“Poetry of Witness,” from Sarajevo with Sorrow and Poetry is Blood: Book Review

For whom were these poems intended at the time I wrote them, during the shameless Bosnia war and the siege of Sarajevo? …The lines I wrote were written in the belief that, when compared with the cold newspaper reports which would be forgotten with the start of a new war elsewhere, only poetry could be a true and decent witness to war. — Goran Simić, Preface to from Sarajevo with Sorrow.

from Sarajevo with Sorrow by Goran Simić, translated by Amela Simić. Windsor (ON, Canada): Biblioasis, 2005.
Poetry is Blood by Keith Garebian. Toronto (ON, Canada): Guernica Editions, 2018.

 

Poetry of Witness

What is “poetry of witness?” you might be asking. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe looks at the Latin root of the word experience: “ex-periri, a crossing through danger.” In her essay, “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art: To hell and back, with poetry,” Carolyn Forché writes:

In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence. Witness begets witness. The text we read becomes a living archive.

The horror and the dead can live on, carried by survivors, across generations. This is the way that I’ve come to think about poetry of witness, and this has informed my reading of from Sarajevo with Sorrow and Poetry is Blood.

In these two collections, Goran Simić and Keith Garebina share the experience of war: Simić bears witness to the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995 Bosnian War), Garebian bears witness to the generational trauma of the Armenian genocide (1915-1920).

from Sarajevo with Sorrow

77 from Sarajevo with Sorrow

Simić’s “The Face of Sorrow” begins with a metaphor and an image:

I have seen the face of sorrow. It is the face of
the Sarajevo wind leafing through newspapers
glued to the street by a puddle of blood…

In “A Common Story,” the images intensify: When they brought him to the hospital, half his / body missing….  By the time we get to “Love Story,” we’ve travelled from the particular and immediate experience of the poet to the political reality of murder and the mythologizing of journalism and war. The poem brings us back from romanticized news to the ugly experience itself, as well as the unaccountability inherent in war:

Love Story

The story of Bosko and Amira was a major
media event that Spring. They tried to cross the
bridge out of Sarajevo, believing their future was
on the other side, where the bloody past had
already gone. Death caught them, in the middle
of the bridge. The one who pulled the trigger
wore a uniform and was never called a murderer.

[…]

My friend Prsíc, a Bosnian soldier who guarded
the bridge, watched each day as maggots, flies,
and crows finished off their swollen bodies.

 […]

This is a story that you may recall, but a different story than the one splashed across news channels, this witnessing elicits repellent emotion in the reader, removing all remnants of romance, and we are “marked by the encounter.”

Finally, in the last stanza of “Spring is Coming,” Simić addresses what remains after the siege:

Spring is coming. On crutches.
The time of medals is coming,
when children from freshly whitewashed orphanages start
       searching for family albums,
the time when big flags cover this landscape of horror
in which my neighbour, in the basement,
holds a child’s winter glove in his hand. And weeps.

This haunting aftermath is where we enter the poetry of Keith Garebian.

Poetry is Blood

77 Poetry is Blood

Keith Garebian did not experience the Armenian genocide of 1915-1920, but he bears witness to the continuing trauma left in its wake. (There is a relatively new psychology that supports the idea of historical or inter-generational trauma. (Please see “The Legacy of Trauma by Tori DeAngelis, American Psychological Association, February 2019, Vol 50, No 2.) Garebian is the son of a survivor and, along with his father, carries the scars, scars that find expression and witness in Poetry is Blood.

The collection begins with an image that echoes throughout, and the poem sets an emotional tone that reverberates across individual poems:

April

A month bequeathing poppies,
compact red explosions.

 Insomniacs found bones
in meadows of ordinary light.

In addition to the echo of “poppies,” the father is embedded in the collection. We come to feel the distance between father and son, the incapacity of the father to touch or be touched. The father is more shadow than flesh and blood.

In one of the early poems, “Okra,” Garebian writes: Did he know the leaves were heart-shaped? / I was searching for his heart but he never knew. In “Songs of Nagash the Ghareeb,” he writes: How long, how long / the song of exile leaping from his mouth? And in “Tell Me Why,” he begins with the plea: Tell me why you are drawn to sad music, / old dull pains, scars that linger generations. / Why your sleep is a struggle deep in a cave. It ends with the pain of the distanced child, now man: Tell me why cruelty gets in the way of love, / like wind knocking the heads off flowers, / like time bruising your shattered heart.

In a long poem, “The Pilgrimage,” the poet visits the lost homeland, the site of genocide and he writes: I walk in my orphaned / father’s shoes, their footfall / imprinting his voicelessness. The poet, like his father is essentially orphaned, lost, seeking.

We become steeped in the lasting impact of genocide, see blood in the explosions of poppies, witness the vacuum where love should reside, and experience almost more loss than can be borne. But Garebian continues to search for resolution. Near the end of the collection, in “Elegy” he laments the father and so much more:

My father’s ancient tribe writhes
on my written page,
groaning under a sullen sun
in a landscape of cadavers
so ghostly real
I can count their groans,
even in this harsh north
w
here introspection freezes
w
hile birds flee on strong wings,
t
heir cries waning in geometric wake.

[and by the conclusion we learn]

The earth moves on
and light dances
as I shelter the dead,
give them refuge in my words
so they may dream of themselves
preying on us as we once did on them.

Conclusion

These poems by Goran Simić and Keith Garebian are not anecdotal, neither are they confessional. The poems in these two collections bare experience of the collective, of cultures so harmed that the weight of destruction seeks voice, seeks listeners to hear and to also experience the trauma. Like the Latin from which experience derives, they cross through danger. from Sarajevo with Sorrow and Poetry is Blood are among the best contemporary examples of poetry of witness.

For readers who want to explore further into the genre, read Anna Akhmatova, as well as the Nobel Prize winners Wisława Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz.

We have come through a century of war but seem to have learned little. Newspaper headlines come and go and now false news clutters our minds. The poets, however, write words that not only sit on the surface of the page, but they write words between the lines, words that resonate psychological and emotional truth, the truth that lingers both individually and collectively. The truth that invites us into ex-periri.

 

Available through your local bookstore or online: from Sarajevo with Sorrow and Poetry is Blood.

 

Author: Kathryn (Kate) MacDonald

Writer & Writing Facilitator. Photographer. Eclectic Reader & Reviewer.

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