Serbian Classics Press

publishing classic Serbian literature

Fire and Nothing

by Branko Miljković

Branko Miljković, one of the greatest Serbian lyric poets of the mid-twentieth century, remains an enigma fifty years after his death. He was born in 1934 near Niš in southern Serbia. His genius, recognized at an early age, matured to write poetry that restored magic and mystery to the world. He cast a spell with the simplest words, created the great drama of being, fire, and nothingness, and invested his verse with unfathomable majesty. Miljković referred to himself as a Neo-Symbolist, and continued where his mentors left off. Mallarmé, the poet to whom he felt the closest affinity, longed to put the entire world into a single volume of poetry: L'oeuvre, Le Grande Oeuvre, comme disaient les alchimistes, nos ancêtres. Since Mallarmé's Le Grand Oeuvre remained unrealized, Miljković, supremely confident of his vocation, worked with the patience of an alchemist to create l'explication orphique de la Terre, qui est le seul devoir du poete et le jeu litteraire par excellence that Mallarmé had envisioned. Symbolism and Surrealism had both disappointed Miljković because he believed an important task had been left undone. He prepared to explore terra incognita by synthesizing the two movements, a mad attempt to create a poetic microcosm of the universe by tackling metaphysical themes with concrete imagery, paradox, intuition, and prophetic language. Miljković did succeed in restoring poetry to the center of communicative discourse. His verse quickly entered the national consciousness, as if his simple, startling words had always existed at the end of the rainbow, but had only just now been spoken for the first time.

Branko Miljković was born on January 29, 1934 in Gadžin Han, which lies just outside of Niš in southern Serbia. He began publishing poems in literary reviews when he was sixteen years old. He was studying Philosophy at the University of Belgrade when he published his brilliant first volume of poetry, I Wake Her in Vain (1957), which established his reputation. Miljković won the prestigious October Prize in 1960 for Fire and Nothing, but renounced his poetry only a few months later. He was found dead on February 11, 1961 in a park on the outskirts of Zagreb. His death was officially declared a suicide by the Croatian police, even though forensic evidence indicated murder. The circumstances of his death are still disputed today. He was drawn by temperament to the Russian poets Mayakovsky, Blok and Briusov as well as to Mallarmé and the French Surrealists, whose poems he translated.

All the true formulas in the world are poetic. I often look into Einstein's formulas and I believe that they can be translated into verse. Contemporary physics can take a verse of Baudelaire for its epigraph: Man's journey leads through a forest of symbols. My formulation: Words are a mighty framework and vessel for and of the world. Everything that takes place on earth occurs as well in language and symbol, whether it concerns atoms or stars.
                                     — Branko Miljković