Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Prince Marko

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Prince Marko

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Marko Kraljevic, Kraljevic Marko: You can say it either way in what used to be called Serbo-Croatian. Neither way was it my friend's real name, but I started calling him Prince Marko a few months after we began our long collaboration translating what used to be called Yugoslav poetry. We worked both on modern poems and the so-called heroic ballads that were important to makers and shakers all the way from Goethe to Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who is now on trial at the Hague. It's a pity that Karadzic shares a surname with the man who originally collected the ballads, Vuk Karadzic, for he was a great and distinguished scholar. Radovan, in a sense, eventually came between me and Prince Marko, by which time Yugoslavia no longer existed and all my friends in Belgrade had fled like exiles after the Battle of Kosovo. But I'm well ahead of my story.

The historical Prince Marko, a fourteenth-century ruler of lands that are now in the Republic of Macedonia, became the hero of many ballads in both the Serbian and Bulgarian traditions. A scourge of the Turkish occupation, a trickster figure, a kind of Robin Hood, an all-around roughneck, he's full of contradictions, like my friend and collaborator. Charles Simic, the Serbian-American poet, tells about falling in love with Prince Marko as a child in occupied Belgrade, reading ballads about him under his bedcovers - there was no heat - as Allied bombs fell on all sides. "The stories," Simic notes, "are 'action packed,' as they used to say on movie posters." But the poems aren't just yarns for boys any more than, say, Westerns are. Rebecca West and Marguerite Yourcenar were captivated by the entire tradition. And oral performance of these poems supplied Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord with evidence for their theory of epic composition and transmission, set forth in Lord's The Singer of Tales.

At the beginning, my Marko was mostly a voice, a performing voice like that of the old guslari (Balkan tale-singers). Markos voice came booming down the halls of the building where we both taught. Though hoarse from smoking and alcohol, it was somehow projected to the extent that anyone trying to teach on the same corridor had to shut his classroom door; it was like hearing the voice of Louis Armstrong amplified by a massive stereo. Marko had been teaching at Notre Dame for years before I arrived and was something of a legend in the math department. Although he'd stopped doing serious research in his field, he was the most popular teacher of the required calculus course - and this despite the fact that, in the early days of radical feminism, he'd routinely flirt with his female students and call them "girlie." (The males were addressed as "sonny boy.")

When I met him, in the late 1970s, he'd just been busted for D.U.I, and, as a result, briefly locked up in the South Bend jail and sentenced to several weeks of community service, which had him mopping the floors of Memorial Hospital, two blocks from my house. A mutual student of ours ran into him there one morning when going in for a blood test. "Professor Kraljevic! What are you doing?" he asked. "Mopping the fucking floors," Marko replied. "What does it look like I'm doing?" Later he told me he'd been in a Nazi jail, a communist jail, and finally a capitalist jail, and they were all just the same. Nor was drinking his only pastime. Once we became friends, he happily took me along to a bar and exotic dance club, the Kittykat Lounge, where everyone seemed to know him. He'd buy drinks on his credit card for all the oglers and lechers while the strippers teased him, sitting on his lap and saying, "Marko, darling, give us a kiss."

Loudness wasn't Markos only distinctive verbal habit. Every word ending in -ed was pronounced with an extra syllable. One walked home with him and talked on the way. It could sound both funny and sad: Once he told me over a glass of plum brandy that his wife was "all of the time depressed. …

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