Thursday, March 16, 2017

Meteor Shower - Poems by Anne Whitehouse - a Review

Anne Whitehouse, Meteor Shower. 2016. Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press. 86 pgs. $17.00. ISBN: 978-1-939929-60-0

Meteor Shower is a striking meditation on the passages of time and its connection with creativity. The book is broken down into six distinct sections, and each seems to entail an expansion or a broadening arc of concern and insight. In Section I, “A Girl Who Fell in Love with an Island,” the reader moves through moments trapped in time.  I was drawn in by two poems in particular here. “Fires of Youth” beautifully captures the essence of the section: “And when the raising of our children is over,/ and they set out on their own lives,/ we are aware of life passed as if in a dream--/our mortality, our lost vitality.” There is a longing to return to still life moments of the past, such as giving away dresses, filing away unreachable vacation scenes and seeing yourself as a ghost at age 27.  “One-Way Session” aptly captures a moment of transition.  It’s obvious there has been the death of a trusted marriage therapist in the opening stanza. The speaker senses: “From deep within/ I feel the release from/ that old way of being.” Whitehouse moves the reader into a bleaker journey at this point. We sense a break here coming, a movement into a difficult place of transition.

“The Eye That Cries” focuses on mourning.  It is a darker section of the collection, almost as if the poet is leading us downward, in order to move us upward as she proceeds. Poems here examine armed conflicts, suicides, and elegies. Some of the lines are beautiful and haunting. In “Mother of Suicides,” concerning mothers dealing with the deaths of children, the speaker seems to cry out:
            Worse than the dread were the discoveries.
            The nightmares have never gone away:

            What do you want from me?
            You were the one who left—
            Why won’t you let me go?
            Whatever I did that was wrong,
            I’m still paying for it.

The lines are painful, and like poems such as “LOL,” they seem consumed with dread.  The image of the lost marriage returns in “My Last Spring in My House and Garden.”  The speaker recollects a house she lived in for 35 years. The imagery is powerful and rooted. If she could, she “…would slip/ into the soil like a buried seed.” The poem plays on images of burial and uprooting. The speaker is blown far away from her home; her life is split by her broken marriage “…not cleanly,/ but with spikes and jagged edges.” It is poem of pain with the final image of the roots watered by tears, evoking the deep sadness of lost love.

In Section III “Moving,” the reader notices a subtle shift. Whitehouse seems to acknowledge loss, but there seems to be acceptance, a conscious step away from images of paralysis and drift. “Contraries” captures this well. It is a poem about recollecting a jellyfish’s sting. The speaker’s sister never ventures back into the ocean after the incident. The speaker insists on moving forward:
            Just imagine—not ever going under,
            always in air and not in water,
            never feeling the wonder
            of an alien element all around.

This captures a central idea in the grouping. There’s an acknowledgement of pain, but there’s a building on it, a movement forward. Two lines from “One Step Ahead” capture the sentiment as well: “…trying to dodge the traps ahead/ while fleeing the terrors behind.” The final poem of the section, “Delete, Delete,” portrays the everyday deletion of emails as a metaphor for the choices of things we cut and avoid, in order to live more fully in the present. 

In Sections IV and V, (The Mask and Grout Pond, respectively), I sense a shift into an almost-Zen appreciation of the present moment.  There seems to be more balance in these poems. They appear more whimsical and less occupied with the darkness of the past. For example, in “Less Impact,” we see this closing stanza:
            Relaxing my grip
            on the things
            of the world,
            I feel myself
            into the earth,
            into the air.

There is a clear echo of the imagery of Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and yet Whitehouse’s poem pushes readers into the air, into dissolution.  The poems of “Grout Pond” continue to evoke the present moment in shadows, dust motes, light and insects. They lead the reader carefully into the final section of the collection, “Life’s Continuous Chain.”

The sixth and final section of Meteor Shower contains some real gems, which aptly close the arc of the book. “Calligraphies” and “Meteor Shower” are two fine examples to note here. “Calligraphies” was awarded the 2016 Songs of Eretz poetry prize. It is a persona poem about the speaker’s father collecting calligraphy in Quanzhou. When revolution comes he buries and finally burns his collection. But he continues to write calligraphy in the puddles on the ground. The poem contains meditations on the infinite and the elusive power of language and art. Much of it can be lost or remain invisible to the world. “Some mysteries are meant to be discovered,/some are meant to remain heaven’s secrets.” The poem traces a historical moment of conflict, but it shows the transcendent power to achieve immortality. In “Meteor Shower,” Whitehouse closes the collection with creating a simple, yet beautiful image of connection. “We,” perhaps the speaker and reader together, stare up at the stars from a blanket. It’s a simple act, filled with wonder, for as we look up at the dark, starry unknown, we seem to better understand our selves and our purposes.
            At every instant we are
            what we have been and will be,
            our forebears who live on in us
            we remember, we resemble.

“Meteor Shower” closes with a unique insight into the art of writing itself. “The deed was minimal, the words exact,/ and I needed a lifetime to say them.” It’s a beautiful capturing of the poet’s mission to observe and record minutely from a particular space in time, with eyes ever upward on the infinite beyond our reach.

Meteor Shower is truly a stunning and moving collection of poetry. The shifts from section to section show a beautiful trajectory, down into memory and loss, back into engagement with the present, and finally a movement upward towards transcendence and infinity. The poems grapple, often intensely with loss and dislocation, and yet there is a sense of purpose to the pain. As one line in “Creativity” captures well about the collection as a whole: “An accident will lead you to creation.”  Yes, indeed, it does. 

- Ian S. Maloney is Professor of English at St. Francis College, where he directs the St. Francis College Literary Prize.  

Copyright©2017 by Ian S. Maloney

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Tribute to Omer Hadžiselimović by Milorad Pejić

(Omer Hadziselimovic 1946-2016, In Memoriam)

Abandon me not, world, do not leave, naïve swallow…  Omer’s death is more than two months old, but these verses by Miljkovic1 still drum in my head, and have been since the day that brief message arrived in November of last year (only three days before his final exit) that nothing more could be done. We had known each other for only four years, but our friendship was honest and deep, like a forty-year-old well. When, from time to time, I toss a memory pebble into it, a whisper of a distant water emerges. That is how I still communicate with Omer Hadziselimovic. I told him in recent days that I can’t come to terms with the void he birthed, that his absence from life is unexcused--and his death utterly unfounded.

We found each other late in life, under strange circumstances, and, like in that unforgettable Eugenio Montale poem, I can say that even so it has been short, our long journey, I still went, arm in arm with Omer, down a million stairs of his translator’s workshop. He led me into secret chambers, unlocked treasure trunks, entrusted me with valuable documents, taught me to love at least five American poets of whom I only knew before, but to whose poetry I am now addicted. Even my own poems are more recognizable to me today because of Omer; by translating them into English, he sharpened the farsighted focus on that one pair of my glasses:

                  FR. OMER

                       Dedicated to Omer Hadžiselimović

Just as we are soft when it comes to the faults
of our own children, I could not step back from
my poems and view them with objective eyes.
I was not capable of reading them as someone
else's until the time when, at a resting-place for
diligences, my path crossed with Fr. Omer's.

Fr. Omer sat in a darkened room going through
freshly arrived mail. Now and then, coughing
or putting down his monocle, he'd startle the flame
on the candle. He'd bring my letters to his ear
and listen to them for a long time before copying
them to the reserve language and arranging
them in a shoebox. Today I got the package
and am sorting the mail that has just arrived.
I'm bringing my poems to my ear and listening
to them for the first time as someone else.

He was born in 1946, and lived in Sarajevo until 1994. Majored in English and German, got his Master’s degree, then his doctorate, taught at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Sarajevo, and along the way was promoted to the top academic ranks. It was as if he didn’t remember any of it!  His academic interests centered around English and American history and American literature. I never asked questions! He lived through the two most difficult years of the Sarajevo siege. Never talked much about it! From 1994 on he lived in the United States, taught at Loyola University in Chicago, participated in a number of literary projects, wrote, translated, received several recognitions, awards… Never boasted! With Marko Vesovic, the best contemporary living expert on how to read poetry, translated to and from English. Totally opposite personalities, yet top notch translations… I, too, remember exchanging up to twenty messages with Fr. Omer before settling upon the perfect English words while translating some tough verses of mine. I don’t know how he had the patience, or how he could even put up with an English language ignoramus like me.

Plans are made to fail, and when I peer into my sehara2 filled with memories of Omer, the first thing I see is what’s missing: a planned reunion on Hvar in the summer of 2016, strolls along the plowed sea, hikes to the old tavern in the abandoned village of Humac … His Dina and Belma, so far away, whom he misses all the time, his Esma, always at his side, never whimpering. Who will translate this poetry for us now? Then again, haven’t we already translated everything, is there even anything left to say?


I have all the words, in all their nuances,
but there is nothing to speak anymore.

It's clear I'm in pitch darkness, the only
light - the eyes of keyholes. It's unclear
which side the precipices are on.

I have all the keys, I keep them in coded
safes. But I find it harder and harder to love:
there is no one to open them to anymore.

Omer has been dead for more than two months now, and I don’t know if his ashes have been given to the winds to scatter selflessly across continents. I haven’t asked! When you are dust in one place, you are dust everywhere. That way you’re returning home. Perhaps by the same road, carrying the same beauty and the same dangers so they can surprise you in an unfamiliar place.

Judging by the anachronistic moral principles he followed, Omer Hadziselimovic wasn’t really of this world. Rather, I would say that he belonged to another long-extinct human species, but somehow, like in a bad movie, accidentally slipped into the future. Now everything is in its right place again, and I believe that someone will soon stumble upon Omer’s stećak3 while wandering through some Bosnian Bogomil4 necropolis. And that, on that ancient stone, one will still be able to glimpse the fitting epitaph: He never said MINE or YOURS, never that icy word.5
1 Branko Miljkovića post-World War Serbian poet who ended his own life aged twenty-seven.
2 Sehara, an artfully adorned box or trunk used for keeping the most precious belongings.
3 Stećak, medieval tombstones in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its neighboring countries.
4 Bogomils, members of the medieval Bosnian church, followers of the religious and political movement that originated in the tenth century as a response to the social stratification and as opposition to the state and church authorities.
5 Lightly modified verse of Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis
Translated by Esma Hadziselimovic (Milorad Pejic’s poems translated by Omer Hadziselimovic)


Milorad Pejić:

(Omer Hadžiselimović 1946-2016, Sjećanje)

Ne napuštaj me svete, ne idi naivna lasto… Omerova smrt stara je već više od dva mjeseca ali mi ovi Miljkovićevi stihovi jednako bubnjaju u glavi sve od onog trenutka kad mi je u novembru prošle godina (samo tri dana prije njegovog definitivnog odlaska) stigla ona kratka poruka da se više ništa za njega ne može učiniti. Poznavali smo se svega četiri godine ali bilo je iskreno i duboko naše prijateljstvo kao bunar od četrdeset godina. Iz njega se javi šapat daleke vode kad ubacim ponekad kamičak sjećanja. Tako još uvijek komuniciram sa Omerom Hadžiselimovićem. Rekao sam mu ovih dana da ne mogu da se pomirim sa prazninom koju je porodio i da je njegovo odsustvo iz života naprosto neopravdano i njegova smrt potpuno neosnovana.

Našli smo se pokasno u životu, pod sticajem čudnih okolnosti, i kao u onoj jednoj nezaboravnoj pjesmi Eugenia Montalea mogu reći da bilo je kratko naše dugo putovanje ali stigao sam ipak da, zajedno s Omerom, siđem makar niz milion stepenica njegove prevodilačke radionice. Uveo me u tajne odaje, otključao blaga, povjerio mi na čuvanje vrijednosne papire, naučio me da volim najmanje pet američkih pjesnika o kojima sam do tada samo znao a danas sam njihove poezije ovisnik. Danas su mi i moje vlastite pjesme prepoznatljivije jer mi je Omer, prevodeći ih na engleski, izoštrio dioptriju na onom jednom paru naočala za daljinu:

          FRA OMER
                             Za Omera Hadžiselimovića

Na isti način na koji smo bolećivi spram mana
vlastite djece, nisam se mogao odmaći od
svojih pjesama i sagledati ih očima objektivnim.
Nisam ih mogao čitati kao nečije druge
sve dok mi se jednom, na odmorištu diližansi,
putevi ne ukrstiše sa putevima Fra Omerovim.

Fra Omer je sjedio u zamračenoj sobi i prebirao
dospjelu poštu. Ponekad bi kašljem ili ispuštanjem
monokla poplašio plamen na svijeći. Prinosio je
uhu i dugo slušao moja pisma prije no što bi ih
prepisivao na rezervni jezik i slagao u kutiju
za cipele. Danas sam dobio paket i razvrstavam
prispjelu poštu. Prinosim uhu i slušam po prvi put
svoje pjesme kao neko drugi.

Rodio se 1946. i živio u Sarajevu sve do 1994. Studirao anglistiku i germanistiku, magistrirao, doktorirao, radio na Filozofskom fakultetu, dobio sva univerzitetska zvanja. Kao da ih se nije sjećao! Bavio se pretežno engleskom i američkom historijom i američkom književnošću. Nisam ga zapitkivao! Izdržao dvije najteže godine opsade Sarajeva. Malo je o tome pričao! Od 1994 živio u USA, radio kao profesor na Univerzitetu Loyola u Čikagu, učestvovao u mnogim književnim projektima, pisao, prevodio, dobio mnoga priznanja, nagrade... Nije se nikad hvalio! Sa Markom Vešovićem, za čitanje poezije najvećim živim ekspertom našeg vremena, prevodio je na engleski i sa engleskog. Dva različita temperamenta, vrhunski prevodi... Znao sam i sam sa Fra-Omerom razmijeniti i po dvadesetak poruka prije nego bismo pronašli pravi engleski izraz za poneku tešku riječ pri prevođenju mojih stihova. Ne znam kako je imao živce, ne znam kako me je, ovako nepismenog za engleski, uopšte trpio.

Planovi su da propadaju i kad zavirim u seharu uspomena na Omera vidim prvo ono što mi u njoj nedostaje: jedan dogovoreni susret na Hvaru ljeta 2016, šetnje kraj uzoranog mora, izlet do konobe u napuštenom selu Humac... Njegova Dina i Belma koje su daleko i koje mu stalno nedostaju, njegova Esma koja je stalno uz njega a ne kmeči. Ko će nam sada tu poeziju prevoditi na engleski? Ali zar nismo već sve preveli, zar je potrebno da se više bilo šta govori?


Sve riječi imam, u svim nijansama,
samo nema više šta da se govori.

Jasno je da sam u mrklom mraku,
jedina svjetlost – oči ključaonica.
Nije sigurno s koje strane su ponori.

Imam sve ključeve, čuvam ih pod
šifrom u kasama. Samo sve teže
volim: nema više kome da se otvori.

Omerova smrt stara je više od dva mjesaca i ne znam još da li je njegov prah predan vjetru da ga nesebično rasprši po kontinentima. Nisam pitao! Jer svejedno je. Kad si prah na jednom mjestu – prah si svagdje. Na taj način vraćaš se kući. Možda istim putem, noseći sa sobom istu ljepotu i iste opasnosti da te u nepoznatu kraju iznenađuju.

Sudeći prema anahronosti moralnih principa koje je slijedio, Omer Hadžiselimović zapravo nije ni bio od ovog svijeta. Prije bih rekao da je pripadao jednoj drugoj, odavno izumrloj ljudskoj vrsti ali je nekim slučajem, kao u lošem filmu, upao u budućnost. Sada je opet sve na svom mjestu i vjerujem da će neko uskoro nabasati na Omerov stećak tumarajući po nekoj od nekropola bosanskih Bogumila. I da će se na tom davnom kamenu još uvijek moći razabrati urezan epitaf koji savršeno pristaje: Nikada nije rekao MOJE ili TVOJE, nikad tu ledenu riječ*.

 * Neznatno modifikovan stih grčkog pjesnika Kostantinosa Kavafisa

All Work - Copyright 2017 by Milorad Pejic - All Rights Reserved