4012 A.D. An archaeologist from Alpha Centauri who specializes in the Late Anthropocene has uncovered a strange text. Dark Things, it’s called — the work of a Serbian poet and a Serbian-American translator. She knows little of the wars and genocides that convulsed Serbia in this period, and only fragments of 20th-century poetry have survived — mostly copies of A Coney Island of the Mind, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and Jewel Kilcher’s A Night Without Armor — so she is not sure how to classify the writings in this miraculously well-preserved text. But based on existing knowledge, she and her colleagues generate several competing theories about its origin and purpose:
1. It’s the collected sayings of a Zen or Sufi teacher. The combination of standard syntax, non-specialist language and recondite, gnomic or hermetic meanings strongly suggest utterances intended for an audience of initiates to some religious mystery. How else are we to understand lines such as:
Poor us, we are all kings
when we gaze at the starry sky.
The rabbit is in the pot, the broom is behind the door.
(“While You Count The Stars”)
Strangers came and took my sheepskin coat.
Now, what will I cover myself with? Only with prayers
and with the light, trembling wings of a moth.
Under his coat, next to his ribs,
the collected work of some classic would fit.
Without a friend or acquaintance,
alone like a bone in a soup plate…
2. These are clearly lyrics for an otherwise unknown death metal band named Novica Tadić, who had an old man as a mascot. Consider:
I’m a cross of human flesh
on which nothingness is crucified.
You are all-powerful, you are a giant.
No mother gave you birth.
Every street is too narrow for you.
You pull back your shadows, burn holes with your eyes.
Everyone gets out of your way.
(“You Are Mighty”)
We’ll drink each other’s blood
as we have always done
and won’t dream of it anymore.
(“Someone Whispered to Me in a Dream”)
Time races on, bearing you along
toward your last
3. It’s a reporter’s notebook from the global conflict between reason and irrationality, which eventually spawned the Endless War:
an ocean of hatred splashes over me
Dark things open my eyes,
raise my hand, knot my fingers.
They are close and far away,
in a safe hideaway
beyond nine hills.
Out of some old thing
(a hideous ruin of a building)
people peek outside
They slap their heads,
chatter, stick their tongues out
Twist their mouths
in every direction
(“Out of Some Old Thing”)
4. These are Wikileaked communiqués from the Serbian ambassador to an unnamed superpower, possibly Hades.
Tonight he shows me
his wire-glass-and-flower hairdo
Ah he unbuttons
his silk vest
ah, even so, he has a body—
and a gold watch
We don’t know what he did,
where he went, what he suffered.
He stares at us crossly,
answers to the name of Rat.
(“The Seventh Brother”)
He needs to be an infamous and marked man—
it makes no difference for what reason.
A bird started to sing
on a clear day
over the gallows
Wind lifted the ashes
and spread them
over other ashes
(“A Bird Started to Sing”)
is being woven
and cut to measure
5. This is a 20th-century version of a much older text, a lost gospel attributed to the risen Lazarus.
On a low chair, the book
opened by itself.
A gust of air blew—
it was the Lord’s breath.
May the earth be easy on him,
since it was only today that we noticed
he was alive.
(“About the Dead, Briefly”)
it’s not easy for the dead to carry water
oh black she-goats black goatherd
you need to put your life in order Lazarus
make it clean as death
oh you risen from the dead
(“Whisk Broom 50”)
I wandered everywhere
like a God’s fool.
Whatever I acquired—I lost.
what I gave life to—died.
Go into town and buy a spade
as if intending to turn over a garden.
Instead, find your humble place
in the village graveyard,
swing high and dig yourself a grave.
Set it up, decorate it, write on it.
Find your humble place
in a world gone mad.
6. Finally, and most convincingly of all, a scholar of 20th-century children’s literature suggested that this was a children’s book that had grown up and gone wrong, after an abusive childhood.
Again that dangerous confusion
of things and people.
I see an ashtray next to a dozing armchair
and say it’s a baby-ashtray.
In the pantry: bottles-maidens.
In the tavern I spoke with a human cash register.
covered with nets and shining scales
walks down the hallway
beating a drum full of mice
Old shoes in the rain
next to a dumpster
wait for the one who will pass this way
Carrying the shoes in his hand,
he’ll find my room and bed
and will lie down in it and then vanish
just as my dream about him comes to a close.
I found an empty cardboard box
and sat down in it
My mad old sweetie
will pass this way and buy me
(“In Front of a Supermarket”)
Hey, little marsh, reed, cattail and water lily.
flies flies the gray crow.
here, there, there’s no one in the rotted boat.
let’s set out for the open waters.
let’s turn and lie on our backs forever.