Monday, August 3, 2015

Evolution and Art - Book Release

ART and ADAPTATION presents a comprehensive survey and discussion of the dominant ideas by leading thinkers on why we make art. Approaches that examine the evolution of art behavior embrace natural selection, sexual selection, social selection, and cognition. Art behavior is intimately entwined in our evolution and prehistory and helped solve problems and issues related to kin or group identification, attracting mates, and cultural transmission.

The book will be of primary interest to art students, artists, and art historians. Other students and scholars in the humanities and sciences who wish to embark on evolutionary studies will also find the book useful.

Available for order HERE

Cover image, The Knife Grinder, Kasimir Malevich, Yale University Art Gallery

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review of Psalm Sonnets

Alexandra Glynn, Psalm Sonnets. Resource Publications, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1498223669. 54 pages. $8.00

From her title, Alexandra Glynn makes it clear what readers should expect from her collection of poems.  In the same way that the biblical psalms explore questions of sin and belief and doubt and worship, Glynn’s poems do the same, though exclusively in sonnet form.  This is a book for believers, those who know many of the biblical stories already, not for those who are outside of the faith who would find references to the “bracelets, signet, and the staff” as “signs” confusing, at best.  These poems, then, are devotional, and Glynn makes no apology for that.

That is not to say, though, that Glynn does not present the more complicated questions of life in her writing.  In fact, the opening poem, “With palms in hand,” (and I have no idea if she purposely began with a poem that has an anagram of psalm in its title or not, but I like to think so) begins with the speaker talking about following Jesus into Jerusalem, but ends by asking if she will “go out in the bitterness of the night/With greed, envy, and hatred in my heart/To meet with those who do what is not right?”  She knows that we humans, even believers, are flawed, fallible creatures, as capable of acting like the disciples who abandoned Jesus as those who sing his praises.

There are also poems that move past such questions to try to provide home and comfort, as she moves quickly from her first two poems that are concerned with humanity’s sinfulness to a poem like “A tale is told like a light,” which ends

            Our consolations, as light after light,
            Are retold to us year by year and word
            By word; so we to the story belong
            Just as a melody does to a song.

Glynn combines the power of story, in general, to the story the angels tell—here summed up simply with “Do not fear”—to prove, as she says, consolation.  She wants readers to see the hope that comes through the collection, that ultimately drives the doubts and questions away.

One interesting theme that develops throughout is that of loneliness and community.  Almost in the middle of the collection, two poems—“You left our Christianity” and “We used to sit together clad in white”—tell of someone who has left the faith from the point of view of the person still there.  While it is clear the speaker is concerned about the apostate’s soul (the closing of both poems make that quite clear), the speaker also seems to miss the other’s physical presence.

This loneliness becomes quite explicit in “I am lonely like Joseph,” where the speaker is unable to see the beauty of the world because of that loneliness.  The speaker also clearly seeks spiritual comfort in a poem like “Befriend me in my shame,” which ends with the speaker asking God (I’m assuming) to “Help me, acknowledge that you know my name;/Walk side by side with me in my great shame.”  The final poem, though, seems to seek inclusion in a community, not just acceptance by Jesus, as it opens “Don’t kick me out.  Don’t gather around me/And list my sins and faults and what I said/And did not say, last year, last month.”  This poem examines the idea of a community that seems more interested in taking notes on the speaker’s life than simply loving that person.

I would have liked to see more poems like the one that concludes the collection, as it is here that Glynn seems to most honestly wrestle with challenging ideas.  In other poems, such as “The snow is pure and white but I am not,” the conclusions are too easy, moving quickly from sin to salvation without any true struggle, any anguish that we see in the biblical psalms that end without clear resolution.  Similarly, I would have liked to see more diversity in the poems, as they are all written as Shakespearean sonnets with titles that match the first line of the poem.  While Glynn explores thematic diversity, she omits any exploration of the form, which could have added to the collection’s complexity.

That said, Glynn’s title sets forth exactly what she sets out to do, and her collection lives up to that expectation.  She has written a collection of devotional poems that explore biblical stories, ideas, and themes that people of faith will find interesting and intriguing.

- Kevin Brown, Professor of English, Lee University. Author, most recently, of Liturgical Calendar.

copyright 2015 by Kevin Brown - All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Philosophical Novelist, Ed Gibney: Always Evolving

When I was six, I wrote a short story (bound pages and all) about a king and his bad laws being overthrown by his people. When I was forty, I published my first novel about an idealist going to Washington DC to “really make a difference.” What does this say about free will and how much choice I seem to have had in the matter of whether or not I became a writer?

Well, not much actually, since these are just a pair of anecdotes I chose, but they do show the concerns I’ve always had about justice and politics. My journey between those two similar acts looked meandering and unpredictable while it was happening though. I came from a rural, blue-collar background where no one I knew had the luxury of indulging emotional creative urges. Education and work were supposed to have a rational purpose—they had to pay college loans and the bills of daily life. Luckily, I have the kind of ordered and analytical mind that let me succeed at engineering and then business school, so I did “all the right things” by getting practical degrees to get rid of debts and sock away some investments. All the while though, I managed enough flights of fancy to keep my artistic dreams alive and growing. I moved to San Francisco (a real eye-opener for a kid from the Amish countryside!), worked on construction projects in the western deserts, spent a summer as a business consultant to an Eskimo town in Alaska, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine during their Orange revolution, and rubbed elbows with Washington’s elite as an advisor to the director of the U.S. Secret Service. All of these gave me the time and perspectives I needed while I slowly developed my deepest passion—philosophy.

In 2010 when my wife was given a great job opportunity in northern England, we decided it was as good a time as I was ever going to get to try working full-time on all the philosophical arguments I’d been shouting in my head for decades, as well as the fictional stories I had been dreaming about to explore and illustrate these concepts. The most inspiring people to me had always been authors who’d done exactly this with their lives—writers like Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Ayn Rand, Irvin Yalom, Upton Sinclair, Daniel Quinn, Robert Pirsig, and Rebecca Goldstein—people who expressed their extremely well-thought-out philosophies in gripping fictional tales. Since the age of sixteen or so, when I started reading these kinds of works while trying to figure out where my own life might lead, I have desperately longed to be this kind of person and writer, to make the kind of things that had been most inspirational to me. For decades I kept journals, read widely, travelled far, and thought hard, always considering myself one of “those creative people” despite all professional appearances to the contrary. It may have been a secret, but I was preparing myself to take a shot at producing the kind of books that could inspire other people to think deeply and live well. The arrogance and audacity it takes to attempt this scares the hell out of me though; I still can’t begin to talk about these motivations whenever someone asks me at a dinner party or on the street, “So, what do you do?” But I have seen other people accomplish this, and they gave me so much. I have to try to do this too.

My first novel, Draining the Swamp, is the one I wrote at age forty about an idealist going to Washington, DC. I call it a “bureaucratic fable,” a cross between a picaresque and a Bildungsroman that was strongly influenced by the people I met and the real experiences my wife and I had while working in Washington (me with the FBI, Secret Service, and DHS; she with NGO’s and a Senator). It’s the book I wish I had read before I moved to DC so I could have really understood how the federal government works and what you can (or can’t) do to change it. I wrote it soon after leaving DC as a bit of an experiment (I wrote the first draft in thirty days during NaNoWriMo, knowing I had a lot to learn about writing), but I also wrote it for the opportunity to get down on paper everything I had learned during my years of work trying to make government more efficient. That doesn’t sound like a typical starting point for a first novel, but after lots of homework and many, many, rewrites, it became something I still find exciting and inspiring to read, which seems to be a really rare thing for writers to feel about their work. It’s been thrilling to hear from career government people I respect and admire who loved its truthfulness and ideals, as well as from professional book reviewers who thought it was “well written” and “riveting.” When the famously cantankerous Kirkus Reviews said, “its crisp dialogue and deep knowledge of Washington’s inner workings make it an edifying read,” I finally knew I might actually have what it takes to sell books. That review also said the book “can be a bit didactic,” knowing this was a bad thing to today’s literary cognoscenti, but when the Midwest Book Review said Draining the Swamp belonged in the same tradition as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, I really knew my style of didacticism had hit the mark I was aiming for. It was then that I finally felt I was ready as a writer to take on a bigger project—the novel idea I’d been trying to figure out in my head for over five years.

So my first novel was intended to entertain and inspire people who wanted to improve government. That was a goal I was confident I knew a lot about. This next novel (my current work in progress) is intended to entertain and inspire people who want to improve their personal lives in particular and the state of the world in general. Draining the Swamp was a book that contained a bit of political philosophy, but my next project required a thorough understanding of the rest of philosophy, particularly of the field of morality. Some say writing is an act of self-discovery, and for me that’s slightly true while I write (I’ll put together the odd metaphor or observation in the moment that really strikes me), but it’s much truer during the preparation phase for my writing. In this case, I actually took the time to write out my own philosophical beliefs in a clear, comprehensive, and concise manner. This was important to me as a writer who also wants to be known for his philosophy, but it was necessary too because my next main character was going to be a “Chief Philosophy Officer” for a biotechnology company in the near future, and I wanted his dialogue to be as convincing as possible. One of my favorite quotes inscribed on the walls of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC is from Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” During my philosophy-writing time, I became much more exact. I turned my ideas into a website where I blog about them and discuss them with others, and I even managed to get my biggest idea published in an academic journal article that will possibly be the most important thing I’ll ever write, even though it’s likely to only ever be read by a handful of professional philosophers.

Once this philosophy writing and other marketing work had earned a pause, I was excited to get back to creative writing. When I write fiction, I find that I really have to toggle my emotions back and forth between a happy, blabbering, freeness and a critical, worrying, paranoia. The first is the state I have to be in to get a first draft done or whenever I write fresh new passages. The second state is the one I have to be in while I edit, and re-edit, and re-edit until there’s not a word left that I might cringe about. I’m very mindful now of separating my work efforts into these two chunks so it’s easier to get / stay in these emotional mindsets.

Both of the novels I’ve drafted now have been done in NaNoWriMo style in 30 to 60 days, writing at least 1700 words per day until I’m done. After some early days struggling to achieve this, I’ve learned that I do it best by spending the morning sketching out the day’s text in bullet points, grabbing some phrases as they come to me (especially the words of dialogue my characters will say), but staying focused by moving fast. If I go in a direction that boxes me in or I think of something I’d rather have said earlier, then it’s really easy to move things around. This process reigns in the paralysis of “too much choice” I feel if I try to write slowly in complete and punctuated sentences. Using this style really gets me in a fast flow state where I can get a lot done without too many instances of staring out the window wondering where to go next. (If I do get really stuck, I’ll play a bit of Tetris and let my emotions work out the kinks of where my mind wants to go. I’m really good at Tetris now.) In the afternoons, I go back over the bullet points and turn them into finished text. Some changes inevitably occur during this process, but mostly I keep on track and get a lot done knowing I have a map and endpoint in sight about the passage I’m writing.

That’s the process for the first draft. After that, I like to read a writing textbook to help “learn the craft,” which always sparks lots of notes for changes that I can make during the next edit. Then I’ll try to read some fiction during the rest of the editing process, choosing things with a style I think I need more of: e.g. Saul Bellow if I need flourish, Dan Brown if I need pace, Ayn Rand if I’m feeling timid (nothing gets me shouting more than arguing with Ayn Rand in my head). I should say that I’m one of those writers who always have a big general outline done first. I’ll start with a rough plot outline first, and then use that to generate detailed psychological profiles of the characters who would act the way I need them to act during the twists and turns of the story. As I come up with their backgrounds, strengths, quirks, physical characteristics, names, etc., that’s when everything really comes to life, when I can hear the individual voices speaking the dialogue that will ultimately tell the story I want to tell. I’m a very idea-driven writer who has a point I’m trying to make and an emotional reaction I want to elicit, but I spend a lot of time constructing the people and situations that will believably and interestingly get me to my goal. I don’t understand writers who pick characters and just “see where they take them.” This seems aimless to me; and I need to have goals in my life and in my writing to generate real and purposeful movement.

The goal I’m working on at the moment is this “philosophical page-turner” I’m trying to complete with the Chief Philosophy Officer as the central character. That’s not exactly a standard genre, but it’s best exemplified by The Brothers Karamazov or Atlas Shrugged, although I do hope to improve upon both the philosophy and the pace compared to either of those novels (especially compared to Rand’s). I’m trying to create a story where the reader wants to be one of the characters and succeed as one of its heroes, as this can be a great way to pull people in and inspire thoughts and emotions that cross over into their daily lives. In this case, my CPhO is the head of a firm that has developed life extension technologies that are ready to be trialed on human subjects. The book revolves around the selection process for these candidates to be the first among us to “live forever,” which raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the impact this would have on people and society. Most medical trials look for people with specific illnesses that need to be cured, but this one needs to find people who are really good at living life so they can be given lots more of it. Wouldn’t you like to be one of those people? I know I would. Then I’d definitely have time to complete all the rest of the novel ideas I’ve got swimming around in my head!

[ Read more at Ed Gibney’s website ]

Copyright©2015 by Ed Gibney – All Rights Reserved 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nina Tassi on Alicia Ostriker - Review

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.  69 pages, paper. $15.95U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6291-5.

At a recent reading, Alicia Ostriker confessed her surprise—being a serious woman, she said, when the three extraordinary characters who eventually gave the title to her new book, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, popped up and began talking to her. Lucky poet, because all three are a sheer delight to meet.

Each of the forty-two poems in this slim volume contains three stanzas, in which these characters take the stage in turn, with an equal number of lines allotted to each. They address the subject at hand, whether it be life, liberty, nature, religion, love, evil, anger, or war. Ostriker said that she was not certain which of the three characters represents her—perhaps the tulip. All of them, it seems, are aspects of her poetic psyche, delving into earthly life from three perspectives: human, plant, and animal.

What is one to get out of these poems besides pure enjoyment? Well, culled wisdom for one thing, as well as a sense of the multiplicity of possible views of existence. This gem of a collection offers humor, wit, stunning lyricism, always surprise. The language is outstanding not only for its conciseness which appears utterly natural, but for its deceptive simplicity, its everyday idiom—wherein its power resides.

In the poems, the characters compete to win dominance for their views, often slyly undermining one another. Humor, wit, earthy expressions become the vehicles of common sense, deflating excessive poetic rhetoric and overblown emotions.  “The Moment on Stage I.” for instance, moves from self-dramatization to playfulness in the moment:

I am
happy to be
said the fragile old woman

when my beauty
fades I
shall die
said the dark red tulip

Come on and
throw me
that Frisbee
said the dog (30).

Ostriker celebrates with fun the simple supremacy of life. In “Church,” here is how the dog says it: “I ain’t nothing but a hound dog/cryin’ all the time/nothin’/but a hound dog cryin’/said the dog/but the preacher says/no matter/how blue I may get/I am a damn sight better/than a dead lion” (33-34).

Although Ostriker gives equal time to all three characters, it is no accident that the dog gets the last stanza every time. Bawdy though he is, or maybe because he is, the dog wins the poet’s deepest sympathy. She knows how he feels, and admires his devotion to humans even when some (or many) are undeserving. This dog is authentic, true to himself, and can express outrage with a sharp bite, as in the last stanza of “Anger II: The Rape:” “Definition of a bleeding heart—/you could not bear to look/so you crossed the street and did nothing to stop/ the man on the corner with the stick/beating me said the dog belligerently” (51).

“In War Timeis chilling. It uses ordinary words and phrases, turning them to exceptional effect, creating layers of metaphor in the most matter-of-fact tone.  The poet’s passion comes through as she decries all wars and the most horrifying of events, the Holocaust.

Ah here you are at last
sorry about the guards
I hope they didn’t give you much trouble
I was afraid you’d never make it
across the river before curfew
let me take your coats
said the old woman

Thank you
how could we possibly pass up
such a sweet invitation
but let me tell you
said the tulip
when we reached the bridge we saw
the river was full of corpses

A dog too can be afraid
despite an appearance of ferocity
navigating unfamiliar streets
dodging unpredictable explosions
still one persists in one’s errand
here we are said the dog
thank you I will keep my coat (61).

This collection presents an exceptional poet’s argument with herself. It is brilliant, daring, earthy, proclaiming that there is no substitute for life and the living of it.

Ostriker, author of 15 poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011, and The Book of Seventy, has received numerous awards, among them the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and the National Jewish Book Award. A finalist twice for the National Book Award, she is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.

-Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions (poetry), and has recently completed a new collection, Spirit Ascending.

Copyright 2015 by Nina Tassi - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Standing Next to a Corpse - Anthony Lock

Standing Next to a Corpse

By Anthony Lock

I will always remember well the day I almost died. We probably measure the biggest things in life by contrast. Poverty and wealth; love and hate; beauty and ugliness. I’ve only done it for a couple of minutes, but nothing makes one feel more intensely and disgustingly alive than standing next to a corpse when it was you or them. It’s an internal injection of sickness and shameful relief, and it repeats with varying strength in moments in the days and years afterward. On television, in newspapers, all you see is a corpse. Next to one, you see yourself.

I have seen many tragedies, and in the years since being in the CBD during the 2011 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch, I continue to witness many tragedies. So does everyone else. These tragedies, things many people experience around the world daily, are a continual feed of highly consumed entertainment, whether you like it or not.

It’s condescending and pointless to tell people “you have to experience it to understand”. Scores of people continue to watch Amitabh’s Sikandar die before Raakhee’s Kaamna after a lifetime of distant adoration; to see Puccini’s Butterfly arranged as Kim’s ultimate sacrifice for her son Tam. Soap opera or classic novel, you transfer with characters. It’s why we love art. If you didn’t experience the emotional plateaus of Muqaddar Ka Sikander or Miss Saigon, you wouldn’t bother watching them. What matters about standing next to a corpse after concrete rain ceases, is not so much that it almost happened to you, either. It’s that a part of you really was hair-breaths from termination.

The lesson it’s taken me years to learn is that if one is to discover things from a near-death experience, you cannot “move on” from it. Rather, it is something that you keep near, advice written, and re-written continually, to yourself. It’s probably the same with any deep moment in life. Close shaves don’t always make a wound that can return. Unless you knew a loved one who perished, one can begin to see the tragedy one was present at like any other of the hundreds of horrors that the planet plays stage to each revolution of its axis. See enough disasters in repeated digital image, tweeted with what feels like practically everyone’s comments and journalistic gusto, pile on time, and it becomes like a sports event. One went to the arena to see this one, that’s all. This is a corpse of its own.

The sky was a wonderful summer blue, a couple of hours earlier I had been informed that the building I was in had been rebuilt some decades earlier and could bear force if there was “another big quake”, a 7.1 magnitude quake having occurred outside the city less than six months before during the night. I nodded, as did others; I scoffed privately, because any aftershock wasn’t going to be as large as the first quake. Outside for food, I sat next to a man I had met that day, and we began talking. A minute passed, and during a silence between us, admiration of the still was broken by a tremendous roar. I was puzzled for the half-second before the rumbling reached where we were. Then I realized that the noise was the crash of something that could cross kilometers in seconds, like a giant running over the country at the speed of sound. Screams erupted in the shopping street and people started to run and cower.

On my left, the man next to me – amazing how vivid and formative an experience this is, and has been, to me, and yet I cannot remember his name – put his hand on my shoulder. During all this time I believed it would fade in seconds. After about ten seconds, the shaking softened. My new companion took his hand away, and I turned to him and uttered stupidly “it’s okay, don’t worry”. In the instant it took to turn around to the right to investigate the newly expected calm I saw part of the building in which I had spent most of the morning in mid-freefall. The pause I felt was like the few seconds of calm before a storm. The energy release was just beginning of what was although a “smaller” quake at 6.3 on the Richter scale, to date the strongest quake ever recorded for shaking intensity, recording the highest peak ground acceleration, measurement of force against gravity.

I learned later that the people I had left conversing in that room were still there when the outside walls collapsed, though they were in the half of the room which did not collapse. I saw this fall onto people, though like the distinctiveness of such an experience, this is a unique statement. I discovered quickly that although one can watch this happen to people – one has to because one has to monitor the surroundings in order to not suffer the same fate, and one has no control over what happens with what you see far away – an inbuilt psychological state can kick in. Although I saw this horror occur, I only observed the dead bodies after the dust cleared a minute later. Whether such delayed acknowledgment of what one saw is something humans do unconsciously to better cope, or in these circumstances you really cannot see, I don’t know.

It was only when about three buildings had either fully or partially decayed that I understood this was far worse than the previous earthquake. I realized quickly that I was in a safe place in the center of the street. Rubble reached a meter to me on either side, not from falling but rolling – only after did I become conscious that the tree behind me could have toppled and that there was a larger danger in that spot than I had known. My thoughts were I’d always said in such a situation I would “meet the test”, though as I looked around, grappling with the realization that such an event was happening, I understood that I couldn’t rescue anyone from where I was until the shaking stopped. If I had tried, I would have run into the masses fleeing the buildings and the adjacent rock fall. As I saw the whole street collapsing, I felt those time-honored notions about family and friends, but my first main thought was understanding I was at the center of what would now be the top news story around the world for the coming days. I feel this exposes something deep in my character, as I’m certain that isn’t a thought that occurs to many people in those circumstances. Again, what exactly, I know not.

As distant viewer, an emotional reaction that connects fully with all of the tragedies that occur in the world would drive you insane. Truly understanding what these situations are like for those who suffer takes an act of placing oneself somewhere in the scenario that is similar to watching or reading an emotional drama. This takes time to both think and feel, and time, as one learns from entering the mortal danger-zone, is, contradictorily, the most precious thing, and the thing we have in most abundance. It makes sense that someone who hasn’t been almost killed becomes desensitized to the torrent of tragic news forced upon us every day – we have to because we cannot cope if we become transfixed for too long to this news, and it can distract us from thinking about and doing other things we need to contemplate. The same goes for someone who has been near death. But strangely, I have found that those who have experienced events like these firsthand become desensitized to their near-miss experience with their own untimely death. Is this moving on, or forgetting what should be so life-provoking to them?

What the pictures of earthquake devastation don’t usually show is the dust that accumulates. About half-way through the quake it had become difficult to see and I couldn’t discern the casualties, though I knew they were there. When I could finally move, I was greeted with a coughing fit from breathing the dust. It’s one of the things you don’t think about, even if you see it. I had to unbutton my shirt to cover my mouth. Once the dust moved, I could see the destruction more clearly and the bodies of the dead. I wandered through the street seeing if there was anyone I could help, and shouted into buildings trying to listen for voices. I tried to phone emergency services to give specific information about where to find the injured, but the phones were out. I found no one who was unattended, so with a lack of need for me, I headed for Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, the city’s main open space and cultural meeting point, to see if my friend who worked nearby was there. Somehow, despite the chaos with the phones, I received a text from her when I arrived. It was only when I got there that the first aftershock happened. It brought down further debris and I realized for the first time that there would be many more aftershocks and that they would be dangerous. And it was only when I got home that I discovered the cathedral’s steeple had come down. I hadn’t registered its collapse despite being right next to it, nor that I hadn’t seen the man next to me since I had asininely told him “not to worry”. I pondered what had happened to him until I saw him again some months later and he told me he had run away as soon as the shaking stopped.

When speaking of the dead, everyone always says it’s such a waste, such a shame. I’ve seen this directly. Standing next to a corpse is to stand next to thousands of corpses. They had thousands of different things to do, thousands of different things they could have done. Then and now, even though I know the greatest horror was the loss of life, I felt the greatest evil – even if nature is not conscious, its tragedies are still evil – was that those who died got no warning. In paying the ultimate price for living on a crust of broken tectonic plates, as people with families and friends, smiles they can share, stories and laughs and games and the joys of life before them, the sorrow I felt standing next to them was feeling that they should have been told. They deserved to at least know before their time came. But they did not. Without this, the event seemed to dismiss them as individuals. People who had the supreme expression of which I know within each one of their bodies: their lives, and the time to mix their potentials and wonder into these lives. Like everyone, as someone who has lost family and friends unexpectedly, I know that the deepest sadness of the loss is that your loved one had countless threads before them, theirs to half-choose and half-be-given, to use the analogy from Chinese literature. At the feet of someone who has just perished without warning, however, thinking of the thousand things that they could have been and done didn’t seem to go far enough in treating them rightly, even though it is just as integral a part of the disaster. Standing there, I felt at least letting them know what was going to happen would have given them some of the respect they deserved. Of course, how would an earthquake do that? Such feelings mean little when they are afterthoughts, and afterthoughts from the fortunate.

“Moving on” can be taken at least two ways. Usually, it’s interpreted as “getting over” something. However, unless you carry with you the moments of brushing death, you don’t “move on”. You can revert to who you were. Moving on can be either forgetting a painful episode or using it to deepen one’s experiences and enrichment of the masterpiece each day is, or at least should be. What would you do, if you were there, time froze and a crackly voice somewhere in the distance said “Sorry, but today is not your day. Five seconds after I resume time, falling debris, currently poised thirty meters from your head, will end your life. You have a minute to reflect on what you would have done.” At any other point in most of your existence, you would probably give a restrained answer. Even the most ambitious plans are still restrained to a large degree by practicality. In this moment of last minute, everything becomes an ever expanding balloon of opportunities, the entirety of which you could never do because time is too short and doing one thing excludes others. But that doesn’t matter when the possibility of at least having a chance at life’s countless opportunities and wonders is, or was, going to be taken from you. It’s what I call choosing your paths when your thoughts are always larger. The months after the earthquake transformed me in this sense, and only recently has the fever it lit within me become tempered. This only occurred when I understood that the things I had attempted to juggle within my twenty-four hours were always seven too many and always left me with many I would have rather done.

As I said earlier, it can be pointless to make arguments that require a “you should have been there” component, let alone how patronizing such arguments can be. I have tried with furious editing to scrub unintended haughtiness from this entry. It remains, impossible to erase fully. I try to not lecture those who, time since, have wanted to hear what I felt. It’s none of my business to lecture people. Besides, I’m one person; I’ve seen how people react differently to events. I just tell those who ask what it was like for me. If they haven’t experienced it firsthand, like an artwork, I try to let them experience secondhand what it was like. How has it been for me? After standing next to corpses, I now see corpses everywhere. They are the possible futures missed. That, for me, in my random luckiness, is the worst I’ve dealt with personally from the episode, and in dealing with these sights of paths ahead, I am led more every day to my favorite line from Shakespeare, when Coriolanus’ mother says that “in such business, action is eloquence”. It’s a futile wish when the world is filled with catastrophes we cannot control, but I still hope no one experiences what I went through. I have seen those who die, and even if you had no responsibility for or influence over nature’s actions, indifferent to humanity’s presence, you cannot help but feel guilty that you live. On television, there is a body, its message diluted by numbers. Next to the body, in a private meeting, it tells you of the possible futures it had, before it leaves with them forever. The person you never met, yet whom you meet so intimately in that moment, then leaves you alone, alone to see those possibilities deep in yourself.

Copyright©2015 by Anthony Lock – All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poetry of Caroline Hagood Reviewed by Nina Tassi

Caroline Hagood, Making Maxine’s Baby. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2015. 70 pages, paper. $18U.S. ISBN 978-1-934909-46-1.

This is a daring book, an odyssey written from within the consciousness of Maxine, a resident of New York City subway tunnels and survivor of repeated sexual abuse from the age of six. In tracing Maxine’s struggles to free herself from the horrors of her own mind, Hagood calls up poetic antecedents from Homer’s Odyssey to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Yet Maxine is very much a contemporary woman, so Hagood’s metaphors are drawn mainly from the world of American pop culture—from horror movies to media accounts of real killers in movie theaters and shopping malls. The mental wanderings of her heroine are marked by punishing setbacks and fresh tries, a journey often as harrowing for the reader as for Maxine.

The challenge Hagood has set herself is to follow a seriously disturbed mind through violent images that mimic its chaos while constructing a compelling poetic structure. She achieves this goal through language which is continuously inventive and cognizant of form. Almost every line startles the reader with complex images conveying the double vision of both Maxine and the poet.

In one sequence of nine poems, “How Mermaids Save the Drowning,a stanza begins, “When she was six, he started to confetti/ her skin, and night after night he found other ways/ of making verbs of nouns, saying/ there’s a new sheriff in town.” And then, in a following poem, the chilling effects of her violation are recorded:  “After he touched it, she wanted to remove her flesh,/ just bulldoze it and build a mall there.”

Maxine careens from near-suicide to matter-of-fact acceptance of her plight to hope for a viable future. Occasional glimpses of connectedness vie with images of splitting, ugly slashes, fragmentation, surgery, dissection, and details of autopsies.

Using one of the vocabularies taken from pop culture, Hagood shows Maxine steeping herself in violent films because she has been told it is a way to work through trauma: “A night without the living dead/ is not a night at all. When she can’t rest, she works on a stolen Slurpee/ in the back row of Rocky Horror.

This is no poetry for the faint of heart or weak of stomach: “Maxine knows she was put here to mother/ even the rats who creep beside her bed at night/ to have their babies. She hears them heaving, reaches out,/ lets her fingers rest on their sweated backs/ as they make their birthing sounds,/ so much like train whistles.”

Along the path toward survival, Maxine tries to analyze her own mind, striving for images of connection and coherence. Memories come into play, good and bad, as she apprehends glimmers of possible recovery: “tangled chords/ someday she will make a rope out of them.”

Healing begins when “Maxine pictures her psyche as a Lower East Side/ tenement,” a wry image of wholeness, even during a period when she is engaged in self-destructive sexual behavior.

Well into her journey, Maxine falls in love with Marvin, a street person and kindred soul: “Marvin fancies himself a piece of city/ sea glass, shaped by the stroke of eyes/ averted, tumbled by all the words/ spoken, but not to him, tinning on his ears.”

With Marvin, Maxine begins to emerge from the morass she lives in. Not that Hagood offers any vision of a return to conventional middle class life. Rather, the poet views Maxine as moving to stable ground, based on love and a will to live, although still on the street. Pregnant with Marvin’s child, she coos to the baby in her womb with these words: “When you start imagining/ absurd things, like giant cockroaches/ dancing behind people who are screaming/ at you, don’t be alarmed, it/ runs in the family.

A notable achievement of this collection is Hagood’s ability to keep the reader steadily engaged with the mind of Maxine and her tortured drive toward freedom. This is a deeply-imagined, credible character who awakens the sympathy of readers as well as admiration for the cool tone and highly poetic language of her creator.

Hagood, a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University, published her first poetry collection, Lunatic Speaks, in 2012. She has also written on film and literature for the Guardian and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

- Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Kevin Brown's Liturgical Days by Nina Tassi

Kevin Brown, Liturgical Calendar. Eugene, OR: RESOURCE Publications (An Imprint of Wipf and Stock ), 2014. 100 pages, paper. $14U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-1-4982-0375-3.
In his new book, Kevin Brown does not write overtly religious poems, as the title of the collection, Liturgical Calendar, and of many individual poems would suggest. His strategy is more cagey—subversive even. He situates his poems squarely in the everyday world of the present, his lines and stanzas short, images focused largely on the commonplace. Most of the pieces are written in the first person in a tone of wry or ironic humor. The language is colloquial, matter-of-fact, occasionally meditative. Thus the voice of the poet flows along in an easy rhythm, like a conversation with oneself, mulling over mundane worries, wounds suffered in childhood, or embarrassing personality flaws not usually confided to friends and relatives.
But there is more to it. Each poem, either by title or subtitle, references a sacred event or a saint, leading the reader to suppose that the poem will be literally about Ash Wednesday or St. Hilarion. But no, the poem concerns people down the street. And yet, while taking a stroll in Brown’s neighborhood, the reader is surprised into an encounter with the Christian universe—where one’s own moral life is implicated. A married couple’s ordinary supper of spaghetti, bread and wine suggests comparison with the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Brown reminds the reader that the sacred lurks just beyond the kitchen—or within it.
He invites the reader to consider the ways in which a betrayal at the supper table, seemingly confined to such a tiny space and moment, might have universal significance. It might have to do with Judas and the reason why Jesus died, something the poet wants the reader to question rather than saying it himself.
The loss of love is a major subject of Liturgical Calendar. One striking sequence considers the Easter cycle, opening with “Palm Sunday,when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem a week before his death. In this poem, a man describes retrospectively a young married couple’s happiness,  “celebrating successes/we have not yet had,” while foretelling disappointment: “ahead of us, only dusk.”  In  “Maundy Thursday,”  Jesus’s foreknowledge of betrayal is implicitly compared to a more mundane betrayal, when a husband realizes his wife will betray him,  “a future only I could foresee.”  At the end of this revelatory supper, the husband sees nothing left “but a pile of plates/in the sink, pieces/of pasta clinging/to them tenaciously.”
Is the difference in betrayals so vast as to not yield a valid comparison, or does the poet wish us to realize that betrayal is a monumental human experience?
“Good Friday” implicitly connects Christ’s crucifixion to the death of a marriage:  “Nothing left but the suffering”—small words for a large reality. “Holy Saturday” offers a poignant image of loss in a husband’s cry to his wife who has abandoned him:  “I sit in your study, the emptiness echoing like a tomb.”  Finally, “Easter Sunday” raises hope for the estranged couple, comparing  reconciliation to resurrection, in that both “are made out to be miracles.” 
In his “Notes” at the end of the book, Brown provides a liturgical or Gospel reference to every poem. Some of these notes require a little extra effort on the reader’s part—well worth it—to understand exactly what Brown was thinking as regards a Biblical passage or saintly anecdote. One such poem, “Dry Mouth,” is about loss from a “what if” perspective. A man reflects on all the times he found himself unable to communicate verbally with his wife as she wanted; the marriage might have endured if he had found the words. The Gospel reference is to Jesus curing the deaf mute, a sad admission that no miracle occurred in this case.
Brown can be openly passionate. “People Said It Was the Best Show They Had Ever Seen,” which takes place on the Fourth of July, addresses a woman who finds freedom from her husband’s  abuse only in his death. Here Brown reveals deep empathy with the woman and her suffering.
Liturgical Calendar is an accomplished work which can be enjoyed as lightly or as deeply as the reader wishes to take it.
Brown, a professor at Lee University, has published two previous books of poetry, A Lexicon of Lost Words and Exit Lines, as well as a memoir, Another Way, and a scholarly study, They Love to Tell the Stories.
Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Letter from a Poet


Profile of poet Milorad Pejić

Dear Gregory:

"What are poets for in a destitute time?" This remarkable line by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin has for two hundred years been peddled in literary circles as a collective metaphor about the meaning (or lack thereof) of poetry. Since Hölderlin's query is its own answer, my relationship with this paradoxical question in our time of total moral civilizational collapse is essentially of an esthetic nature. In the consummate disintegration of our system of values (need I cite examples? what are examples for in a destitute time?), the poetic word seems to me like the last "democratic chance" of the person sentenced to death to speak once more, before execution, without calculation or profit or loss, about the "case."

Poetry for me is the only possible way to express myself regarding this case, but at the same time it does not exclude my assuming "civil risk" in this. That deeply intimate compulsion to take a stand comes to me, despite everything, like setting down a heavy weight, a relief from remorse that I'm unable do something more concrete to save the honor of humankind. On the other hand, in my early youth, poetry was a kind of spiritual refuge for me, a bunker of freedom. In it I felt at ease, without an urge to enter the "occupied territory" and get involved in such small matters as defending humanism, but, like all young poets of my generation in those student years long ago in Sarajevo, I was searching for the essence. That time of dealing with "higher things" resulted in 1985 in my first poetry book, The Vase for the Lily Plant (Svjetlost, Sarajevo).

The poems from this first collection had taken more than ten years to write, slowly and painstakingly, but the second book, The Eyes of Keyholes, didn't go any faster either. This latter book was originally published in 2001. The same goes for the collection of poems Hyperborea, which was first published by the Czech company Aula (Prague) in 2011, and also later, after it had received the Slovo Makovo – Mak Dizdar Award for best poetry book in 2012 in the region of former Yugoslavia, by the Mak Dizdar Foundation (Sarajevo, 2013). So, I wrote on average three to four poems a year, resurrecting as a poet every ten years with a small book that found its way into the slender library of some anonymous reader. The poems from my latest, fourth collection entitled The Third Life, which is being readied for publication as we speak, had been coming to me infrequently and ardously in a trickle in moments of weakness, or rather only when I had something to say.

In my physical isolation from literary people, having moved to the north of Sweden in the early nineties of the already last century, I had separated myself voluntarily, and psychologically, from all kinds of associations, organizations, interests, and rivalries. As it turned out, by a happy or unhappy chance, I do not live by the pen to this day but in my "real" life as an ordinary man (like Kafka) I try not to show off the symptoms of my disease. Pressured by a few friends (Adin Ljuca, Saša Skenderija) who "terrorized" me from time to time with their plans to have me publish my third book (Hyperborea), I left my bunker only in 2011.

What Omer Hadžiselimović subsequently did by translating and "advertising" my poems in the U.S.A. during the last couple of years has been incomparably more than anything I myself have done for the promotion of my poetry for an entire three decades. For example, Gloria Mindock, publisher and editor of the Červená Barva Press (Somerville, MA), in reply to an email from Omer, agreed to publish my book Oči ključaonica (The Eyes of Keyholes) in English and thus open one of American doors for me "without inquiring about our acquaintance" (from the poem "The House of H. Lundbohm"). And you, Gregory, are a rare bird as a man of literary taste for having granted me space on your website without asking for any additional references and recommendations.

You ask when and how I first recognized a "literary trait" in me. Where does the poet in me come from? That question posed itself most specifically as early as 1978 in Tuzla, where I lived, when I had to decide what to study after high school. I wanted to study in Sarajevo to become a writer, but my father gave me this ultimatum: Either study economics or nothing! You can't make a living as a writer, he said, and I don't have the means—after the four years of your Sarajevo studies—to support a poet by training.

It was then in fact that I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to be a poet, and I agreed to study economics. Today's supermodern technology using a routine DNA test could probably establish easily whose poetic gene I inherited, but that is completely unnecessary since I had found the answer to that question in a closet more than forty years ago. Just as adolescents hide pornographic magazines between winter coats, that same father of mine had, stowed away among some rags, a set of twenty or so pocket books by the most notable Yugoslav poets bought with his first miserable salary of a rail worker. Many years later he gave us an "unpleasant" surprise by bringing home one evening a small mechanical typewriter he bought in six installments with his modest salary as an Institute of Social Work employee.

There was also other "evidence" of an earlier date that could be used against my father, but it had been destroyed (or forbidden) with the entry of my mother into his life. I heard, in fact, that as a young man he had a tamburitza he played on and sang at village get-togethers, not only on his home ground but also in "enemy territory," where in sundry brawls with this riotous troubadour taking part even knives are known to have been drawn.

In parts of my poems that have reached you, you surely can recognize the ambiance of such lives. Almost all places, persons, and events mentioned in these poems have existed or still exist in reality. My poems are true stories, Gregory, and each of them is based on a separate and deep life experience. I sometimes thought that I should write short stories instead of poems, but I have somehow become dependent on the hard, strict, and brutal form of a poem. Not only that—in time I have also established firm "technical principles" inside the poem itself, which I could most easily explain using Einstein's well-known comparison of life and bicycle riding, where only by moving can we maintain the balance. Writing a poem is the same as riding a bicycle. First we pedal on flat ground, like being on an outing, passing by forests, pastures, lakes, houses, road works…Then comes a hill where you have to strain with all your might to keep the machinery from stopping, after which you go downhill, which is the most exciting of all but also the most dangerous. Just like in life itself! The only difference is in the way you come to a stop, which, unlike in life, you don't perform by using the brakes, but in full possible speed and at the height of elation your entire rushing equipage goes for and crashes into a concrete wall.

Many of these endpoints originated in that same way and on specific trips, but these were never calculated trips, where I would actively seek ideas and inspiration in order to write down something and return home with "material." It was rather that each of those poems actively waited at each of those described places to crash into me as if into a concrete wall when I accidentally stumbled on it. It was such "unprofessional" involvement with literature that helped me stay away from that depression Hemingway fell into: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." I bleed, my dear Gregory, only when I'm writing—fortunately very rarely, and only when I have something to say. "To sing is the same as to die," wrote the great Yugoslav poet Branko Miljković, and I have always felt myself that inexplicable masochism of poetry, that marvelous and horribly unbearable pain of birthing a poem.

I've noticed that the poems from my collection Hyperborea have been best received by my Bosnian readers, I suppose because that book deals with the phenomenon of "reserve homelands." Specifically, many recognized themselves in it—those who, like me, have been displaced around the world during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and who found their new homes in foreign countries, made new friends, and learned new languages. At the same time, strong, unbreakable ties with the country they were born in keep their original identity in motion, which stirs internal conflict between two homelands, on the one hand, while on the other the process of reconciliation continues.

I think that through the poems in Hyperborea I myself reached some sort of awareness. Today, when I step back and I read them through a stranger's eyes, my opinion that the notion of a homeland is directly associated, and with good reason, with the word patriotism, which is nothing else but a business idea used by powerful interest groups in every society and every homeland to mobilize cannon fodder for their own goals, often even the most wicked ones. Pondering this phenomenon of reserve homelands for a long time, I became cured of all variants of sick patriotism, saying to myself that "I would not die under any flag" (from the poem "Hyperborea II," Hyperborea). Later, I explained that position differently in the poem "The National Anthem" (The Third Life):

          We moved a lot. In the waters of countries
          and cities, our fingerprints have washed away;
          in alcohol, our blood group has evaporated.
          We no longer belong to anyone. Any national
          anthem I hear, I stand stiff like at a closed
          railroad-crossing gate, till the train passes.

Last year I accidentally ran into a very concrete confirmation of my belief. The French mystic and theologian Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1141) went even further when he explained the phenomenon of patriotism and homelands this way:

          The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner;
          he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong;
          but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.
          The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world;
          the strong man has extended his love to all places;
          the perfect man has extinguished his.

I would not have paid much attention to Hugh's thousand-year-old record in 1992, when I first left my first homeland (Bosnia), but I fully comprehend these words today after having lived for over twenty years in Sweden which, cured of patriotism, I affectionately call my "reserve homeland." So I find that in my old age I have come dangerously close to becoming the perfect man, one who has extinguished his love for any place in the world and is no longer hostage of any one homeland.

I am only a hostage of language and books, especially the unread ones. But not those flaunted in the media. I am fed up with the unbearable torture on the part of the cultural elite which, in the service of the mass consumption of "bestsellers" without taste or smell maintains an inflation of kitsch. I wish, on the recommendation of a genuine reader, to have some of those "private" little books drop into my mail box every weekend, books that are not bought but are passed from hand to hand like some compromising material.

Yet there are still genuine readers (a dying breed everywhere), believe me, even in Sweden, where the production of kitsch is one of the most important industries. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to read my poems for the first time at a festival of poetry. So, after twenty years I was again taking part in an evening of poetry, before a demanding audience. Before those people I felt at first like the straying Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmerin his superb poem "From an African Diary" (1963):

          A young man found a foreigner lost among the huts.
          Didn't know whether to take him for a friend or a subject
          for extortion. His doubt disturbed him. They parted in confusion.

Yes, we parted in confusion late that night, going back through a chestnut-lined street to our small lives. I do not know if they had accepted me as a friend, but not for a moment did I feel as an object of extortion. All in all, it was a pleasant evening in which I had an opportunity to state the "case" without any calculation.

Lately I have been "assisting" Omer Hadžiselimović with translation of my poems into English and working a little with Jorik Otterbjörk on polishing some of my own translations into Swedish. With neither of them did I "contract" the job. Both fell into the trap willingly and enthusiastically, without putting up any conditions. That is why I try not to split hairs. Only from time to time I like to remind them that the translations shouldn't be better than the originals.

So, I can say only the best about the translations. The passion of translating one's own poems into a foreign language can only be compared with that masochistic passion of giving birth to them in the original. In many poems I have discovered some new aspects only in translation, and only in translation was I able to "view them with objective eyes . . . as someone else" (from the poem "Fr. Omer," The Third Life).

It feels good when now and then I send a new poem into the world, and when it suddenly comes out in a magazine or materializes on a website, but I've felt for some time now that "only memories are news my tired friends are still curious about" (from the poem "Friends in the Universe," Hyperborea). And so the circle is slowly closing and I inevitably return to that time of long ago when I was seeking the higher things. When on Saturdays I step out to pick up the morning paper I wish I'd find in my mailbox some old unread book sent as a recommendation by a genuine reader. I even catch myself in sinful thoughts of wishing to plant there, the evening before, my first book of poems from 1985.




Dragi Gregory!

Čemu pjesnici u oskudno vrijeme? Ovaj izvanredni stih njemačkog pjesnika Friedricha Hölderlina "troši" se već dvjesto godina u književnim krugovima kao kolektivna metafora pitanja o smislu i besmislu poezije. Budući da je Hölderlinova dilema istovremeno sama sebi i odgovor, moj odnos prema ovoj paradoksalnoj pitalici u današnje vrijeme totalnog moralnog kolapsa civilizacije u suštini je isključivo estetske prirode. U potpunom raspadu sistema vrijednosti (treba li da navodim primjere? čemu primjeri u oskudno vrijeme?) pjesnička riječ mi izgleda kao posljednja "demokratska prilika" na smrt osuđenog da se još jednom, neposredno prije smaknuća, bez ikakve računice, dobitka ili gubitka, izjasni o "slučaju".

Poezija je za mene znači jedini mogući način da se estetski izjasnim o "slučaju" ali ne isključuje pri tom ni preuzimanje "civilnog rizika". Taj duboko intimni poriv da zauzmem stav dolazi mi uprkos svemu kao spuštanje tereta, oslobađanje od griže savjesti zbog toga što za spas časti čovječanstva nisam kadar učiniti nešto konkretnije. U ranoj mladosti poezija mi je, međutim, bila neka vrsta duhovnog pribježišta, bunker slobode. U njemu sam se osjećao komotno, bez potrebe da izlazim na "okupiranu teritoriju" i da se bavim takvim sitnicama kao što je odbrana humanizma nego sam, kao i svi mladi pjesnici iz moje generacije onih davnih studentskih godina u Sarajevu, tragao za suštinom. To vrijeme bavljenja "višim stvarima" rezultiralo je 1985. godine prvom knjigom pjesama Vaza za biljku krin (Svjetlost, Sarajevo).

Pjesme iz ove prve zbirke pisane su preko deset godina, sporo i mukotrpno, ali ništa brže nije išlo ni kasnije sa drugom knjigom Oči ključaonica koja je izašla iz štampe prvi put 2001 (Bosanska riječ, Tuzla Wuppertal; drugo izdanje 2012) niti sa zbirkom pjesama Hyperborea koja je po prvi put publicirana 2011 u češkoj izdavaćkoj kući Aula (Prag) a potom (nakon nagrade Slovo Makovo – Mak Dizdar za najbolju knjigu poezije za 2012 na prostorima bivše Jugoslavije) i u izdanju Fondacije Mak Dizdar 2013 (Sarajevo). Pisao sam, dakle, u prosjeku 3-4 pjesme godišnje, vaskrsavajući kao pjesnik svake desete godine sa po jednom knjižicom u maloj biblioteci nekog nepoznatog čitaoca. Pjesme iz najnovije, četvrte zbirke pod naslovom Treći život koja je upravo u pripremi za štampu, kapale su takođe rijetko i teretno, u momentima slabosti ili bolje rečeno samo onda kada sam imao šta kazati.

U svojoj fizičkoj izolovanosti od književnih ljudi, preseljenjem na sjever Švedske početkom devedesetih godina onog već prošlog vijeka, dobrovoljno sam se udaljio i mentalno od svekolikih udruženja, organizacija, konkurencija i interesa. Sticajem sretnih i nesretnih okolnosti ne živim ni danas od pera nego gledam da se u svom "stvarnom životu" običnog činovnika (poput Kafke), ne razmećem simptomima svoje bolesti. Pod pritiskom nekolicine prijatelja (Adin Ljuca, Saša Skenderija) koji su me s vremena na vrijeme "terorisali" svojim planovima o publiciranju moje treće knige (Hyperborea) izašao sam tek 2011 iz bunkera.

Ono što je potom Omer Hadžiselimović učinio na prevođenju i "reklami" mojih pjesama u USA posljednjih par godina neuporedivo je više od svega što sam uradio sâm na planu promovisanja vlastite poezije tokom cijele tri decenije. Tako će se na primjer Gloria Mindock, vlasnica i urednik izdavačke kuće ČERVENÁ BARVA PRESS (Somerville), kao odgovor na jedan Omerov mail, prihvatiti publiciranja knjige Oči ključaonica na engleskom i time otvoriti za me jedna od američkih vrata bez raspitivanja o našem poznanstvu (iz pjesme Kuća H. Lundbohma, Oči ključaonica). A i ti si rijetka ptičica, Gregory, kad si me, kao čovjek od književnog ukusa, upustio na svoj sajt ne pitajući ni za kakve reference i preporuke.

Pitaš me kad sam i kako po prvi put prepoznao tu "književnu crtu" kod sebe. Otkud pjesnik u meni? Pitanje se najkonkretnije samo od sebe postavilo još 1978 godine kada sam se, nakon srednje škole u Tuzli gdje sam živio, trebao odlučiti za daljnje studije. Htio sam učiti za književnika u Sarajevu ali mi je otac postavio ultimatum: ili studij ekonomije ili ništa! Od književnosti se, veli, ne živi i ja nemam sredstava da poslije četiri godine tvojih sarajevskih univerziteta izdržavam školovanog pjesnika.

Tada sam u stvari po prvi put shvatio da želim biti pjesnik i pristao da studiram ekonomiju. Današnja supermoderna tehnologija vjerovatno bi putem običnog DNA-testa lako utvrdila od koga sam naslijedio taj pjesnički gen ali je to potpuno nepotrebno pošto sam odgovor na to pitanje našao još prije više od četrdeset godina u ormaru. Kao što pubertetlije kriju pornografske novine među zimskim kaputima onaj isti moj otac imao je u krpama komplet od dvadesetak knjiga džepnog formata najpoznatijih jugoslovenskih pjesnika, kupljen od svoje prve, bijedne plate pružnog radnika. Mnogo godina kasnije još nas je jednom "neprijatno" iznedaio donoseći kući jedne večeri malu, mehaničku pisaću mašinu kupljenu na šest rata od svoje skromne plate činovnika u Zavodu za socijalni rad.

Bilo je još "dokaznog materijala" starijeg datuma koji bi se mogao upotrijebiti protiv mog oca ali je uništen (ili zabranjen) ulaskom moje majke u njegov život. Čuo sam, naime, da je kao momak imao tamburicu na kojoj je svirao i pjevao po seoskim sijelima i to ne samo na domaćem terenu nego čak i na "neprijateljskim teritorijama" zbog čega su se, u prepirkama sa buntovnim trubadurom, znali potezati čak i noževi.

U jednom dijelu mojih pjesama koje su dospjele do tebe prepoznaješ sigurno atmosferu iz takvih života. Gotovo sva mjesta, lica i događaji koja se u njima pominju postojali su ili još uvijek postoje i u stvarnosti. Moje su pjesme istinite priče, Gregory, i za svaku od njih imam zasebno i duboko životno iskustvo. Pomišljao sam ponekad da umjesto pjesama pišem priče ali sam nekako postao ovisan o tvrdu, strogu i surovu formu pjesme.

I ne samo to – uspostavio sam vremenom i čvrste "tehničke principe" unutar same pjesme koje bih najlakše mogao objasniti uz pomoć poznate Einsteinove usporedbe života sa vožnjom bicikla u kojoj se jedino u kretanju održava ravnoteža. I pisanje pjesme je isto što i vožnja biciklom. Prvo se mota po ravnom, kao na izletu, pored šuma, pašnjaka, jezera, kuća, radova na putu... Zatim dolazi brdo gdje se mora zapeti iz petnih žila da se mašinerija ne zaustavi a nakon toga silazi se nizbrdicom što je od svega najuzbudljivije ali zato i najopasnije. Baš kao i u životu! Jedina je razlika u načinu zaustavljanja koje se, za razliku od života, ne postiže upotrebom kočnica nego se u najvećoj mogućoj brzini i pri najjačem zanosu cijela ekipaža usmjeri i razmrska o betonski zid.

Mnoge od tih poenti nastale su upravo na taj način i na konkretnim putovanjima ali nikada nisam putovao iz računice, tražeći aktivno ideje i inspiraciju da bih šta-god zabilježio i vratio se kući sa "materijalom". Prije će biti da je svaka od tih pjesama aktivno čekala na svakom od tih opisanih mjesta i smrskala se o mene kao o betonski zid kada sam slučajno naišao. Zahvaljujući takvom "neprofesionalnom" bavljenju književnošću nije mi se dešavalo da padnem u onu Hemingwayevu depresiju: "Nema šta da se piše. Jedino što možeš jeste da sjediš iznad pisaće mašine i krvariš". Ja krvarim, moj Gregory, jedino kad pišem - srećom rijetko, samo onda kad imam šta da kažem. "Isto je pjevati i umirati", rekao bi veliki jugoslovenski pjesnik Branko Miljković i uvijek sam i sâm osjećao taj neobjašnjivi mazohizam poezije, tu divnu i užasno neizdrživu bol porađanja pjesme.

Primijetio sam da su pjesme iz knjige Hyperborea naišle na najviše razumijevanja kod mojih bosanskih čitalaca. Pretpostavljam da je to zato što se ta knjiga bavi fenomenom "rezervnih domovina". U njoj su se, naime, prepoznali mnogi koji su se, kao i ja, tokom posljednjih balkanskih ratova devedesetih godina prošlog vijeka raselili po svijetu i našli svoje nove domovine u stranim zemljama, stekli nove prijatelje i naučili nove jezike. Istovremeno, jake i neraskidive veze sa zemljom u kojoj su rođeni održavaju prvobitni identitet u kretanju čime se stalno s jedne strane raspiruje unutrašnji konflikt između dvije domovine a s druge traje proces pomirenja.

Mislim da sam kroz pjesme u knjizi Hyperborea i sâm prošao kroz neku vrstu osviješćenja. Danas kad ih čitam sa distance, kao neko drugi, učvršćuju me u stavu da pojam domovina asocira direktno i ne bez razloga na riječ patriotizam koja je opet ništa drugo do poslovna ideja na kojoj jake interesne grupe u svakom društvu i u svakoj domovini prikupljaju topovsko meso za dostizanje svojih, često čak i najperverznijih ciljeva. Sazrijevajići nad fenomenom rezervnih domovina izliječio sam se od svih varijanti bolesnog patriotizma konstatujući da ne bih ginuo ni pod kojom zastavom (iz pjesme Hyperborea II, Hyperborea). Kasnije ću taj stav obrazložiti na drugi način u pjesmi Himna (Treći život):

          Mnogo smo se selili. U vodama zemalja
          i gradova isprali se otisci prstiju, u alkoholu
          izlapila krvna grupa. Nikom više ne pripadamo.
          Koju god himnu čujem stanem ukočen kao
          ispred spuštene željezničke rampe, dok voz
          ne prođe.

Prošle godine slučajno sam naišao na jednu veoma konkretnu potvrdu svog uvjerenja. Francuski mistik i teolog Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 - 1141) otišao je još dalje objašnjavajući pedagoški fenomen patriotizma i domovina na sljedeći način:

          Taj kojem je njegova domovina ljupka neiskusan je početnik;
          onaj kome je svako tlo kao njegovo rodno već je jak;
          ali savršen onaj je čovjek kojem je cijeli svijet strana zemlja.
          Neiskusna duša vezala je svoju ljubav za jednu tačku na svijetu;
          jaka osoba raširila ju je na sva mjesta;
          savršen čovjek ugasio je svoju.

Njegovom hiljadu godina starom zapisu ne bih možda pridavao značaj 1992. godine, u vrijeme kad sam napuštao svoju prvu domovinu (Bosna), ali te riječi sasvim razumijem danas nakon preko dvadeset godina života u Švedskoj koju, izliječen od patriotizma, od milja zovem mojom "rezervnom domovinom". Primjećujem zato da sam opasno blizu da pod stare dane postanem savršen čovjek, onaj što je ugasio svoju ljubav za svako mjesto na svijetu i nije više talac ni jedne domovine.

Talac sam još jedino jezika i knjiga, posebno onih nepročitanih. Ali ne tih o kojima trube u medijima. Sit sam neizdržive torture od strane kulturne elite koja, u službi masovne konzumacije bestsellera bez ukusa i mirisa, održava inflaciju kiča. Volio bih da mi, po preporuci istinskog čitača, svakog vikenda upadne u poštansko sanduče neka od onih "privatnih" knjižica koje se ne kupuju nego predaju iz ruke u ruku kao kompromitujući materijal.

A istinskih čitača (koji su svagdje vrsta koja izumire) ima, vjeruj mi, još uvijek čak i u Švedskoj u kojoj je industrija kiča jedna od najvažnijih privrednih grana. Prije par nedjelja pozvan sam, naime, po prvi put da na jednom festivalu poezije čitam svoje pjesme. Nakon skoro dvadeset godina učestvovao sam praktično ponovo na jednoj pravoj večeri poezije, pred zahtjevnom publikom. Osjećao sam se u početku pred tim ljudima kao zalutali švedski pjesnik Tomas Tranströmer u svojoj sjajnoj pjesmi Iz jednog afričkog dnevnika (1963):

          Mladić opazi stranca zalutalog među kolibama.
          Nije mogao da prelomi da l bi ga htio za prijatelja
          ili kao predmet ucjenjivanja. Neodlučnost ga učini
          očajnim. Raziđoše se zbunjeni.

Jeste, razišli smo se zbunjeni vraćajući se kasno u noć kroz aleju kestenova u svoje male živote. Ne znam da li su me prihvatili kao prijatelja ali ni jednog momenta nisam se osjećao kao predmet ucjenjivanja. Sve u svemu prijatno jedno veče u kojem sam dobio priliku da se, bez ikakve računice, izjasnim o "slučaju".

U posljednje vrijeme "pomažem" Omeru Hadžiselimoviću oko prevođenja mojih pjesama na engleski a radim pomalo i sa Jorik Otterbjörk na dotjerivanju jednog dijela mojih vlastitih prevoda na švedski. Ni sa jednim ni s drugim nisam ugovarao "posao". Obojica su u zamku upali svojom voljom i sa vlastitim entuzijazmom ne postavljajući nikakve uslove. Zato gledam da ne cjepidlačim. Jedino ih s vremena na vrijeme podsjećam na to da prevodi ne smiju biti bolji od originala.

O prevođenju, dakle, sve najbolje! Sa strašću prevođenja vlastitih pjesama na strani jezik jedino se može mjeriti ona mazohistička strast njihovog porađanja u originalu. U mnogima sam otkrio tek u prevodu neke nove dimenzije i tek u prevodu mogao sam se odmaći od svojih pjesama i sagledati ih očima objektivnim...kao neko drugi (iz pjesme Fra Omer, Treći život).

Prijatno je kad ponekad pošaljem u svijet poneku novu pjesmu i kad poneka od njih izađe iznenada u kakvom časopisu ili osvane na nekom sajtu ali primjećujem u posljednje vrijeme da su jedino uspomene novost za koju još imaju radoznalosti moji umorni prijatelji (iz pjesme Prijatelji u svemiru, Hyperborea). Krug se time polako zatvara i vraćam se neizbježno onom davnom vremenu traganja za višim stvarima. Kad izlazim subotom da uzmem jutarnje novine radije bih da nađem u poštanskom sandučetu neku staru, nepročitanu knjigu poslanu kao preporuka od nekog istinskog čitača. Uhvatim se čak i u grešnim mislima da veče ranije poturim samome sebi svoju prvu knjigu pjesama iz 1985.

S poštovanjem!

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