Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Poetry of Marko Vesovic

On 22nd November, former Bosnia Serb General Ratko Mladic was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against Humanity, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, bringing a degree of closure to a conflict which traumatized an entire region. The Balkan conflict of the 1990's stretched throughout my adolescence, a seemingly interminable tragedy played out nightly on the television news. The resolution of the conflict at the decade's end, and the subsequent removal from power of many of its architects  has enabled the area to develop and prosper, but this seemed all but unthinkable when the fighting was at its height, bringing to the political lexicon a range of macabre new terms, such as the chilling "ethnic cleansing," words which will forever be associated with the period's most infamous chapter, the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995, which occurred towards the close of the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

One man who lived through the war was the Montenegro-born poet, essayist, translator and academic Marko Vesovic, who was born in 1945, in the Montenegrin village of Pepe, arrived, via family connections, in Sarajevo in 1963, and has remained there ever since - first studying, now teaching, at the city's University.  Having translated Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Aleksandr Pushkin into Serbo-Croat, Vesovic is a member of the Serb Civic Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and by the 1990's had become one of the country's most respected poets.  But, having been born when one enormous war was at an end, he would endure three and half years of living amid conflict, and emerge from them as a fierce opponent of Nationalism, with a sense that the city of Sarajevo, as he recently told Bosnian journalist Sergio Paini, "has unfortunately changed forever."

American poet Chris Agree has described how,  Suffused with an ironic, Rabelaisian wit, Vešovic´s poetry both mocks an imperfect world and celebrates the enchantments of childhood memory with gentleness and ardour. A striking feature of his oeuvre is the huge arc of its perspectives: from intimate conversations with his dead mother, through the harsh splendours of Pape, to the overwhelming pressures of the Bosnian war. In a language that is both richly imagistic and formally dextrous, one encounters everywhere in Vešovic´s poetry the eternal dialogue between the tenderness and cruelty of existence.

Summa Summarum (Latin: All in All)
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience. (1)


Indeed, there is much insight - and wit - in the works of this talented, somewhat don-ish in appearance, at times contrary, poet - who is stopped on the street by admiring fans, yet whose sense of humour is self-deprecating, and who recently told a magazine that, on being offered the chance of taking political office in Bosnia,  I responded that my students would laugh when they heard that, because I'm not capable of putting a classroom in order, much less a country. I can't imagine myself in a situation where I am commanding, giving orders to anyone.

In the early 60's, Vesovic, like many rising stars of the Sarajevo poetry scene, made the acquaintance of a charismatic, imposing, ultimately murderous poet, lawyer, and, almost unbelievably, children's author, who would come to international recognition as a war criminal responsible for murdering any of Vesovic's own countrymen - Radovan Karadžić .  This former association and the shock with which Karadvic's culpability for genocide would wreak on Vesovic and others, would form a pivotal moment in his thinking and world view, but during the war its self, Vesovic turned his skill towards encouraging his fellow citizens to resist the military onslaught. On the Poetry International website, Chris Agee explains how During the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, Vešovic remained in the city and wrote over 100 essays for Oslobodenje ('Liberation'), Dani ('Days') and Slobodna Bosna ('Free Bosnia'). These writings, which exemplify the multi-ethnic defence of the Bosnian capital, were of immense importance to the morale of the city's besieged inhabitants. Vesovic also saw this material as a means of reaching out to many of his Serb contemporaries lured by the emotive, age-old tug of Serb Nationalism.  In 2014, Vesovic told Frontline magazine:
 I only know this - we were still hoping that the war would stop. As if a misunderstanding had happened - human consciousness could not possibly agree to evil, to a war. We thought it was entirely monstrous, that there was a war in Sarajevo, and Bosnia as a whole.
The poet's own experiences of military service clearly influenced his writing, which even when recalling times of long ago seems inevitably prophetic:

 I'm doing sentry duty.  At dawn.  Nearby is a house.  Actually,
a yellowish hovel.  Beside it--a poplar above a well.
The poplar is as tall, it somehow seems to me, as
the well is deep.  Above the house white smoke is unfolding
Like a baby's diapers.

In the house a child is crying. Long. For years already.

It seems: The shack would come down if the child fell silent.
Anything can come to mind when one is
Doing sentry duty. (2)

Later, I am reminded of Houseman's deceptively tranquil pastoral set among the balmy days immediately preceding World War 1, On the Idle Hill of Summer, as the calm before the storm is depicted in Mario Susko's skillful translation:

From a green meadow, wounded, was staring at the sky.
There was nothing for a million miles around.
Yes, miles, as if the immense void that
Roared around me was in fact the open sea.
Stark and boundless.   From everything, under the sky,
Only a blind starkness remained that roared brutally. (3)

I think the Houseman comparison may have been partly triggered by my coincidental recent reading of the journals of Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, and later the Peace Implementation Council's High Representative to Bosnia and Heregovina,  in which his own first visit to the soon to be battle-scarred countryside of Bosnia evokes a memory of the poem.  The diaries depict in painful detail the impact of the war on the civilians of Bosnia, and provide snapshots of everyday life - the unease of which is captured by Vesovic, in an atmospheric, and moving, invocation of Tolstoy's War and Peace:

I, too, like Prince Andrey, before death,
suddenly felt that there was nothing
In the world but that immeasurable distance
Above me, and the still more immeasurable distance,
Inside.  As if the soul was looking upon itself
From an immensity
powerfully healing.
Or as if it were looking on its pain after a million summers.
Pain turned into a white waterfall roaring like the spring of the Bosna.

I, too, like Prince Andrey, realized
that nothing matters more
than those distances that multiplied with lightning speed.
Seventy-seven immensities, the soul
drinking from each like from the seventy-seven fountains of home,
The world was, all around, ground to powder,
and looked like that
Ruddy column of dust that surges upward
When a shell smashes into someone's house in Sarajevo.  (4)

I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in one of the most bitter warzones of the Twentieth Century.  A library colleague, who served in a NATO peace-keeping unit during the Siege of Sarajevo, has described some of his experiences, but also talks about the "gallows humour" and resilient attitudes among the military.  This sort of thing is suggested by Vesovic in his lighter moments, as in his poem
in which a soldier in an unspecified conflict is depicted as having found a blouse among his kit, a reminder of some amorous adventure:

Suddenly, because of all this—the wine-colored west,
the new moon with horns, the woman’s tiny blouse whose
scent, like a thread, can lead you out of hell—
suddenly, because of this, I feel my soul relieved,
more at ease with the world. (5)


But lurking beneath any happiness or calm, is an ever-present murmur of disquiet, of anxiety, of fear:

It is a stillness and solitude when you listen to a baby bird’s feathers
Growing, when you listen to an elder tree
Sprouting from human absence amid the ramparts,
And when rocks start looking, for a moment,
Like gigantic layers of police files
With the fingerprints of millions of vanished beings
Whose murmur is heard anew.   (6)

See how even the rocks remind Vesovic of "layers of police files."  This is, after all a poet who lived for most of three decades under a Communist dictatorship.


But Marko Vesovic will be best remembered for his poetry decrying the effects of the war which followed Yugoslavia's break up.  Perhaps Vesovic's most famous poem is the stunningly simple Signature, describing an incident in which he and his infant daughter were returning home during a period of fighting:

 I'm running home with my little daughter –
again, shells have surprised us on the street.
Shells have, for centuries, been falling every day,
and every time they surprise us.

I'm hurrying her on with angry words:
transferring my rage from the Serb gunners
to a child awaited ten years.
Let me write my name, she tells me, as we pass
a patch of virgin snow in the park.
Instead of scolding her,
I—God knows why—let her forefinger
break the delicate whiteness,
and then, around the Cyrillic IVANA VEŠOVIC
my forefinger describes a circle,

Like in fairy-tales.   (7)

Looking back on the war today, Vesovic expresses little in the way of triumphalism.  Indeed, there is an element of the "stiff-upper-lip," or the militant machismo he has spoken of as inherent to his generation of Montenegrins:

We should lock it all up in the soul
and forget. But at least we shall, from now on
have a touch more self-respect, I hope,
like the fighter who takes a billion blows
but stays on his feet and his mangled face
in the mirror tells him who he really is.    (8)

Offering scant philosophy, Vesovic soberly attests that:

 We who passed through the siege of Sarajevo
shall, of course, gain nothing.
An experience that will serve no purpose:
as if you lost your arms and won a violin,
as Rasko would say. You can’t even tell
others about it. Can you reconstruct an ancient
jug from the lonely handle that made it to
our time?  
 To know how much you can bear, without
exploding—that is the only property that you
shall, if you survive, bring from this war,
endless like the handkerchief a magician pulls
out of his hat. This knowledge—a saber which
we shall not draw very often from the scabbard.
But at least I will keep my hand
on its hilt.    


Thankfully I have never experienced the kinds of horrors Vesovic and his generation lived through; nor, despite the current political and economic crises troubling Europe, is it likely that the Balkans will ever again face the anarchy and violence which characterized the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The book I am reading at the moment is an account of the crimes of, and subsequent hunt for, Serbian politician Radovan Karadžić - Nick Hawton's Europe's Most Wanted Man: the quest for Radovan Karadžić.  And it was his unlikely associations with this war criminal, currently serving a term of up to forty years for genocide and crimes against Humanity.  Remembering Karadzic as an egotistical presence on the 1960's literary scene, Vesovic has nonetheless explained how he and many of his fellow poets had an affection, or respect, for the future warmonger - who, while infamous for his role as a Serb Nationalist, was actually born in Vesovic's native Montenegro.  The friendship petered out in the early 1970's, when Karadzic was exposed as a spy for the Communist authorities by whom Vesovic had been reprimanded for some of his anti-government writings.  But even this betrayal did not overly taint Vesovic's view of his supposed friend: I'd rather have a have my own Montenegran inform against me, he told Frontline magazine, than someone from Bosnia who didn't know me at all, and he really knew me.

Over the years, Vesovic and his friends would watch their old associate assume national recognition through a political career, which did not surprise Vesovic in the slightest:

He's a born politician because of his absolute self-confidence. And because of his optimism. In my opinion, a politician is by definition a born optimist. He really did have these characteristics which would have made him a politician even in a different kind of time when butchering people and changing the borders wasn't a part of it. The point is, I have talked to his colleagues and I didn't know how to find the right description for him. But they did. He is a psychopath. You know, being a psychopath is a very dangerous illness.
In early 2012, Hague Tribunal prosecutors produced recorded evidence, in the form of audio recordings whereby Karadzic and others are heard authorizing mass slaughters, finally putting paid to any lingering revisionism propagated by their partisan supporters.  One of those for whom this evidence had an immense personal impact was Marko Vesovic:

The voice which said this shocked me. And it was forever engraved in my mind. Because for me, all I had known about Karadzic up to then, dissolved in one second. I only realized that it wasn't the same man; that weakling, that clay... He became someone who had control over the life and death of his own nation. 

With the chief protagonists of the Balkan slaughters now either dead or behind bars, the butchery of which Vesovic speaks is surely a thing of the past, and last week's the sentencing of Ratko Mladic does seem to indicate the closing of a chapter in the region's tragic history. But it is a chapter whose echoes resonate across the world today, and the age-old anxieties, emotions and pains bound up within its memory will never be erased.
Summa Summarum
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience.

Yet do not extol,
To the skies, your native land.
It ought to extol you.

Seen from this cloud
These meadows and fields
Are a stamp album;

And to the ant a smoke ring
Twirling from your cigarette
Is a whole new landscape!

And stop threatening for once
To return next time
To this handful of land without history
Only in the shape of a rider in bronze.

And before you leave
Stroke the bark of these trees
Which all the while have given you
Free lessons in standing tall!

1,10 -  Chris Agee
2,3,4, 7-Mario Susko 
5,6 -  Omer Hadžiselimović 
8-Zvonimir Radeljkovic
9 -  Zvonmir Radeljkovic

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