Selling Honey on the Road to Sarajevo, Love and the Hangman in Croatia, Untitled
SELLING HONEY ON THE ROAD TO SARAJEVO
1. Potocari, near Srebrenica, 2005
Groundsheets of mist.
The sweating of grasses.
It covers the boots of the workers
breaking the earth in their windcheaters
and bright anoraks.
It eats the blades of their shovels.
Down on their knees
among them are the women, opening
the soil up with their hands.
They might as well be digging their own graves.
The clucking of stones like worry beads.
Hands and the blades of shovels like plates
presenting the dirt; everything
they have left, which is almost nothing.
Gusts of grief and longing.
Hair torn lose from a headscarf.
Red fruit for the workers. And coffee. And row after row
of graves, each one the length of a body even though
all that might be left is a tiny tray of bones
or, more often than not, much less than that.
The woman holding part of a shoe with a thread
hanging from it. The shoe of her son,
which she had mended. The woman sobbing
over a single rib. The woman who recognizes
the teeth of her husband. And begins to kiss them.
The woman who has nothing but the memory
of making love, blinding herself
to the fact that their country had gone to war
since they last bought groceries. The woman
who has nothing. The woman who has less
The woman sitting quietly beside a tiny cairn of bones
who says: "Please, let me touch him just once more."
2. Look No Further
It doesn't matter how little we are given—
a set of teeth, splinters of bone, clothes,
belt buckles, bullets, watches and rings—
we can build whole worlds out of what we lack. Imagine
the disciplined attention it must take to recognize,
after they have spent years in the ground, the teeth
of someone you love. It should make us grateful
to know it is possible
to love with such attention. Imagine the safe,
banked taste of the soil; even the ghost of the body long
gone now inside the earth's dark bag.
We could hide behind metaphor.
But what use is metaphor when it makes even emptiness less
than it was? All we need is a woman kissing
the teeth of her dead husband. We should look no further.
I have quarreled with my god. I will have nothing
to do with him. He is perfectly impossible.
An image I keep bearing: a wounded child
hidden by a newspaper in Pavelic Street;
the paper's headlines, words of violence,
details of curfews. We bought flowers and the war
engulfed all names and religions. It was
but a small step, then, to the edge of town
where we were cut down like beasts. War
is always unfinished business:
I never found the words for a life
split in two. Bosnia, hope and dream, a mad
house, a battered suitcase thrown to the ground
during a bloody halt on the long journey.
3. The Long Journey
Spent bullets and piss and cigarettes
on the floor of the sniper's nest. Mines and borders
in the hills, the fur of an animal caught low on the wire.
Convoys of supplies held up in the mountains.
The child who knew enough to keep silent among
the spent bullets and piss and cigarettes.
Fact: men fight for what they believe
without knowing clearly what it is they fight for.
In the hills, the fur of an animal caught low on the wire.
There were graves dug nightly in the city parks.
There were pop cans that soon became hand grenades.
There were spent bullets, there was piss, there were cigarettes.
But in every war there are miracles and stories of luck:
a stray donkey grazing its way through the minefield,
in the hills, the fur of an animal caught low on the wire.
The lies dealt out by the state: forget them. Remember
the things you've never been told but know, even so, to be true.
Spent bullets and piss and cigarettes.
In the hills, the fur of an animal caught low on the wire.
He was murdered. There was no grave.
There was a quest that became an obsession
leading to shards and fragments, a dim sense
of terror. Bones
roaming through the streets of the burning city until
everything that moved was finally
silenced. But something escaped
and overcame the pages deleted from history.
The quest is arduous. It began
and it will end in a small room, in boxes of papers—
notebooks, letters, diaries—in which you might well find
some pictures of your father. Bow to the evidence.
It contains, like a shadow, the essence
of what is sought. To everything—
to the river, to the poplars and willows, to the silent
ravens on the highest branches—a firm foothold.
And to you: believe you will die in a better world.
4. After the Party
You can't begin to know what it feels like, he said,
unless you've been there. It's impossible to describe, he said;
I can't find the words for it.
As if these facts alone are reason enough to stop trying.
As if to remain silent in the face of atrocity were not
a political act. And how, if he can't find words for it, can he know
what it really feels like? And how, if we can't find the words
for the sufferings of others, can we claim
to speak for ourselves? And what does it feel like,
really, to be part of a war you cannot escape from?
He had his passport, his press card, his ticket over
the border. His avenue of exit. Whiskey
and slivovitz in the safe zone. Shoes, he said,
there were so many shoes, in the streets
by the river up in the hills. Imagine running so fast you lose
your shoes. Imagine having your shoes taken from you.
Imagine someone, a neighbour, moving in close
and sneering: You won't need shoes where you're going.
And years later, when it is over, the networks
will airily announce that the refugees are returning and are cleaning
up their country, as if they had merely stumbled, slipped
off the pavement and spilled the groceries; as if
they were hoovering the apartment after a party. Oh
look, a leather jacket forgotten in the bedroom! Oh look,
a red sling-back behind the stereo! Oh, look how all
that can be salvaged of our father, missing for years,
will fit into a single shoe.
I went. Like many others. I came away
with what would not leave me.
I reached beyond the grimace of suffering,
the blood that was shed, into the gut
of our dying century. I believe in the story
I want to tell. The intimate betrayals
of myth and legend, the lurid
power of past violence. History as prison.
The carnage. The secrets. The last families
scattered and broken, mirrors of their country.
Genocide. Cowardice. The failure of policy.
The strange, unwieldy attempts to palliate
damage. How hopeless and ridiculous
are borders drawn in blood.
I heard words steeped long in love
and friendship. But they grew rarer and rarer.
Overwhelming: bodies among the ruins.
Suitcases. Books. Scraps of clothing. Unthinkable
that we should know so little of the wounds,
the bereavement and division.
5. These Days
There were grants to rebuild mosques and churches, grants
to start strawberry farming, beekeeping, bakeries,
grants to rebuild houses. And whenever I
begin to wonder how it's even possible
to return with nothing to a country that cannot be found,
I remember there are women selling honey,
now, and strawberries, on the road to Sarajevo and that some
of what they need is always close at hand: the gentle,
productive Carniolan honeybee, and the mountains, the herb
covered mountains, the gardens and wild mushrooms;
narrow alleys of the old towns, ramshackled beauty
and the glimmer of water, men with cigarettes in the shade
of the trees. The shade of the trees,
a second dusk. And the silence and the soil. Still,
there are days I can't work in my garden; days I can't justify even
such gentle ransack and ruin.
War, convenient and visible.
Faithful, the voice of despair.
The utter folly of shaping a country
that could not be found. An angel
extricated us from our dreams
at random; at random,
the singular, cold executions: friends,
braver than was reasonable, cut through.
In them live the mysteries, for which
I thank them. The journey began:
in darkness for years we lived,
a war between us. And the pursuit
of peace? That takes longer,
is more painful, the hardest road.
The light that sustains me.
The sections above in italics are "found poems" from Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo by Roger Cohen (New York: Random House, 1998).
LOVE AND THE HANGMAN IN CROATIA
Every morning on the balcony we play Hangman
over breakfast. The words, we agree, have to be
in Serbo-Croatian: it is a way, we decide,
to learn the language and so feel less
like tourists. I tell you I believe
that the way we assemble the hanged
man has meaning. Because the body is a metaphor.
And what we do to the body is a metaphor.
You build your body backward, adding
the scaffold of the gallows as if
it were an afterthought, an accessory,
like a Homburg or a handbag, and your
last gesture is always to connect that tiny
length of rope to the neck. But I build my
gallows before anything else. The rope drops,
then comes the head round as a button; then
the banner of the body. And the legs, always akimbo,
even though in real life they would hang straight
down and inside the long, slack bell of each pant leg
would swing the femur's thin clapper. I add
the right arm last of all because this is the arm
that owns the hand which moves the pencil
over the paper. Shadows of clouds
and birds. In the center of the table like tiny urns,
clay jars of jam and honey. We come up
with patnja and klaonica and razaranje easily
enough as into our small cups we pour one more
black bullet of coffee. Out beyond the harbour,
threads of surf where the ocean stands
against the shore plucking its sleeves; and the fishermen,
who have been out since dawn, have left
their vessels roped along the pier like a row of teeth
and come up from the quayside with their donkeys, fish
piled in their panniers like embroidered slippers.
We watch them cross the wooden bridge
over the narrow stream, the hooves
of the donkeys like lacquered ornaments, the plush
gutter of each ear nodding freely like heavy blossom.
I feed you the thick coinage of a sliced banana
as we puzzle over our words as they assemble, letter
by letter, into their assigned spaces on the paperó
those dashes like a run of stitching, like a bullet's
trajectory in a child's drawing of war. All day
the bridge remains empty, its thin arc
spanning the water like a faint dash.
In the evening when the fishermen return
there is always one among them who has shouldered
the empty panniers, let the tether drop
and is walking with his free hand resting
on the withers of his tired companion.
patnja: pain, agony
klaonica: shambles, slaughterhouse, butchery
razaranje: holocaust, havoc, destruction
Still to come: what's growing in your microwave a special Eye Witness Health Report you can't afford to miss and one of the first Ukrainian soldiers to arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau and now living in New Jersey tells us what he remembers of that historic moment sixty years ago today plus a new rapid procedure that dramatically reduces wrinkles you have to see it to believe it all this and more. After the break.
—local newscast, January 27, 2005
So it continues: the marriage of tragedy
and the banal. The news anchor wants a story
but all he is given are fragments, scraps
and mouthfuls of memory. Teeth. Each one full of silence.
Where? How many? Beyond counting. In thirty days
we can all look ten years younger, wrinkles and worry lines
melting away. Hair, tons of hair. Shoes and toothbrushes.
How many? Beyond counting. Whine of light on the wire;
clothes piled up like the pelts of animals. There are microbes
thriving in all our microwaves. And bodies, corpses. Don't ask
how many. In the commandant's garden the loose,
worked earth of the flower bed; an ornamental cherry
shattered by gunfire. He's tired, distraught, not
a good subject: all the anchor wants are a few slick stories, easy
Hollywood chronologies, but all he's getting are fragments,
scraps, small mouthfuls of memory. More
than enough. Fragments are the story; without them
there can be no story. On the wall, stigmata
of bullet holes beyond counting. The effort it takes
to keep the heart's gates open to history and its heavy cargo.
There is no other work. Once, and years ago,
I hitched alone from Prince Rupert to catch
the eastbound Amtrak train from Seattle; I remember
the regular swathe and smudge of wipers;
the husband, in the front seat, tilted
forward and twisted strangely toward the window, holding
his wife's right hand. His silence, which I took
for indifference. She and I talking about writing
and the weather: small bursts of language then long
periods of green blur and drizzle. In Lakeview,
stopping for petrol, and watching her husband stutter
across the forecourt to the shop and only then
understanding that the way his torso tilted him forward
from the waist and twisted was permanent. Him coming back,
then, to the car, and stretching his arm out to hand me
a can of warm soda and a bar of chocolate and, as he did
so, the loose, worn cuff of his shirt slipping back so I saw
the faded string of numbers in the skin of his forearm. Auschwitz,
he said, as if clearing his throat; Birkenau, he said,
still holding the chocolate so our fingers touched.
I was ten. Bags of cement and gravel. They broke my spine.
For you, he said, his accent wide and difficult, gloss
on a crow's wing; and his fingers relaxed
and he released and I accepted
his gift. I'd got it all wrong—
his silence, I mean—because what possible use
would any of us have, later, for language,
if the narrative of the life we had when we were ten
had been reason enough to kill us. He never spoke
his name. His wife was American. And how
does it end? It doesn't. Evening. The train station
in Seattle. A fine rain still falling. A bar
of chocolate in the pocket of my jacket. Watching them
pull away from the curb and into traffic. Waving.
And I've been saying it since to everyone I know
and it's been slipping beneath the skin
of every poem I write and how does it end? It doesn't.
Repeat after me: Auschwitz-Birkenau. A boy. The beautiful
new ladder of his spine. Broken. Bags of gravel
and cement. Don't ever tell me this isn't a story.