyer was given ALTA's National Translation Award in 2006. She has co-authored an award-winning textbook for the study of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian with Ronelle Alexander, now in its 2nd edition, and is a recipient of an NEA translation grant (2010).

From Šah među zvijezdama (Chess Among the Stars). Copyright (c) Meandar, Zagreb, 2002. English translation copyright (c) Ellen Elias-Bursać, 2012.