Poetry and War

9 March 2000
Only in en

On 11 July, 1995, the town of Srebrenica, supposedly a UN “safe area”, was taken by Bosnian Serbs whose forces had invested it for three years. In the next few days 7,000 Bosnian males were massacred and the remaining non-Serb population driven out. Eventually Bosnia became a fraught, but “peaceful” UN protectorate. But the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, indicted for genocide by the Tribunal for War Crimes at the Hague, remained at large. The Yugoslav state, dominated by the Serbs, went on to perpetrate further “ethnic cleansing” against the overwhelmingly Albanian population of the province of Kosovo.

In The Heart of Europe , a Belfast-published booklet, four poems stand beside striking prints by a Mexican, Irish-based artist, is a response to the Balkan crisis. Alfonso Lopez Monreal’s images evoking the ordeal of Sarajevo, such as civilian sufferers stripped of their skin, are named “Desastres”, after Goya’s “Disaster of War”, a response to the horrors of the Napoleonic era. Nuala N’ Dhomhnaill’s poem in Irish Gaelic, “Dubh” (“Black”) is a direct response to the fall of Srebrenica. The event eclipses everything:

The spuds are black.
The turnips are black.
Every last leaf of cabbage in the pot is black.

Northern Ireland’s decades of crisis resound in “Fleur De Lis” (Bosnia’s national emblem) by the booklet’s co-editor Chris Agee, an American poet domiciled in Belfast. Harry Clifton’s “The Literal Version” explores the problem of rendering into an alien language another’s experience of the world. The last poem, “Reassurance” by Bernard O’Donoghue is accomplished, but its implications worry me. It begins with a wife assuring her dying husband that heaven certainly exists, and goes on:

Personally, I hope not. Because, if Hell and Heaven
Are assorted by the just God we learnt of,
We can have little prospect of salvation:
We who have just turned on the sports news,
Leaving the hanged girl from Srebrenica
On the front page, just as before we watched
Without a protest while the skeleton soldier
Burned by the steering wheel on the road to Basra:
We too who are so sure about the frailties
Of those who failed to do anything about
The Famine, or who’d turn up the volume
To drown the clanking of the cattle trucks
That pulled away eastward in black and white.

This seems to demonstrate why poets should leave particular statements about certain issues to journalists, photographers, film-makers, pamphleteers, historians and theologians. N’ Dhomhnaill’s forceful personal reaction, politically highly charged, shows what poetry can do. It is like Neruda’s acclaim for the International Brigade in “The Battle of the Jarama River”. Such direct, passionate responses beg no questions and pretend no answers.

O’Donoghue refers, inexactly, to a controversial front-page picture of an Iraqi soldier in the Gulf War reduced to a cinder. His suggestion that if Heaven exists we would not deserve to enter it because we have not responded to Srebrenica is sociologically preposterous, theologically frivolous and rhetorically unpersuasive. During a decade of Balkan conflict terrible massacres have resulted from political breakdowns in Africa, Indonesia, Algeria; the Russians have savaged Chechnya without UN intervention; mass murderers have remained at large in Cambodia. Those who believe, as I do, that international action had to be taken against the Serbia of Milosevic, his eggers-on and his accomplices must accept that many other monsters deserve chastisement. If God exists, He or She would see support for action on this front cause for mercy.

I think that O’Donoghue does not believe in God or Heaven. “Thou shalt respond at once and completely to all suffering” would be a perverse Commandment anyway. Someone who spent all her or his time agonising over distant atrocities would be useless to family, friends, associates and compassionate bystanders. People besieged in Sarajevo yearned for precisely the daily pleasures and little decencies enjoyed by denizens of peaceful places. As in N’ Dhomhnaill’s “Black”, shock and outrage may for a time overshadow such considerations completely. But “life goes on”.

Perhaps the most ancient subject of poetry is war. Ironically, the South Slav area, in which the recitation from memory of ancient epics has been in modern times a communal custom, has provided models for scholars studying the origins and transmission of the epic poems eventually written down as The Iliad and The Odyssey . Epic was until recently regarded as the most serious and important sort of poetry, but the epic may have fed Serbian racism. In our century, epic treatment of war has become impossible. “War Poetry” has emerged, a genre reserved for men at arms and civilians directly caught up in conflict. “Anti-war Poetry” is another new genre, a species of committed verse. Christopher Logue’s versions of parts of The Iliad , which “deconstruct” Greek heroism, are in effect “anti-war poems”.

“Committed” or “protest” poetry has proliferated. The stripped simplicity of Brecht has often been a disastrous model. The Women’s Movement has engendered much valuable verse. Powerful Black Power voices rose in the USA in the 1960s and black people resident in Britain have produced effective poetry about racism and its effects. But this, often delivered in performance, raises, at its less-than-best, a critical problem I associate above all with verse by black South Africans. One irony of the apartheid era was that white publishers were allowed to print masses of protest poetry by black, “coloured” and white writers. The authorities conceded thus to assure their open and tacit supporters in the USA and Britain that “freedom of the press” prevailed, and because they judged that poems (and such plays as Athol Fugard’s) would not damage their regime. As Auden said in his “In Memoriam W B Yeats”, poetry “makes nothing happen”. Brecht could not bring down Hitler, nor could Neruda save Allende.

South African protest poetry thumped the themes of white oppression and violence, black suffering and the need for resistance. Mongane Wally Serote, who showed that major poetry could be based on these themes, was forced into exile. Lesser writers remained free in South Africa. Their verse, read aloud at public meetings, may have had a direct, useful effect. Much of it, to an outsider, seemed to be mediocre or bad verse. Topicalities and current concerns handled in most “committed” poetry would be better served by good prose, well-written rapportage, articles and pamphlets. Good “political” poetry does not have immediate results, but people remember it for decades. Yeats’s “Easter 1916” helped to rally opinion in favour of Irish independence, but its long-term, more important effect was to assist the mythologisation of the Rising’s leaders. American corporations producing fruit in Latin America have recently bared their claws in the tariff war against EU preference for Caribbean banana growers. So Neruda’s “United Fruit Co.” is as topical as ever, half a century later – because what it willed to “happen”, the overthrow of exploitation, has not happened. The best articles and pamphlets are usually out of date in weeks, months or years. Wilfred Owen”s “war poetry” has echoed down most of this century.

War poetry emerged as a distinct genre with the soldier poets of the Western Front, providing ironic comment on the epic tradition, deploying satire, developing the devices of “nature poetry” and the pathos of “love poetry”. They had self-conscious successors in World War II. Numerous anthologies of war writing, even now, represent a moral peak in poetry, scaled also by writers confronting Auschwitz, the Irish Troubles, or, perhaps, responding to Bosnia. God, for most writers, no longer counts. In His/Her absence, war has again become the most august theme of verse, as it was for Homer. In the 1960s, Ted Hughes seemed more important than Larkin because he wrote about violence, while the latter harped on the miseries of diurnal surburban existence. I doubt if that criterion was sound. But whereas Larkin stupidly professed to despise foreign poets, Hughes was an internationalist, encouraging translations of European verse and himself translating the disturbing Yugoslav poet, Vasko Popa.

One of Hughes’s last tasks before he died in 1998 was to translate six poems by Abdulah Sidran for Chris Agee’s anthology Scar on the Stone; Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia . This impressive and very readable book gets several things right where they might have gone badly wrong. The translators include well-known poets – Charles Simic, Harry Clifton, Ruth Padel, Ken Smith, Kathleen Jamie -and distinguished scholars, Francis R Jones and Ammiel Alcalay. Agee has wisely compiled a selection of recent Bosnian poems – not just “war poems” and “anti-war poems” – only half of which were written after the break-up of Yugoslavia began in 1991. Most boldy, Agee recognises that poetry from an unfamiliar context cannot, or at least need not, “work single-handedly”. He includes prose, some of it about Sarajevo during the years of siege by the poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, who was there; impressive extracts from Miljenko Jergovic’s collection Sarajevo Marlboro ; “before” and “after” accounts of visits to the city by Francis R Jones and Agee himself, a fictionalised memoir from the death camps by Rezak Hukanovic and two striking pieces by distinguished dead outsiders. The great Serbo-Croat writer Danilo Kis (a Jew from Vojvodina, Yugoslavia’s multi-ethnic northern province) wrote fiercely against nationalism in 1973, as “first and foremost paranoia”. The Southern Irish essayist of Protestant background, Hubert Butler lived in the former Yugoslavia for three years in the 1930s, and wrote frequently about the country. In two pages from 1956, he distinguishes the geographically-based nationalism of the Young Ireland variety from the racism that gripped Europe after 1919, when “The old view that men should enjoy equal rights in the land of their birth began to seem hopelessly out of date”. He quotes with sombre irony an Exiles’ Charter published on behalf of 7.5 million Germans driven out of their homes in eastern Europe after Hitler’s defeat in 1945. “God placed men in their homes.” We should not forget (though most people have) that the recent European precedent for Serbian “cleansing” in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo was the rape, murder and expulsion meted out to Volksdeutscher in places where their families had settled for centuries.

“Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” – from Auden’s “Shield of Achilles” – is horribly apt. Serbians trace their Orthodox Christian state back to the 9th century. Defeat at Kosovo in 1389 by the Turks precluded the conversion of many Slavs to Islam and the total eclipse of the Serbian kingdom under Ottoman rule from the early 16th century. Serbia regained independence in 1878. In 1908, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina provoked a major international crisis. Two “Balkan Wars” followed as the Turkish Empire crumbled, Kosovo was reconquered, then a Serbian assassin set off war throughout Europe by shooting the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo. Serbians fought with the Western Allies against South Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian service. Post-war diplomacy united their country with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia, as “Yugoslavia”. Orthodox Christians outnumbered northern Catholics; in the centre and south there were substantial Muslim minorities, Bosnian Slavs and non-Slavic Albanians, totalling 11.2 % in the 1931 census.

This unstable conglomeration suffered appallingly in 1941-5, when the Nazis occupied the whole country and created a puppet Croatian state under fascist leaders whose treatment of Serbs and others in concentration camps shocked even hardened SS men. The pattern of sectarian massacre and counter-massacre was occluded by the triumph of a secular, multi-ethnic guerilla movement under the leadership of Tito, a Croatian Communist. About 1,700,000 Yugoslavs died as a result of war from 1941-5, over a tenth of the population, many due to inter-ethnic fighting. Serbs in particular had scores against Croats. Just because they were paranoid, it did not mean that no-one had tried to get them. Serb spokesmen will declare that Albanians took over Serb land in Kosovo in the 1940s.

Yet in Sarajevo, Croats, Serbs and Muslims, lived peacefully side by side after 1945. The rate of intermarriage was the highest in the federation. When the government of Bosnia defied Serbian attempts to take over the whole of Yugoslavia in 1991, the new state resulting had no one distinctive religion, and almost all of its inhabitants spoke Serbo-Croat. Sarajevo stood for tolerance. Serbs remained there in solidarity with Muslim friends and neighbours against the sudden eruption of Serbian irredentism. Republican Spain in 1936-9 seemed to many outsiders to represent the battle of democracy against fascism. Chris Agee declares that “Bosnia was the Spanish Civil War of our time”, as Sarajevo came to represent civil and multi-cultural values. Agee has sought poets who express “not the Chorus of identity, but the suppleness of the single sensibility”.

Another thing Agee gets right is to begin with Mak Dizdar (1917-71), though he died two decades before the Bosnian War. Dizdar, from Herzegovina, fought in Tito’s Resistance during World War II. His last and most important book is Stone Sleeper (1966). It is “rooted in the mystery of the schismatic Bosnian Church of the Middle Ages and its resistance to the heretic-killers of the established church – a mystery crucial to our understanding of modern Bosnia’s strengths and tribulations”.

Medieval Balkan dualism “saw mortals as fallen angels, expelled from heaven and imprisoned in human bodies. Nor did they return to heaven when they died, their souls stayed with their bodies until the Last Judgement”. So their burial grounds, as in many cultures, have tremendous significance for the living. To “cleanse” communities rooted for centuries, in such a perspective, becomes especially abhorrent. In a wonderful poem, “Text about the hunt”, Dizdar takes on the voice of Master Grubac, a 15th century tombstone sculptor buried in the necropolis on Boljuni, where in life he carved an elaborate hunting scene. This will remind us of Keats”s “Grecian Urn”. Its vision of life is equally poignant, more disturbing:

A tall horseman masters seething spaces of unrest
Handsome Dumb with deep desire Blind
without a sound he tramps behind
the baying and howling of hounds
panting thirsty straining for the blood of future
battlegrounds

Francis R Jones’s English is wholly convincing. I am less convinced by the language of the three other poems, out of 15, which Jones translates with Middle English diction and spelling. The last poem he renders, “A text about the five”, dates from 1941 when the Nazis and their Croat Ustasa collaborators descended on Bosnia. To prevent their reading it, Dizdar wrote it out in the Arabic-based alhamiya script, to make it look like a religious text, since this had been the main script used for the Bosnian Slavic language throughout the Turkish occupation from early 15th to late 19th centuries. “One man counted bound and led/ One man whom the four men dread.” A theme of Scar on the Stone is the threat perceived by others in Bosnia’s haeccitas, its unorthodox and non-Orthodox differentness.

Differently, Abdulah Sidran has written screenplays for the brilliant Serbian film director Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat (1996). Two of the poems which Hughes translated with his usual effacement of his own verse personality in the interests of presenting a foreign writer, evoke violence from the past. “Gavrilo” appropriates, sympathetically, the voice of Gavrilo Princep, assassin of the Austrian Archduke in 1914 – “Hurry, my heart, let’s get the weapons”. “The Partisan Cemetery” recalls Tito’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural band of dourly committed heroes and heroines:

The dead
Are here simply to set our sufferings
In perspective. So now let’s go – slowly
After a feast, a wholly Slavonic
Feast in a graveyard, souls intoxicated.
Let the bone walk, the flesh
Walk. The books, little sister, are open –
The history is being written
The Martyrology is open. What remains
For us
Is to remember our names, and never to forget them,
Never, never again, to forget them.

Sarajevo’s people weren’t passive victims. They fought or supported fighters. This is neither a “war” nor an “anti-war” poem. Like Dizdar’s evocation of long-dead heretics, it is poetry about history: a force in the present.

Izet Sarajlic (born 1930) was wounded by a shell in Sarajevo during the siege. Clearly an awkward customer, he became President of the Writer’s Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1971, was dismissed after 17 days and was later expelled from the Communist Party. But his clear, precise verse remained popular. His translators include Brodsky, Enzensberger and Yevtushenko – and, here, the Yugoslav-American poet Charles Simic. Sarajlic is one of the rare beings to make something out of Brechtian “simplicity”:

If that Tuesday I had died in Berlin
Neues Deutschland would announce that a Yugoslav
writer of the middle generation
suddenly died of a heart attack, while I – and this is
not just idle talk –
need to croak on my native soil.
You can see how good it is that I didn’t die
and that I’m once again among you?
You can whistle, you can applaud.
You see how good it is that I didn’t die,
And that I’m once again among you all.

Again, this is not a “war poem”, but an incident in the ongoing relationship of a writer with his public, cherishable in its cocky understatement of feeling which might be called “patriotic” but escapes its dodgier definitions.

Simic also translates Dara Sekulic, whom he compares with Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan. Agee himself, from cribs by Glavinic, renders the magnificent Marko Vesovic. “White Hawthorn in Pape” says nothing about war, but presents themes of beauty and endurance in nature and human history. Ilija Ladin, translated by Ken Smith, is completely different, “highly influential among the ‘rock’ generation of poets of the eighties”. Nuala N’ Dhomhnaill translates into both English and Irish Gaelic a poem by Ferida Durakovic, whose bookshop in Sarajevo was burnt down during the siege. It is called “Georg Trakl on the Battlefield Revisited, 1993.”

On high, above the planes, dwells God, the beloved
eyes gleaming gold above the Sarajevo gloom.
Fruit-blossom and mortar shells both fall beyond my window.
Madness and me. Alone. We are alone. So alone.

Trakl (1887-1914) died young as a result of the First World War – he overdosed after a nervous breakdown in uniform on the Eastern Front – but cannot be called a “war poet”. His last poems are the response of a remarkable Expressionist and Modernist poet to the horrors of war which extended his perception of the general crisis of bourgeois Europe. The aloneness evoked by Durakovic is a state of human consciousness which isn’t confined to battlefield situations. The next poem by her ends with a cryptic reference to Edvard Munch – the poet’s aloneness relates to Munch’s famous peacetime image of The Scream .

My copy of Scar on the Stone now has pages inscribed “with love Vojka” and “Thanks for listening, Igor Klikovac”. In April 1999 I heard them perform, with Chris Agee and Ken Smith at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway. Agee teased Vojka Djikic for her recklessness in front of the Irish traffic, not being used to left hand drive. She said, “I’d like to die here, in Galway”. Later, she repeated that she wanted to die. Was this a joke? Her five poems in the anthology aren’t directly about the siege. “We must bid farewell to the words/ which have betrayed us” is a statement of life passing – applicable anywhere. But clearly she is haunted by unhappy memories of the war. Igor, nearly four decades younger, got out of Sarajevo in 1993 and now works as a freelance writer in London. His four poems come directly from the Siege. A bag is packed for a “trip” as the mortars thunder. A boy throws paper planes from a balcony as sirens wail, and the poet thinks of the “childlike absent-mindedness” on the faces of Serb killers. In a football stadium “The souls of the dead are taking the best seats”. This handsome young man, striking new poet, may sustain his career in permanent exile. Will the siege have only a small role in his work, like that verse about Europe after D-Day written out of war service by Kingsley Amis? Or will nightmares haunt him as they did Robert Graves? The anthology title quotes a poem by Fahrudin Zilkic, “Ricochet”:

It’s when you hear the shot,
and while you’re lying flat on your
face you’re splattered with gravel.
Ricochet –
it’s when a year later you recognise the scar on the stone
where your life went on again.

Colin Mackay’s extraordinary sequence of 68 poems, Cold Night Lullaby , presents an intersection between wartime Bosnia and everyday Edinburgh. It attracted press attention unusual for a “slim volume” of verse, and a whiff of controversy. Did the events described “really happen”? Except by those stupid enough to believe that poems only possess authority if they approximate to “historical documents”, the issue can be ignored as irrelevant. Like most vivid prose memoirs, Graves’s Goodbye to All That , which we all think contains a “truthful” account of the Western Front, has many passages of description and dialogue which must blend memory and imagination. Try writing down an account of any interesting experience immediately after it has happened, and you will discover that the process involves leaving out lots of remembered information for which there is too little space, and improvising other information on the basis of probability. The question we have to ask of writings of the kinds we call “literary” is not “are they exactly factual”, but “do they ring true?”

Mackay does ring true. His eloquent Foreword evokes the experience of someone inspired to drive from Edinburgh to Bosnia as an Aid Worker, part of the new “International Brigade without self-righteousness”. Some of them died, and the death of a man whom he calls “Johnny” is the subject of an especially powerful poem. Johnny’s real name, he suggests, was “Everyman”, and Bosnia – both like Scotland and Napthali in the Bible, “lovely and a land lost in darkness” – was truly “Everywhere”. Mackay’s convoy reached a village, recently “cleansed” by its Muslim inhabitants of Serbian families domiciled there for generations. One Serb woman had been allowed to remain, because her Muslim husband had died fighting for Bosnian independence. While Mackay was away in Sarajevo to arrange a flight out for Svetlana and her two children, Serbian fighters crossed the river and hit the village. “When we returned that afternoon, it was a place of corpses”. Everyone had been killed. “Svetlana had been butchered. Ludmilla, six years old, was dead beside her with her brains blown out. Ahmad had disappeared”. In the poem-sequence, Mackay discloses a passionate love affair with Svetlana. It has to be said that the lyricism of the poems which evoke this is not as convincing as the terseness of other sections:

and my weaker half cried to you, Svetlana
shield me, shield me
between your serene breasts
with the calm of your woman’s strength,
with the calm of your river
and your village, its ancient hearth
when day explodes around us
in all the plains of the sun.

Earth Mother or Muse of all the Ages, she does not seem to belong with the vivid mundane entities of a war-torn land which Mackay presents elsewhere so well. “Serene breasts” is not quite a cliché, but it sounds like one. Yet in context this discrepancy is moving in itself – an attempt to assert the timeless against bad time. And the writing remains careful.

What is evident, and immensely impressive, throughout Cold Night Lullaby , is its effort towards precision. This is not “protest poetry” pressing for a political reaction. It lives through as-if-observed detail. The details may not be patterned exactly as in this or that particular experience, but one feels that they derive from experience:

In the burnt-out cafe
stray pigs from a nearby farm feed
on Ivan the chef and his two pretty waitresses.
Somewhere
the thud of mortars
somewhere the splatter of shots,
the screaming of an incoming shell,
but beyond the blackened hole
where the window used to be
under the still-functioning Coca-Cola sign
the pigs feed on.

The Coca-Cola sign is crucial to this passage. It verifies, so to speak, this implausible horror. The narrator, overpowered with hysteria, is given a jab by a medic and falls asleep to dream of Scotland, where:

the office will be having its coffee break
about now and the Number 27 bus
will be halfway up Dundas Street
and no one will believe that
any of these things are happening
in the same world as the office
and the 27 bus.

The flat free verse is characteristic, though at times Mackay heightens or tightens his rhythms, or enriches his language. Poets should be wary of assuming that such verse, charged with powerful subject matter or thoughts, can thereby create durable poetry. But Mackay’s 27 bus enforces the important point that our everyday co-exists with horror. Mackay states fact. He does not say that people at home are morally deficient for not screaming about Bosnia all the time, merely that they can’t imagine such things. Now, he can lift the verse towards a more “poetic” conclusion, worked-for, earned, impressive:

But the pigs are still feeding
on Natasha’s breasts and Ivan’s buttocks
done to a nicety and crisp around the edges,
and the morning sky
is blue as the robe of glory
and warm as my love
so glad to be alive
to make these ashes speak.

“Love”…? Proleptically, at this stage of the book, love of Svetlana? Or a wider love of humanity? The poem, “Pigs”, makes the macabre mundane, then turns back with bitter irony, but also warmth, to validate the burnt and eaten dead. So this is “War Poetry”, by a civilian, spanning like Graves’s prose narrative from peace across war to haunted peace. More could be said about this remarkable book, and will be. To return to In the Heart of Europe , in Agee’s complex poem, “Fleur-de-Lys”, memories and talk of Bosnia tumble together with references to Ireland, to Achilles, to Moses in the bulrushes, to Herod, to the US Cavalry’s massacre of Nez Perce Indians – “The same old story, males on the rampage”.

We do not need to attribute the horrors of Bosnia (Rwanda, Algeria, Congo, Sierra Leone… ) to some “Evil in the heart of humankind” in terms of traditional Christian theology and its doctrine of the Fall. From ancient times, males from puberty to young manhood have “proved themselves” by aggressive behaviour. Young African or Melanesian warriors steal cattle or pigs, to provoke little wars of a ritual nature. In medieval Ireland a young chief had to establish his prowess by rustling. To be a man, the Bornean Dayak must bring home a head. The Capulets and Jets of Shakespeare’s Verona and Bernstein’s New York and the razor gangs of old Glasgow are instances of the same phenomenon as sends Hibs and Hearts supporters reeling through the streets of Edinburgh at weekends. Then they marry, have children, become peacable citizens. The murderous young males of Ireland over the last three decades have been given Causes by their elders’ bigoted interpretations of history. The vast conscript armies of modern Europe have enlisted male violence and made its exercise respectable. The atrocities committed by Canadians in Somalia, part of a UN peacekeeping force, are a recent illicit example.

Prose fiction and drama, I’d suggest, can cope with this area of human experience when poetry, as a rule, can’t – if it sets out in some old-fashioned way to be “epic” it will alienate all decent readers. Contemporary verse commonly teases us to enter the undramatic persistences of life, the enigmas of unofficial personalities outside what Agee, as quoted before here, calls the “Chorus of identity”. I think Harry Clifton’s “The Literal Version”, in In the Heart of Europe , deals finely with the problem which we often have, not only with approaching a foreign poet in prose translation, but one of our own in a brand new book – “where is this guy at?”:

On Sundays at least, “her lips” –
I am quoting from various texts –
Ice-cold, pressed against my cheeks”
And his weekends, snowed in
By a blizzard of football games
On changing screens, or given over
To cemetery visits, godlessness,
Bleak honesty. For the dead
Are everywhere – there has been war,
There will be again…

That is the only reference to war in a lengthy poem about a Bosnian poet whose work, Clifton concludes, displays a “sense of solitude/ And a longing to connect”. Connections are random, unpredictable. The German infantryman on the Eastern Front remembers Goethe as he moves in to destroy a village. The RAF bomber over Berlin suddenly recalls lines of Blake. After gang-rape, a Russian thinks of Onegin. The expansions of imagination and empathy and conscience which poetry provides are no guarantee against barbarous behaviour. But to keep writing verse in besieged Sarajevo was to affirm the faith that the connections which might be made could be worthwhile, and leave something behind to represent whatever oneself had been, or might have been.

Published 9 March 2000

Original in English
First published in

© Angus Calder / Chapman / Eurozine

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