Friday, May 16, 2008

Johnson’s Bosnia

The Y in Ann Arbor (The Sinks)


I love that nutty
Persiflage and veering God-
Taunt’d verbiage that comes
Out of collaborating with
A French woman, bald-
Head’d, or a Russian
Name of Ninotchka or
Veruschka, some model W
For whoops just because
A man’s a clean-
Press’d uniform with snap
In its creases. Taunt’d
or taint’d—what is
That mess all down
The trousers? Or what
Is it makes me
Sally forth with red
Epaulettes squared, a fat
Blunt come dangerously close
To burning the quarter-
Sized patch of hair
That adorns my pendulous
Lip? I am Mr.
Gravity himself (“Garbo Laughs!”)
And I am yearning
Only to muscle quizzically
In on the feats
Of some other’s reckless
Yes in a rude
Trawling through sort of
Way, one way of
Making the minimal salience
Of a boundary my
Own, transfigured by longing.
I had better hurry—
Although nothing lasts longer
Whilst something never does.

Title cobbed off Coleridge, that nut. What a mess. Go away for a few days and see something of a world and it all wants to sidle up with the eyelashes doing a split-second rapidity thing, flirt city. Yesterday I perused (in Jacket) the mighty Kennan Ivanović’s “The Fountain Where One’s Name Is Changed: Notes from the Sarajevo Poetry Days Conference,” a terrific thing interspersed with excerpts out of Semezdin Mehmedinović’s Sarajevo Blues. Later—chance the dog that howls mournfully in the black’d ruins of my soul—I start’d Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. A cacophonous merger occur’d, a round of Bosnia scraps and scissorings. Stories recount’d between two puffs of a cigarette. Here’s Semezdin Mehmedinović (during the siege of Sarajevo):

First a bulldozer came to dig trenches in the ground, then the truck hauling cement blocks to shore them up. Tanks are dug in with just the barrels peering out. And rocket launchers. Beyond the range of our rifles. Maybe you could even spend the winter in trenches like that. It’s August now: tobacco comes in from Nis and plum brandy from Prokuplje. I don’t know where the women come from, but I saw them too, through my binoculars. One of them put an air mattress down by the trench to sun herself in a bathing suit. She lies like that for hours. Then she gets up, goes to the rocket launcher, pulls the catch and lets a shell fly at random toward the city. She listens for a second, looking towards the source of the explosion: she stretches on the tips of her toes, innocently. Then she goes back, rubbing her body in suntan oil to fully give in to her own state of well-being.
Here’s Aleksandar Hemon:
There was a crazy guy in Sarajevo . . . who jogged all over the city under siege whenever the shooting slowed down. In an undershirt and red shorts he ran and ran, and people tried to catch him and save him, because the Chetniks never really stopped shooting, but nobody could catch him, he was pretty fast. He would stuff a plastic lemon in his mouth and when he didn’t have a lemon he would scream like the sheitan. If you asked him, he would say he was training for the Olympics. Then one day . . . he ran with a bunch of people across the airport tarmac as the UNPROFOR and the Chetniks shot at them. But they shot at the crowd, he was far ahead of them, the plastic lemon in his mouth, so he made it across. Then he ran all the way to Kiseljak. And now he is in Saint Louis . . .
“Chetniks”: slur-term for Serbian paramilitary gangs. “UNPROFOR”: the United Nation Protection Force. “Sheitan”: “Cara Bey! oof! he is a Sheitan, he is Satan, he is a black Yezidi, a worshipper of the devil!” Or here’s the redoubtable Kennan Ivanović (a.k.a. Kent Johnson) writing about meeting ’s translator, Elvis Mujanović, a “shy, melancholic young man”:
Now, drinking coffee in the hotel, overlooking the city, getting to know a bit about each other, he tells me of his family in the western town of Cazin, how during the war it was taken over by a break-away faction of the Bosnian forces and became the site of terrible intra-Muslim fighting. Imagine the desperation and shame we felt, and always the fear he says, that we would die for nothing. He tells me how his mother, a fan (it goes without saying) of Elvis Presley and a heavy smoker, would hoard all her cigarettes as currency to purchase basic provisions for the family, eating, of the little she could get, almost nothing herself. But he and his two sisters would steal one or two cigs from each pack and store them away to give to their mom to smoke when her depression would grow especially strong. The house gets hit by a shell one day, when they are, for some reason, not there. Relatives and friends die, as soldiers or bystanders. A rotting horse swells to the size of a hippo and bursts all over the road. Medieval buildings collapse into rubble. An old man, driven mad by grief, calmly walks a cat on a leash, as the firefight proceeds around him. Famished dogs snarl over the entrails of the maggot-covered horse. We are quiet for a while. Traffic sounds and school-kid laughter, shouts of daily commerce. And then he lights a cigarette, asks me about my own family, do my parents still live, am I married, do I have children, etc.
I love the size (and fleet bravado) of the stories. It is the mode of Hemingway in the untitled squibs that separate the stories of In Our Time, a mode mostly unpursued in American letters, or pursued mostly for comic effect. (I think of Diane Williams and Lydia Davis . . .) Here’s Hemingway:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired at the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
What I think of now as “Bosnian prose.”

Kent Johnson