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(Ed.Note: The following article and the poems that it introduces were sent to us by Balint 
Szombathy, who had translated the poems into Hungarian from Serbo-Croatian, a few of 
which where selected and in turn translated into English by C. Polony.)

Poetry of Three Sarajevian Poets


Balint Szombathy

        Is it still possible to talk about poetry after Sarajevo? -- to paraphrase Adorno's 
brooding question. In the wake of all those war dispatches of raw reality-like appearing 
nightmares of war that wrung our consciousness to the limit of indifference and 
insensitivity? And we had thought that wartime suffering's tragic degeneration had already 
been quientenscencialy etched forever in our minds.
        Once, when I was twenty-some years old, in a Roman Polanski's film -- sometime, 
strangely enough, but perhaps not accidentally: in his own life -- I saw such brutality as 
today's television 'entertains' the current 20th century European generation, among whom 
are those who perceive the tramatic aftermath of WWII only second-hand: through the fate 
of their predecessors or through the everyday encounters with the antagonisms of 
multinational groups.
        Countless contradictory analyses have seen the light of day about the ensuing bloody 
events in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, on whose embarrasing convolutions there 
is no need to dwell. Because it is clear that what is above all missing from all the 
explanations is the human being. Or -- if we can put it that way -- the poet. Because the 
poet doesn't get lost here either, where death has become customary. More precisely: 
where death appears, there the poet must put up his tent.
        History records death not individually, but statistically. It doesn't  perform its duty in 
the name of human conscience. Besides, it always trails after events, it doesn't have an 
adequate dialectic, no future vision. Becasue if it did, had it, then maybe there wouldn't 
have been Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Mostar, Sarajevo...
        "What happened to us during just one night, my friends?" asks the Sarajevian in family 
name as well, Izet Sarajlic, who is the most fitting poet of the three introduced here.
        A poet who swears to poetry's internationality, fearlessly, openly names the causes of 
all the suffering and hopelessness. He is able to accomplish this, without any hesitation or 
guilt, on the merits of his art and humanity; afterall he stayed in the Sarajevian hell, and 
was wounded himself when a mortor round hit his house. He stayed there so he could 
share the pain of mourning with the city's inhabitants, whose history had become 
inseparable from his own ever since he had penetratingly condemned the spurious 
optimism, desolate soul, inhumanity of socialist realist poetry in the 50's.
        He couldn't have known back then that in the beginning of the 90's he'd have to stare 
unflinchingly into the consequences of that spiritual desolation and the destructive base 
instincts of his mountaineer society. Because, so it seems, its much easier to maintain a 
condition of darkness then to accustom people to the light.
        Miljenko Jergovic, Goran Simic and Izet Sarajlic approach Yugoslavia's tragedy as 
different generations and through different thought processes; their communality lies in 
their unanimity in upholding human dignity. The Croatian, the Serb and the Muslim poet 
regret not so much a world that is no more, the end of the various state organizations -- 
Sarajlic also poses the question, whether or not those who once were friends can still 
consider each other friends -- but rather, how did all this happen, come to pass, because 
he feels that it is shameful how people molted themselves so as to give free reign to their 
destructive, animal instincts. By now its obvious that for many this was not difficult.
        Besides undeniable poetic and humane moral values, the work of the three writers is 
characterized by high-level, sensative documentation, permeated by a unique day-to-day 
dairy quality. Their poetic views and the metaphors built on them however often more 
truthfully depict the events, the uttermost failure of human intentions, then the most 
harrowing news reports of the war.
        The poems were first published in outwardly insignificant appearing pamphlets by a 
semi-legal Belgrade radio station called B92. The station from the beginning -- because 
of its unbiased reporting and advocacy of peace -- was a thorn in eye of the ruling system. 
The Komarac [Mosquito] titled series of publications are of a non-profit nature, because 
they can't be bought. They are available in a few more open-minded bookstores only by 
exchanging them for other books. The volumes obtained in this way will become part of 
that Sarajevo state library's future collection, about whose fate Goran Simic wrote 
agonizing verses.
        The three poets rise above political viewpoints and nationalist emotions and 
immemorialize Sarajevo's days of war by adhering to universal human values. We can rest 
assured that their is poetry after Sarajevo; and after all of this I think that concepts such as 
freedom and truth are often not really so relative, as we might imagine.
        All manisfestations of value function within given circumstances. Even how we feel, 
how we think and how we dream.
        In spite of a seige of several years the Sarajevians didn't stop believing and dreaming, 
and so its probable that the poetic declarations we read here are just first the buds springing 
from human tragedy, a lyrical harvest more substantial than their size, whose unquestioned 
value is human closeness that points even beyond authenticity.


1. Goran Simic
From the "Mourning of Sarajevo" journal

The Face of Mourning

Well I know mournings's face
whom the Sarajevo wind strafes
while flipping through newspaper pages 
stuck together from pools of blood
on the street where I awkwardly watch
my steps with a small loaf of bread under my arm.
It's in the river too
when its waves sway a dead woman's body
on whose arm I notice a watch
as I run across the bridge with a bucket full of milk.
And, in the chill of December, I saw that face in a hand motion
that stuffed a shoe of a never grown child  
into a wood-burning stove.
It's a face that returns its thanks on the back of family photographs
that flutter beneath garbage trucks.
And it is the face that rebukes a trembling pencil
for being incapable of writing a bulky dictionary of lament.
A face which nightly keeps me from sleeping
which is why I watch my neighbor
who is always awake by the window
staring into the blind darkness. 

It can start all over after all

After I buried my mother
and ran from the cemetary in a shower of shells
after I gave back my brother's rife to the soldiers
when they brought him back in twisted canvas
after I saw the flames in my children's eyes
as they fled into the cellar amongst horrifying rats
after I wiped an old woman's face with a rag
fearful that I might recognize her
after I saw how a hungry dog
licked his bloody wounds on a street corner
after all of this
I'd like to write poems like news reports
that are so empty and uninteresting that I could forget them
the moment someone asks me on the street:
why do you write poems like an indifferent news reporter?

Lament for the Council Hall

When the State Library burned
the city was suffocating in a blizzard for three August days .
In the days following, I couldn't even find a pencil in the building
but if by chance a few survived their hearts were no longer beating.
Even the erasure left black streaks behind.
In a sad mournful fiery death my home disintegrated.
As if liberated from their bodies
well-known heroes of novels flooded the streets
mingling with passerby's and the souls of fallen fighters.
I saw Werther resting on a decrepit cemetery fence
Quasimodo camped out in a minaret's courtyard
while Raskolnikov and Mercaud became friends
enlivening each other with conversation in a cellar cranny.
Gavroche strolled in a camouflage uniform and a resurrected
Josserien was already haggling for a better deal with the enemy.
Not to mention young Sawyer
who in the hope for some pocket change
was turning somersaults into the river from Prince Gavrilo Bridge.
For three days I lived with tremendous suspicion
in this spirit-city of hardly a living soul
where even the mortors only fell because of me.
So I just holed up in the building
and entertained myself with tourist brochures.
I only dared to finally come out
when the radio announced:
ten tons of ashes were removed from the Library's basement -
only then did my pencil's heart begin to beat again.

A Love Story

Bosko and Amira's story,
who in escaping Sarajevo tried to cross a bridge
hoping that on the other side
where the bloody past reappeared anew
there could be a future for them,
was the media-event of the Spring.
Death was waiting for them in the middle of the bridge.
The man who pulled the trigger wore a uniform
and was never accused of murder.
The whole world press wrote about them.
Italian articles wrote of Bosnia's Romeo and Juliet
French journalists praised love's inseparability
which tear up political boundaries.
The Americans recognized in them two nations' common symbol
on the bridge split in two.
The British saw their corpses as examples of wars' absurdity.
And the Russians just kept quiet.
The dead lovers' photographs spread out
in the blooming Spring.
Only my Bosnian friend Prsic
who secured the bridge
was forced to watch day after day
how the worms the misquotes and crows
finished off Bosko and Amira's bloated bodies.
I heard how he cursed
when the Spring wind blew from the other side of the bridge
the stentch of decay
forcing him to pull on a gas mask.
About that however not one paper made mention.

(click here for an update on the story behind this poem: Bosnia's Tragic Lovers)

A message of thanks

I'm still alive. In Sarajevo.
For now that means: living in the past.
To talk of the future means: to dream.
A white paper is my final home
whereas my pencil is my religion.
Sometimes I want to exchange the graphite with gun powder.

I'm still alive. In Sarajevo.
In a city in which death by shrapnel is thought of as natural
and natural death as artifical.
The recorded central events gave birth to this book.*
The extent of my pain 
is the extent to which the decorative elements of poetic language
surpass my intention
to just record.
I didn't look for a form --
form looked for me.
It can also be taken as material evidence.

I'm still alive. In Sarajevo.

I thank all those
who wear this city's name on their hearts.

*Goran Simic: Sarajevska tuga. Radio B92, Beograd, 1994.

Goran Simic was born in 1952. He has published four poetry books, written several 
screenplays for animation films, edited a Bosnia-Hercegovina young writersÕ anthology as 
well as the journals Lica [Faces] and Dalje [Ahead]. He has owned and operated several 
bookstores in Sarajevo. 

2. Izet Sarajlic
From the volume, "Sarajevo's War"

Theory of maintaining distance

The theory of maintaining distance
was discovered by writers of post-scripts,
those who don't want to risk anything.

I myself belong among those
who believe
that on Monday you have to talk about Monday,
because by Tuesday it might be too late.

It's hard, of course,
to write poems in the cellar,
when mortars are exploding above your head.

It's only harder not to write poems.

The war reached us so very unprepared

Today is the tenth day of war
and we still can't really hate.

To Boro Spasojevic,
the architect, friend, human being

Before the war broke out
I promised you
that I would write a poem about Sarajevo.
On the day
when I saw
how you mourned the destroyed city
before the TV cameras,
you wrote my poem for me.

All that remains for me to do
is to put my name after the lines.

Former Yugoslavs
(for Mustafa Cengicnek)

Some of us
former Yugoslavs
are marked for genocide
by a part of the late
Yugoslav People's Army.

The Jewish Cemetary

From the direction of Marindvor
the deadliest fire
comes out of the Jewish Cemetary.
Though he set up his machine-gun behind his grave,
Milosevic's mercenary had no way of knowing
who Isak Samokovlija was,
nor who were flattened by his out-going bullets.
He, simply, for every snuffed-out life,
be it a first-aid Doctor
or by chance a street car driver,
stuffs 100 German Marks into his pocket.

Good-luck, Sarajevo Style

In the Sarajevo
Spring of 1992 everything is possible:
you get into a line
to buy bread
and end up in an emergency ward
among torn-off legs.

And still you can say
that you were lucky.

Work Detail

We cleaned up the trash
from both streets.

But how can be clean it up
from the surrounding hills?

Let me just live through this

That I have lived through all this,
besides my lines of verse,
I can thank ten to fifteen ordinary people.
Saints of Sarajevo, 
whom before the war I barely knew.
The State also showed some understanding
about my situation,
but whenever I knocked at its door
it was never home:
gone to Genf,
gone to New York.

After I was wounded

That night I dreamed
that Slobodan Markovic came up to me,
to ask forgivenss for my wounds.

So far that's been the only
act of forgiveness from a Serb.

And that came in a dream,
moreover from a dead poet.

To my former Yugoslav friends

What happened to us in just one night,
my friends?

I don't know what you're doing,
what you're writing,
with whom you're drinking,
in which books you've buried yourselves.

I don't even know
if we are still friends.

*Izet Sarajlic: "Sarajevo's War Journal." Radio B92, Belgrade, 1994.

The 1930-born Izet Sarajlic is Bosnia-Hercegovina's post-WWII best known, most 
popular and former Yugoslavia's most translated poet. Fifteen books of poems, numerous 
memoirs, political writings and translations of his has seen the light of day. His manuscript 
"The Sarajevo's War Journal" in the beseiged city was published in 1993 in Slovenia.

3. Miljenko Jergovic
From "The Himmel Comando"* cycle of poems


Through the cloudy window the farside of the street disappears.
Your finger touches the window pane, the scribbled names and drawings.
Once you scratched at the paint under the fogged up window,
and a carbon smelling piece stuck under your fingernail,
sending a mild shiver of terrror down your spine.
Later in a heat wave things changed their shape,
it all seemed
like an undulating reel of film in an over-heated projector.
Pretty soon we'll reach the point
when life's boundary is marked by the in-coming explosions,
crackling metal fragments flying every which way.
Steel splinters beds down our bodies on statistical tables,
and our souls are stuffed into the morgue's freezers;
among the war's reserve beef provisions,
in the company of dead proletarians and Frankensteins,
who unexpectedly rose from the dead,
scaring to death the dead spies.
Their hearts are squeezed into velvet underwear
and in the choking embrace of muscles their souls fly out.
When death is seen vaporizing out of the tin caskets,
while the extremities are scattered on the vault of the green-glowing death chamber,

stagger up to the window-pane and breathe upon it.
Without leaving a print or any betraying sign 
frozen finger-nails touch the glass,
not even void is left behind,
just the sound of tin,
hints of life
in the gnarled soundlessness of a dream.

The Cathedral

The battle rages on the radio waves.
In the pad-locked room Yugo's aroma streams apart.
Under the window-caressing cherry tree branch.
The body sudders in the nervous twilight--
Vampires stir in loved ones' souls.

The battle rages on the radio waves.
There's five minutes left of night in the city,
that God had swathed in veiled silence.
Among the soundless branches and the gentle breeze
only the Cathedral bell is heard,
just as it came tumbling down.

Heaven's Commando

In the square Albanians
light candles in memorial to their martyrs.
Low-flying fighter-jets
extinguish them every half-hour.
as many flickering flames remain
as there are martyrs.
From a respectful distance we watch impassively,
to see which side will be the first to give up:
will the desperate people holding matches relent
or will the airplanes run out fire-power first?

(Pristina, 1990)

* Miljenko Jergovic: "Himmel Comando." Radio B92, Belgrade, 1994.

Miljenko Jergovic was born in 1966. He has published two books of poetry. He writes 
essays on film, literature, comics and rock music. He is a journalist for the daily, Slobodna 
Dalmacija (Free Dalmacia), of Split, Croatia.

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