Francis Jones on Marko Vešović

 

Three cigarettes / Tri cigare, by Marko Vešović

With English translation and afterword by Francis R. Jones 

 

Three cigarettes

 

At day’s end, I went outside to right myself

in black and white. The sun, a coin descending

on a dead man’s eyelids. My God, the wordlessness

all round me, harder to pierce than tank armour.

Life’s as brutal as the nightly tramp of bootsteps  

                                                          

in the logor, the Serbian camp, telling the Muslim

captives the beatings are about to start.

I lit a first cigarette, so my eyes could stray

behind its smokescreen, briefly, out of this logor.

Last night’s dream came back again: my hands held a thread,     

                                    

tied to the hawthorn growing from my father’s grave

in the gorge back in Sandžak they call God-Never-Saw.

A thread to guide you out of hell.

I lit my second. So my soul could float away on its smoke

towards the ghosts from a deaf and grizzled past.     

                                                      

Which whisper to my soul: a single stride from

never-saw to nevermore, that’s your life.

And the world’s as grim as the guffaws

from the blinded in Canto 2 of Kovačić’s Pit.

And then I lit the last. So I could hold, for a moment,     

                                               

a star between my fore and middle finger. An evening

star. And so I could see, through its bluish veil,

more clearly into Karadžić’s universe

whose Logos is the Logor.

 

 

Tri cigare

 

U smiraj, iziđoh vani da se crnim na bijelome.
Sunce je novčić koji se stavlja
na kapke pokojnika. Svuda božija šutnja
od tenkovskoga oklopa neprobojnija.
Život je strašan kao jeka koraka   

                                                                                  
što muslimanima, noću, u srpskim logorima
najavljuje dolazak batinaša.
Zapalih jednu da mi, za dimom duvanskim,
oči na koji tren odlutaju iz ovog logora.
Sjetih se sna sinoćnjeg: u rukama mi konac,   

                                                                 
privezan za glog, nikao iz groba mog oca
u sandžačkome neviđbogu. Konac po kom se
može iz pakla izići.
Zapalih još jednu. Da mi po dimu duša
odlebdi do utvara iz gluve i sijede davnine.          

                                                           
Koje joj šapću: jedan korak iz neviđenše
u nedođenšu - to ti je sav tvoj život.
A svijet je grozan kao grohotni smijeh
oslijepljenih iz Jame Goranove.
Zapalih i posljednju. Da mi, na tren, zaliči              

                                                        
na zvijezdu, među srednjim i kažiprstom. Zvijezdu
večerenjaču. I da kroz plavičast velić
sagledam, što jasnije, Karadžićevu vaseljenu
u kojoj Logor je - Logos.

 

 

I was asked to translate this poem by Damir Arsenijević of Tuzla University for an article he was writing about poetry, atrocity and memory in modern-day Bosnia.[1] Bosnia is in many ways a post-war state, even years after the 1992-1995 war finished. One fact that makes it so is the missing: those who still lie unidentified in mass graves, and whose killers still deny responsibility for their deeds, as do many of the politicians who sponsored their killing. The article tells how the International Day of Missing Persons on 30 August 2008 was designated in Bosnia ‘as a day which was to make visible and encourage the idea that the problem of missing persons […] is the responsibility of us all’. Arsenijević adds that, for Bosnian society, ‘the way ahead, out of the predominant feeling of paralysis, will not happen unless we start openly requesting that those responsible for the execution, burial, and hiding of those who are now missing must be named’.

 

As coordinator of civil-society initiatives at the International Commission of Missing Persons in Sarajevo, Arsenijević organized for 30 August 2008 a display of poems by prominent Bosnian poets, to appear at the Bosnian Parliament alongside works by relatives of missing persons. One of the exhibition’s international NGO funders, however, barred two poems: Marko Vešović’s Tri cigare (Three Cigarettes), and Šejla Šehabović’s Srebrenica, Potočari, 9.5.2004.[2] Arsenijević reports the funder’s representative telling him that these poems were ‘not good poetry’ – because Vešović mentions ‘Serbian camps’ for Muslims, and Šehabović writes about how “četniks” (Serbian nationalist rebel troops) carried out the Srebrenica massacre.

 

Translators, they say, are the closest readers. Translating Vešović’s Tri cigare involved intensely analysing the poem’s words, exploring its allusions, and giving a best-guess interpretation of its implications. This convinced me that condemning this poem as ‘not good poetry’ rests on a failure to understand the complexities and subtleties of its poetic message. Let me explain why.

 

Vešović reports that this poem tells of an incident during the siege of Sarajevo. In a lull in the shelling, he was able to slip outside into the snow for a smoke: here the final phrase came into his mind: that in ‘Karadžić’s universe, the Logos is the Logor’. Thus the poem, it’s true, explicitly mentions just one side in a conflict where, as in all wars, no party had wholly clean hands: Radovan Karadžić, the Serbian nationalist leader, and the concentration camps in which non-Serbs were tortured, beaten and killed. Even on this superficial level, however, Karadžić’s world-view is one of the pivotal, unavoidable facts of the Bosnian tragedy. If highlighting this makes Tri cigare a bad poem, then Picasso’s Guernica is a bad painting for depicting only the Fascist aggression in the Spanish Civil War.

 

A more fundamental misconception, however, is that a poem only means what it explicitly states. If we examine the allusions and undercurrents that underlie Tri cigare, it does not simply accuse one group of hatred, and so stereotype them as the uncivilized Other. As least in my reading, it suggests that any ideology based on irreconcilable difference breeds hatred. Moreover, by alluding to the common origins of Karadžić and the poet, it suggests that the hating Other is perilously close to the self who rejects hatred as a rationale for identity. Paradoxically, when the hating Other views his or her communal roots as a justification for hatred, only by going to these roots oneself can one find ‘a thread to guide you’ out of the hell of hatred.

 

The clues which led me to this conclusion are intricately linked to Vešović’s poetic craft. Because this works both with the possibilities of his own language and with complex nets of allusion, these were hard to reproduce in English. Hence my interpretations of these clues are worth making explicit here:

 

A wordplay in the opening line links the physical fact of escaping into the open air with the poet’s duty to communicate – not from outside, like a news report, but from inside, from the self. Da se crnim na bijelome literally means ‘to blacken myself on the white’, with allusions not only to self, but also to sunlight and space (in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian you don’t “go brown” but ‘blacken yourself’ when you’re suntanned, and you go out not into the “wide world” but the ‘white world’). More importantly, crno na bijelome also means ‘in black and white’. I tried to render this complexity with the English pun to right [write] myself in black and white.

 

In Line 3, božija šutnja could mean either ‘divine wordlessness’ or ‘goddamn wordlessness’. In my translation My God, the wordlessness, I tried to preserve the ambiguous intertwining of positive and negative which I saw as important for the whole poem. (Šutnja – ‘not-speaking’, like German Schweigen – is a notorious missing word in English, where any translation has to be a workaround.)

 

In Line 6, I had to turn the original u srpskim logorima (literally, ‘in Serbian camps’) into an explanation of the BCS word (in the logor, the Serbian camp), because logor was needed for the crucial wordplay in the final line. This highlighting of how the politics of Serbian identity were a key cause of the 1990s Bosnian tragedy is what the ICRC representative objected to. He presumably missed, however, how this was immediately nuanced by the next image: that of Vešović’s own identity. Like Radovan Karadžić, Marko Vešović was born in Montenegro: Line 12 places the poet’s origins in the Sandžak border region with Serbia. In Karadžić’s universe ruled by ethnic hatred, therefore, Vešović would also be categorized as an ethnic Serb, which puts him in a privileged position to critique this universe. But Vešović describes his identity, his rootedness in family and place, as something, literally, ‘by which one can get out of hell’ (po kom se može iz pakla izići, translated as to guide you out of hell) – unlike Karadžić, who used the self-same rootedness to create that hell.

 

Even this insight is nuanced, however. In his commentary, Vešović describes how his father was killed in 1949 because of his alleged pro-Soviet views after Tito’s break with Stalin – and that the hawthorn tree was growing from his grave when Vešović’s family were allowed to give his father a proper burial many years later. Ideological hatred, therefore, is not just something of the war that the poet is experiencing

 

Similarly, in Line 18 the phrase Jame Goranove (‘of Goran’s Pit’) subtly signals that ethnicized hatred is not a Serbian monopoly. Goran Kovačić was a Croatian poet and World War II partisan fighter; his 1943 epic poem Jama (‘The Pit’)[3] tells of the atrocities perpetrated by Croatian fascists against Serbs and Jews. In order to signal that this was a literary allusion, I expanded it to in Canto 2 of Kovačić’s Pit – but its underlying meaning could not be made explicit in English, particularly as Vešović himself supplies no ready-made interpretations here.

 

In the final line, Vešović ends his three-cigarette mental journey through the personal and literary roots of his country’s hell with a far more complex conclusion than that jumped to by the ICRC representative. I read it as this: hatred is, sadly, an aspect of the human condition. Nevertheless, one of the duties of poets is to expose those who create hatred: those whose founding belief is not St John’s In the beginning was the Word (En arkhē ēn o Logos), but In the beginning was the Camp. And even, or perhaps especially, if those who believe this are not some outside Other, but are those who share the poet’s own roots.

 

Far from stirring up old hatreds, therefore, publishing Vešović’s complex but thoroughly humane poem allows us to reflect on the complex nature of such hatreds. And in so doing, it offers a possible way out of the hells that the hatemongers create.

 

*this piece appeared in Irish Pages, Vol. 9, No. 2 (2016). We are grateful to Chris Agee for permission to publish it here.



[1] Mobilising unbribable life: the politics of contemporary poetry in Bosnia and Herzegovina’, in Towards a New Literary Humanism, ed. Andrew Mousley (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[2] Both are reproduced in an article by Marko Vešović protesting against this intervention: “Hoće da nam oduzmu pravo na sjećanje [They want to remove our right to remember]”, BH Dani 29.08.2008.

[3] The original and an English translation are available at http://www.ezgeta.com/jama.html