The Doors of No Return

Epos, published by Goga publishing house, Slovenia (2014 - 2017)

/ by Boris A. Novak

I started writing the epos "Vrata nepovrata (The Doors of No Return)" in 1992, but I have written the majority of this huge poetic text from 2009 on. The first book, entitled Maps of Nostalgy (Zemljevidi domotožja), was published in 2014 by the small publishing house, Goga (Novo Mesto, Slovenia), the second book (The Times of Fathers – Čas očetov) in 2015, and the third book (Residences of Souls – Bivališča duš) in 2017. The entire text has approximately 43,000 verses on 2300 pages.

The epos starts in Pinnacles Desert in the Western Australia, among ancient stones which aborigines worship as a temple of the dead. Similar to Gilgamesh, the Odyssey or The Divine Comedy, my epos is a dialogue with the dead. I hope that it irradiates a universal message about human destiny, about the destiny of artists and art, about love and death.

The first book, Maps of Nostalgy, is divided into 3 "notebooks:"

The first one, entitled "The Address," is an introduction, and contains 3 cantos: 1. Law, 2. The Ancestral Tree, and 3. Capital. To clarify the meaning of the last title – it is not about money, but about "the memory as my only heritage and capital."

The second notebook is entitled "The Historical Atlas of Forsaken Homes" and contains the following cantos: 4. Graphology of Landscapes, 5. Rivers, 6. Lakes, 7. Seas, 8. Islands, 9. Mountains, 10. Forests, 11. Fields, 12. Villages, 13. Cities, 14. Streets, 15. Houses, 16. Writing Cabinets, 17. Kitchens, 18. Bedrooms, 19. Children's Rooms, 20. Gardens, 21. Schools, 22. Restaurants, 23. Dancing Halls, 24. House Parties, 25. Theatres, 26. Musical Theatres, 27. Redactions, 28. Military Barracks, 29. Jails, 30. Hospitals, and 31. Graves.

The third notebook is entitled "Museum of Nomadic Transportation Vehicles" and has the following cantos: 32. Boots, 33. Voitures d'enfant, 34. Horses, 35. Ships, 36. Trains, 37. Bicycles and Motorbikes, 38. Cars, 39. Aircrafts, 40. Carrousels, and at the end “metaphysical” transportation vehicles – 41. Imagination, 42. Sound, 43. Light, 44. Time, 45. History, and 46. Story. The Story is, for me, the basic form of memory and human consciousness, far superior to History (historiography). I am convinced that we understand History through Stories, and not through rational explanations about the laws of the historical "development."

The book Maps of Nostalgy is a gigantic geography of the places that I have touched, that I have lost and that I long for, spreading from the Balkans and Central Europe to France, Australia and both Americas. At the same time, it is a painful history of the 20th century, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire throug Communism till today, with both world wars, a lot of tragic stories and, I hope, some humor and beauty. My personal ambition with this mad project is to save the souls that I loved from oblivion with the power of the poetic word, forwarding their stories to the next generation.

Of course, it is anchored in real landscapes, and in the bloody history of the Central Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean, but the message is universal. I believe that it can be read and understood anywhere in the world.

The Master of Insomnia: Selected Poems, which Dalkey Archive Press published in 2012 (with the lucid preface by my friend Aleš Debeljak, who unfortunately died in a traffic accident in 2016), contained in the last sections several fragments from my epos. Let me quote here three of them, to revive the atmosphere.

Tidying up after the Dead

 

Even now, as I write this, the taste of ash

fills my mouth and it is hard to breathe. Because

tidying up after the dead is a horror. To pass

 

a whole life through a sieve, to choose among

the unfortunate things destined for the hell of oblivion,

and the more happy ones, for the paradise of memory.

 

To find in this legacy gold used for fillings

and for wedding rings, bracelets and pocket

watches with broken hands, the old detritus

 

of souvenirs and letters, visiting cards and

post cards, important documents and photographs,

a sewing kit, a box of buttons, a broken necklace

 

and rusted keys, fruit rotting in the refrigerator,

someone’s first tooth, primary school textbooks,

a dozen glasses with different lenses and frames,

 

two dozen identification cards and passports,

paintings and prints, and shelves filled to overflowing

with dusty books, books, books, books…

 

A last glance at a life, amazement, what a beauty

my mother was when she was young, the scent

in her skirts, her rounded soul hovering in the pleats,

 

so lovely. – My memory of her will live until her scent

abandons the empty clothes. – Tidying up after the dead

is a bittersweet ritual that revives for the last time

 

everything that she once was and had, before the death

shroud erased all traces. It’s a terrible dilemma,

what to keep and what to throw away. Discarded

 

memories roam in boxes closed forever.

Two evening dresses with matching silk scarves,

which pair should I save from oblivion? …

 

The zeal of the living continues relentlessly, the force

of the present pushing aside the weight of the past.

All those closets filled with junk would suffocate us,

 

we must make room, cleanse our memory,

lest it collapse under the weight of the burning

cargo it carries…

It burns for so long,

 

that statuette from the Horn of Africa –

who brought it so far, to this Alpine land –

and a faded letter, a passionate appeal,

 

from my father to my mother, just before they

became father and mother, dated 1953, April 9,

that father wanted to destroy but mother saved

 

after his death for future eyes, and now

I also save because I, who my mother – so feminine,

so mild – carried then, am mentioned in it.

 

I am tormented by the question: what will be the fate

of this letter when my time comes – the next tidying-up

by the living of the traces left behind by the dead?

Will another face

 

lean over this letter and dream of lives lived

and lives ended? Will my parents’ love be tossed

in the garbage bin

or in the box of memory?

 

Silence descends …

 

translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak


 

Boris A. and his mother Anica. Photo: Boris A. Novak's personal archive
The first book, a very personal expression of nostalgia for the places, times and souls of the beloved ones, is a lyrical tapestry and a long introduction to the second book, The Time of Fathers, which is the epic core of this literary project. It is divided into 10 notebooks entitled: 1. The Time of Poets, 2. The Time of Mothers, 3. The Time of Children, 4. The Time of Grandfathers, 5. The Time of Honorable Officers,6. The Time of Changes, 7. The Time of Music, 8. The Time of Hell, 9. The Time of the Resistance, and 10. The Time of the Victory, the Time of the Defeat.

As in all epic poetry, my epos contains stories of battles, heroism and tragic deaths, but – as you can see from the included fragments – I want to show history through the eyes of its victims, women, children, elder people, and not through the celebration of arms.

The poetic language is very concrete and detailed in its description of small things, but is it local? Aren't we all, regardless of the origin, culture and race, sooner or later in our lives confronted with a heap of little things left behind by our parents, lovers, human beings we loved and we mourn for, leaving those little objects as painful testimonies of their presence, forever gone?

Here is the fragment from the second book:

 

Ragology (The Study of Rags)

 

All her life, our nonna waged

a systematic battle against dust,

mud, and all manner of filth and muss.

To this end, she developed a precise strategy,

the study of rags, known to her family as ragology

At any moment, she would have arrayed

before her some seventeen different rags

that she would send into combat

as division generals in the battle field.

God forbid any unauthorized use

of one or the other for the wrong purpose!

Whoever did so received

the strictest of punishments.

In this regard, our nonna did not trust even her maid,

and followed her movements with the sharpest gaze.

In the end, she preferred to dispatch her army of rags herself

with her own feet and hands.

I shall enumerate the various types of rags and cloths

using the scientific terminology of nonna’s ragology:

 

1) the “rough” one for the stairs to the front door;

2) the “fine” one for the marble in the entrée;

3) the “soft” one for waxing the old parquet;

4) the “plush” one made from pieces of old clothing

for the copper tiles under the hearth;

5) the “big” absorbent one for the stone floor on the terrace;

6) the “little” absorbent one for the stone floor in the kitchen

and the bathroom;

7) the “old” clean one for the pots and other metal pans;

8) the “new” clean one for the porcelain service;

9) the “sensitive” one for the wine glasses;

10) the “fast” one for the knives;

11) the “clever” one for the forks;

12) the “pedantic” one for the spoons;

13) the “shiny” one for the silver;

14) the “splendid” one for the mirror;

15) the “see-through” rag for the ironing;

16) the “male” rag for the military boots;

17) the “chic” rag for her own high-heeled shoes.

 

Nonna’s explanation for these all-important ragological distinctions

was passionately detailed and deeply considered:

– knives were smooth and generally not put in the mouth,

hence a simple treatment with the “quick” rag would suffice;

– little scraps of food tended to get lodged between the tines

of the fork, hence the need for careful treatment with the “clever” rag;

– spoons which we like to lick so much and which relentlessly attract

a great number of bacteria, require serious

and radical hygienic measures that can only

be assured by the “pedantic” rag.

 

But all this advanced and specialized study of rags,

all of these seventeen fanatical divisions of the anti-dust armada,

sent day and night into pitched battle

against the great filth of the world,

regularly deployed and redeployed,

all this bourgeois order,

that represented meaning and purpose in her life,

could not help,

could not prevent,

our nonna,

our own dear nonna,

our own dear nonna’s life from falling apart,

from being scattered about,

irretrievably dispersed

like so much ash and dust.

 

translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak

 

Is it a "local poem"? Isn't it the powerful grandmother, the matriarch keeping the order of the house and life of her family, one of the most constant and universal personalities of all times and civilizations?

Leo Novak, the musician. Photo: Boris A. Novak's personal archive
I have taken many stories from the real destinies of my ancestors and relatives. Let me give you an example. One of my uncles, Leo Novak, was a composer who faced a tragic destiny: Being caught as an organizer of the Resistance in Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia, he was tortured by Gestapo for two months (since they knew that he was a musician, they had a special pleasure with his fingers) and finally shot; he was cremated in order to hide the traces of the torture. A German officer who promised his mother to bring him back, kept his promise, giving her a green can with the ashes of her son. With the typical German pedantry, the officer brought to the family all Leo’s possessions at the end of his life – here is the list:

1 Uhr (Tulla-Silber) / 1 watch (Tulla Silver)

1 Schachtel mit Schmutzwäsche / 1 box with dirty underwear

und Toilettengegenständen and toilet things

1 Partitur (Beethoven: V. Symphonie  Philharmonia” /  1 partition (Beethoven: V. Symphony Philharmonia”

Geld: RM 29,46 /  Money: 29,46 Reich Marks

Leo Novak an / Leo Novak to

Familie Anton Novak / family Anton Novak

Marburg, Perkostrasse 29/II / Maribor, Perko Street 29/II


 

The Legacy of Leo Novak, 30th of October 1941. Photo: Boris A. Novak's personal archive
This story terrified me as a child. But the tragedy did not end with his death. Before going to the anti-Nazi underground, Leo had asked one of his colleague musicians to hide his entire music oeuvre. All his compositions safely survived the occupation of Ljubljana, hidden in an old house, in a piano of a colleague from the Musical Conservatory, a pianist … till March 1945, when Flying Fortresses bombing a train convoy dropped a bomb there – by mistake. It hit the very house and the very piano where all the notes of Leo Novak were hidden; the young pianist and her mother lost their lives. The entire life and all the music of my uncle Leo, everything went to ashes. When my father, as a partisan, marched into liberated Ljubljana two months later, he could gather in the garden of that house just a few burnt pieces of notes. I have treated this subject several times, in the play Soldiers of History (1988), in a volume of poems, LPM: Little Personal Mythology (2007), and in my epos. My main artistic problem was how to find a verse rhythm to express Leo’s destiny. Since my first child was named after my uncle Leo, my father Ante gave me the silver pocket watch – the only material relic of the life and times of his brother Leo – asking me to forward it to my son, his grandson, when he reached the age of 18. I often listened to the clicking of the mechanism of that watch. And all of a sudden it struck me: That was the key for the rhythm of the poem I wanted – I needed to write.

Liebling Leo, 1909. Photo: Boris A. Novak's personal archive
One of the main symbols of my epos is a coat. Like Uncle Leo’s coat and my father’s coat. Leo had a beautiful fiancée, Milena, a great actress. In the late 30s, they lived for a while in Skopje, Macedonia, where she fell in love with another man. When Leo saw her for the last time, she was trembling without a coat in the cold November; he covered her with his own coat and kissed her for the last time. He came back to Ljubljana, Slovenia, with pneumonia, so my father Ante gave him his coat. My father Ante Novak was one of the organizers of the Resistance against and Nazi and Fascist occupation. When he trembled in the first post-war winter without a coat, after being demobilized from the military service, he went to the "people’s magazine," where he was offered a coat which suited him perfectly. After finding secret pockets in the coat, my father realized that it was precisely his own coat which he had given to his brother Leo before the war. He asked about the origin of that coat, and the answer devastated him: "It came from the Gestapo torture jail in Maribor." In 1988, the old actress, Milena Godina, wrote me a beautiful letter in which she said that she had been carrying Leo’s coat all her life, as a memory of her first love. Here is one of my many variations on this theme:

 

One Poem about Three People and Two Coats

 

It was a great and beautiful love. When they parted – it was winter,

winter outside, winter inside, they were in the grip of ice –

he saw that Milena was cold. She didn’t have a coat.

He took his off and wrapped it round her beloved shoulders …

 

When my father saw that his brother Leo was cold

because he had no coat, he took his own off and gave it to him …

Mysterious is the fate of coats. We wear them out of need,

and the coats wear our stories … When my father stood

 

coatless on the threshold of that first post-war winter, he shivered.

At the secondhand shop, they offered him a coat for a man of small stature.

It fit him like a glove. Strangely familiar. Then he found a secret pocket!

 

His secret pocket! It was his old coat, the one he’d given Leo!

The one Leo no longer needed. The coat had been a warm, living armor.

Leo had left without a coat, naked and barefoot. In a winter that burned …

 

In her old age, the actress Milena Godina wrote to me

that an old coat, given to her by her fiancée, my uncle Leo

had kept her warm her whole life. One coat is always missing.

 

Someone must always leave, shivering, a dreadful winter in the body.

And someone always remains wrapped in a coat of kisses and memories,

in a coat of fragrance and touch, alone in loss …

 

translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak

 

The family of Leopoldina and Anton Novak. Photo: Boris A. Novak's personal archive
The third book, The Residencies of Souls, concludes the stories from the first two books and the whole epos, but with a radically different tone and vision, which might be described as metaphysical and even religious. Here I, a poet of this late era, humbly repeat the basic question of the first poets and philosophers: What is a soul? Where do souls live? How is it possible that we feel the souls of the dead as if they were alive?

 

Regarding the story and the composition (99 cantos – the threshold of the perfection, my humble homage to the greater Poet) it is the most “Dantesque” of all the three books, but at the same time the most personal and original.

 

The narrative framework is a journey with the post ship to the North; gradually it comes out that the floors under the deck contain all the memory of the human race, from the mythological beginnings to the 20th century and today’s troubled time (for example: The refugees from the destroyed city of Troy find themselves on a train to Auschwitz and in rubber boats of today’s refugees, ending at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea).

 

The titles of the notebooks are: 1. The Floating Skyscraper, 2. Under the Deck, 3. Abyss, 4. Soul is a Verb (Introduction to the Phenomenology of Souls), 5. The Soul of the First Woman, 6. The Soul of the First Story Teller, 7. Above the Deck, 8. Poetic Souls, and 9. Eternal Souls. Each “notebook” contains 11 cantos, together – 99 cantos.

 

If The Time of Fathers was marked by tragic epic stories, characteristic of the patriarchal domination and destruction of the world, then Residencies of Souls is marked by feminine sensitivity: There are a lot of love poems.

 

If the floors under the deck are parallels to Dante’s Inferno, the skyscraper above the deck is a parallel to his Paradise. Here, arts are the basic instruments of saving memory and human souls. After all the tragic stories, I am trying to give to “my” souls a kind of a heaven, hypothetical images and answers to the question: What would these beautiful souls do if there were no history? (In my epos, the image of the Hell is closely connected with History.) In the context of the above quoted fragments about the tragic death of my uncle Leo and the utter destruction of his musical oeuvre, I have given him a second life with a poetic freedom: On the seventh floor of the ship, I have built for him a concert hall La musica mai perduta (Music never lost), where a philharmonic orchestra will eternally play his compositions.

 

The apocalyptic images of the third book, without any doubt, reflect the dangerous spasms of today’s international, social, religious and cultural conflicts. The final message of the epos paradoxically denies its title: The Doors of No Return don’t exist, there are just doors through which we are passing. Souls of the dead live as long as the memory of the living, as long as their stories.

....
Boris A. Novak

(born in 1953) is a Slovene poet, playwright, translator, and essayist. He teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Ljubljana. In the name of International PEN he organized humanitarian help for refugees from the former Yugoslavia and writers from Sarajevo during the war. (He has expressed this horror in the tragedy in verses Cassandra based on the Troian myth.) In 2002 Novak was elected for the Vice-president of International PEN.
So far he has published 90 books, including the following volumes of poems: Still-Life-in-Verses (Stihožitje), 1977; Daughter of Memory (Hči spomina), 1981; 1001 Verses (1001 stih), 1983; Coronation (Kronanje), 1984; Cataclysm (Stihija), 1991; The Master of Insomnia (Mojster nespečnosti), 1995; Alba, 1999; Echo (Odmev), 2000; Glowing (Žarenje), 2003, Rites of Valediction (Obredi slovesa) 2005, and SPM: Small Personal Mythology (MOM: Mala Osebna Mitologija), 2007. He has also published handbooks of poetic forms Forms of the World (Oblike sveta), 1991, Forms of the Heart (Oblike srca), 1997, and Forms of the Spirit, 2016. Novak's opus magnum is the epos The Doors of No Return (Vrata nepovrata), 43.000 verses on 2.300 pages in 3 books (Maps of Nostalgia, 2014, The Time of Fathers, 2015, and Residencies of Souls, 2017). Novak writes poetry, plays and stories for children. 
Novak's poetry is translated into many languages: in 1990 a bilingual Slovene-English poetry book Vrtnar tišine – The Gardener of Silence was published, in 1996 Poèmes chosis (Selected Poems) in French, a multilingual edition Absence in 1999, and a bilingual English-French choice of poems The Master of Insomnia – Le Maître de l'insomnie in 2003. The most important translation up to now is The Master of Insomnia: Selected Poems, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2012 (Champaign, U. S. A. – London – Dublin).The first Croatian selection of poems Sveta svjetlost (The Sacred Light) appeared in 1996, followed by the translation of the poetry volume The Master of Insomnia in 1997 and SMS: Small Personal Mythology in 2011. The selected poems Baštovan stiha (The Gardener of Silence) were published in 2003 in Serbia, Záhradnik tícha (The Gardener of Silence) in Slovakia (2005), Krunisuvanje (The Coronation) in Macedonia (2008), Dlaneno platno (The Palm Linen) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2011), and Zaostavština (The Heritage) in Montenegro (2014). The tragedy in verses Cassandra was translated into Russian in 2013. 
Novak translates poetry and prose from French (S. Mallarmé, P. Valéry, P. Verlaine, E. Jabès), ancient Provencal (Troubadours), Dutch (Paul van Ostaijen, Monika van Paemel), as well as American, English and Irish poetry (S. Heaney) and literature written in South Slav languages (Josip Osti). In 2001 he has published a huge anthology Modern French Poetry (more than 800 pages), and in 2003 the first anthology of Provencal troubadours in Slovene. 
Novak received several national and international awards for his work. In Slovenia he is a recipient of the Award of the Presheren's Fund (1984), Jenko's (1995) and Župančič's Award for poetry (2015), Sovre's award for his translation of Mallarmé's poetry (1990), and the Golden Sign of the Scientific and Research Centre of the Slovene Academy of Arts and Sciences for his theoretical work (1998). International Board of Books for Young Readers (IBBY) has included Novak's fairy tale The Little and the Big Moon on the Honour list of the best stories in 1998. The Association of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina has given him the international award Bosanski stechak for his literary opus in 2000. He is a double knight of the French Republic (Le Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes académiques, 2008, and Le Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 2011), a corresponding member of the French poetry academy Mallarmé and an associate member of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts.