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Translator's Note: Immortal Instant

by Chris Agee

I was recently re-reading Aldo Leopold's classic of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, and it put me in mind of why exactly I so like this poem and others by Vesovi: in each writer there's the perfect fit between a sure-footed delicacy of language and experience that is genuinely hard-earned. This gives to each a deeper coherence, what Mandelstam had in mind in his essay on Dante when he spoke of "the inner image" underlying the fugal unfolding of image-upon-image across his terza rima.

So what I like especially about "Immortal Instant" is the way the two drives, linguistic-metaphorical and experiential-real, are fused and balanced in its rhythm and momentum. We have the whole drama of the Sarajevo siege by the end of the first line—noises off henceforward falling silent, but giving throughout the real context. Thus engaged without being engagé, Vesovi turns to what interests him poetically: the impact of the siege on individuals, the actual nature of its reality at one surprising moment.

Quintessential Balkan images—the fresh and spiky Christmas wheat, the sun umbrella, Sarajevo solidarities, alpine snowflakes—are pushed out like little countervailing spurs of meaning from the harsh spine of violent fact and act. With each seamless elision of image and feeling, one senses the operation of Mandelstam's insight: female heat and bouquets morph to hair sweetening the air; which morphs to the heightened importance of sexual relations in wartime; which morphs to the scent of youthful awakenings; which morphs to the tender surprise of moments even in (or even because of) the most extreme circumstances; which morphs from snowflakes to breezes and thence to the final panoptic vision in which the real itself must be metaphorical. With the final three words, we see that the poem has a deeper philosophical arc too, moving from "acts" to "being" from the "heat and bouquets" of a street's microcosm to the infused macrocosm itself. In this light, the light of the poem's life, the death-bound "sniper at work" (words chalked up on besieged Sarajevo streets) somehow seems little more than a hawk's shadow on midsummer life's Heraclitean flow.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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