The Republic of Croatia is known as the "jewel of the Adriatic." The horseshoe-shaped country, which sits astride the Adriatic Sea, is renowned for its wine, its cuisine, its beautiful Dalmatian coastline, its internationally-known professional basketball players, and for its rich cultural and historical heritage. Joining this list of national Croatian treasures is Dr. Drago štambuk, a medical specialist and poet extraordinaire.
štambuk has had his award-winning works published in more than thirty books. Reminiscent of Boris Pasternak's famous literary persona, Doctor Zhivago, štambuk is that rare combination of physician and poet. Added to that unique synthesis of scientist and artist is štambuk's occupation as a foreign ambassador for Croatia. Since 1995, he has served as Croatia's ambassador to India, Sri Lanka, and to several countries in the Middle East. After a stint as a fellow at Harvard University in the United States, štambuk was appointed as Croatia's ambassador to Japan. He has remained in that post ever since.
The world as a whole is probably not all that familiar with poets hailing from Croatia. štambuk on the other hand, is an exception. He is one of the few modern Croatian poets who has a recognizable name outside of Croatia. Within Croatia itself, štambuk has made his way to the apex of the country's literary consciousness.
More than just a major tributary of Croatian literature, štambuk is regarded by his peers as by and large the top Croatian poet of his time. štambuk's Serbian counterpart and a man who was one of Europe's more exceptional contemporary poets, the late Ivan V. Lalic, once stated that the doctor was "one of the most interesting and unusual voices in...contemporary Croatian poetry."
Playing to what Elinor S. Shaffer calls his "powerful sense of Croatian mythic individuality" (from "Comparative Criticism: Volume 16, Revolutions and Censorship"), štambuk's poems, which are probably some of the worst-kept secrets on the international poetry circuit, are underscored by a formal temperance and by a refined intimacy. His poems are also emotionally and romantically mesmerizing from their periphery to their very center as they tend toward a marriage between the poet's studied ascription of a style, tone, and interpretation that is neither spontaneous nor reserved.
It is the considered opinion of poetry experts throughout Europe that another subtle feature that underlies štambuk's poetry is his emotive and descriptive regard for the land of his birth, the Dalmatian region of Croatia. In contrast to the potent nationalism of other Slavic poets, štambuk's poetry arises out of an ethos of a more aesthetic and romantic spirit of nationalist identity.
Some people think that štambuk's poetry essentially begins and ends with his love and honor of country. But there is much more to štambuk's works than an impressionistic continuity between his poetic themes and the culturally-nationalistic complexion of some of his verses. At closer glance we can see images of love that evolve out of an exhilarating yet poignant regard and compassion for a mysterious other, what could be to štambuk an object of love that he wishes to lavish a lot of care and attention on. In his poem "Black Wave," štambuk puts this sentiment across in such a way that we can work out for ourselves that a reason for his being is to take care of this eternal Other, to be as much as humanly possible to this object of his affection: "I want to be your love / I want to be all your labor. / I will be your countenance / and your bitter-cold."
In "Heart-shaped Fish," you can almost feel the elixir of pleasantly understated love condensing through the poem but still breaking over the banks of timid propriety. štambuk puts his trust in a metaphorical eagle which transports his "heart towards the Sun." He portrays the "powerful eagle" as a "home of embraces / a friend and lover." Driven along by his pursuit of his heart's enigmatic beloved, štambuk reaches his destined point by willingly leaving behind his "words": "After I left all my / words, like clothes, // on the shores of the ever changing sea / naked I enter You."
Trying to conclusively interpret štambuk's poetry is at once futile and invigorating, although someone will always take it upon themselves to form what they judge to be definitive expositions of his verses. But they do so at the risk of diminishing the elegant intensity and the breath of spiritual, psychological, and existential symbolism that is incorporated into the landscape of štambuk's poems. The poet, as with other progressive-minded verse makers, protects his poems from that development by welcoming different points of view of his works that are formulated from a personal and subjective vantage point, beyond authorial purview.
Insightful and intelligent analyses have been made concerning štambuk's poetry, thus confirming his desire to articulate metaphysical perceptions, mold perspectives, and to contribute perspicacious observations of human thought, emotions, and nature. In disdaining absolute conclusions in his poetry, štambuk sifts through such restrictive interpretive resoluteness and instead aims for something more sublime and heartfelt. This is an idea that is so unpretentious, yet so elemental, yet so human.
Artists are said to be the conscience and consciousness of their country, a sort of receptacle into which the hopes, dreams, and spirit of a people are reflected. In the case of štambuk's poetry, it is not merely Croatia but its Dalmatian region that inspires many of his verses. Referring especially to his poetry in the "Croatiam aeternam" collection, Elinor Shaffer writes that "the sense of homeland that runs like a silver thread beneath the stuff of the verse is the Dalmatia of the poet's birth." štambuk mediates what Shaffer calls the "atavistic Dalmatia" of his poetry with a deep appreciation of the past that he derives so much of his poetic vision from: "Fenced around / with islands phantom and real, Graeco-Croatian / handclasp, pact of Argonauts ancient and new."
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Granting that he does not declare it openly, Drago štambuk is clearly an ardent devotee of Croatia's vast historical and cultural experience. He has come to be seen as the fulfillment of Croatians' yearning to secure the gates of that cherished experience against the onslaught of modern existence. Just as uppermost in štambuk's mind is the poetic dialogue between his splendid Croatian themes and his gracefully humanistic approach. It is a dialogue that is only gathering more and more momentum given all that is happening in the world today.