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POLITICAL POETRY: A BIRD'S EYE VIEW
by Ruzha Cleaveland
Sarajevo: Book of the Dead
Ten years ago a book of poems appeared in Slovenian and Croatian bookstores that documented the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Like other books of poetry written by popular Yugoslav poets, this book sold rapidly. The book was Sarajevo: Book of the Dead, and the author was Josip Osti. Osti was Bosnian through and through: born and raised in Sarajevo and educated at the University of Sarajevo, where he focused on literature. As a student, he competed as a runner and was good enough to represent the then-Yugoslavia in international competition. Osti was also a protester, which precluded him getting a decent job once he completed his education.
I visited Slovenia in 1990, while it still was a part of Yugoslavia. Even then natives were predicting war, and by the time I returned to Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, the next year, Slovenia had already had a ten-day war with the Yugoslavian nationals and had repelled them. Concrete tank deterrents pushed to sides of the roads were the only tangible reminders of the conflict. At that time Josip Osti was living in Ljubljana, and was part of the first wave of émigrés from Bosnia that would eventually number some 50,000. Despite the fact that Osti's wife lived and worked in Ljubljana and that he surely would have been killed had he stayed in Sarajevo, Osti felt the guilt of a deserter. After all, his mother and his friends were in Sarajevo, slowly starving and daily waking to the unpredictability of death by bombs and bullets.
I purchased Sarajevo: Book of the Dead in Ljubljana and have translated it in its entirety. Here are a few poems from Osti's collection.
TODAY THE AGGRESSOR ATTACKED IN EVERY WAY AND IN ALL PARTS OF TOWN
bombs and grenades fell on the old and new parts of town
fell on the outskirts and the center
fell to life and to death
fell on the old Jewish cemetery
in which rested the author Isaac Samokovlia
simultaneously fell on white cattle
which his grave watched
and where once the cattle lived triumphantly through their narrators-
whose sorrows and joys he described
the shells and grenades fell on the central power station
on the town water works…
fell on the town bakery
which stood motionless without water and current
stood feebly before the mountain of white flour
which disguised even more the white powder of death
that snows on and buries the town
now falls in Sarajevo on flowers on fruit
like each night
can be the last
that which is struck is wounded accidentally
and just as accidentally can be missed
AIRPLANES. WALLS BURST MELODICALLY.
SIRENS. DANGER IN THE AIR.
don't put on your shoes
don't lock the house…
run down the hallway
to the cellar
don't ask if this is a real was
or remember the past
it is a continuation of the game that winks at death
hide yourself quickly
as safely as possible
crouch in some dim corner
cover your face with your palms
close your eyes
don't open your eyes even when they find you
not me, I'm not here, not me
I NO LONGER RECOGNIZE
THE TOWN IN WHICH I KNEW EVERY CORNER
once again the same Magritt photograph of Saravejo
the Catholic church struck by bombs
in a flash
it hovers, an angel with rock wings
ONE DAY WE WALKED THROUGH THE HALL OF THE INTERNATIONAL GALLERY ON WHOSE WALLS HUNG AN IMMENSE AMOUNT OF DEAD FOOD: TABLES AND PLATES OVERLOADED WITH MEAT, DRINK, AND FRUIT, OVERLOADED WITH EVERY KIND OF SWEET.
before our eyes are those who died from hunger
rescusistated by the dead food
all hands reached toward Cezanne's golden-red apples
stretched even further
but got nothing
the apples rolled from the table
burst out laughing
FIRE GAS AND THOSE WHO LAY UNDER IT
day in day out
all night long
Sarajevo is in flames
not the sun in its decline
gilds the roofs of houses
the cupola of the mosque, the church, the synagogue…
among the high flames
and columns of black smoke
fly frightened doves
with inflamed wings
flame embraces the enormous crown of a tree in bloom
it embraces and kisses my first and last loves
I don't know about the manuscripts of my poems
the numerous translations of Slovene literature
and my innumerable books in the library…
(my suit of clothes when on me)
they light the biggest fire in the history of Sarajevo*
town of my heritage
in which they burn away its and my past and future
don't I know what I want
still my fellow-citizens survived
to be blinded in the glittering fire
to notice that it came
from a previous dark night
Translating this book provided me a look behind the newspaper headlines and, selfishly, a way for me to keep in touch with my personal heritage. I believe that any time we are able to see another person's life, especially when they seem very different from us, we are reminded how alike we are which can only temper our biases and judgments and expand our vision of the world.
* Soldiers burned the national library in Sarajevo which included all books written by Bosnian authors. After his apartment was bombed a second time, the university professor and poet, Mario Susko, escaped with only the clothing he wore. He eventually got to New York and three years ago came to Chattanooga as a visiting writer. I had in my possession a book of his collected poems given to me by another poet, and I presented this book to Mario, the only book of his work he now has. RPC
Ruzha Cleaveland graduated from Purdue University with a degeree in home economics. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College in 1991. In addition to translating the works of the Bosnian poet Josip Osti, she has published her poetry in various American literary journals.