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Sarajevo Blues

I left Sarajevo in the winter of 1992, a couple of months before the siege began, and after some wandering I ended up in Chicago. When the war started, I watched the news and read the papers compulsively, for I needed every bit of information to understand what was going on in my hometown. But those stories were reductive and cold, aimed at the marginally interested American public, and not even the infrequent letters and phone calls from my friends and family could help me comprehend the situation. The letters were reluctant to complain, and the phone calls stuck to basic facts and gossip: who was killed, who was wounded, who went to the other side, only occasionally exposing me to the horror people lived in. I needed to know more—feeling intensely guilty for not being in Sarajevo, I needed to imagine fully what it was like to live and think and feel under the siege.

Then, sometime in 1995, toward the end of the war and siege, I received a small, thin chapbook with mimeographed pages, containing Semezdin Mehmedinović's Sarajevo Blues. Semezdin was a poet and a friend (and he still is both, I am happy to say) and I knew he had been writing and publishing intensely in the besieged city, as he was one of the many who believed that writing was an act of resistance in itself. But nothing prepared me for the fragment in Sarajevo Blues in which a mental patient, expelled from the institution by the besieging Serbs, accosts a passerby on the street, holding a dead sparrow by its claws, and says: "And you will be dead too, when my army arrives." Or a mother calling her child playing outside to come home, because "it is shelling outside," a call all the more poignant if you know that the mother was the poet's wife and the child his son.

Sarajevo Blues abounds in images and details that could only
carelessly and callously be called surreal. What to those of us who lived (and still live) unbesieged might appear surreal was in fact hyperrealistic to the people in Sarajevo. Reality was under attack, its structure being altered. With a clear eye and an attentive ear, Semezdin parsed the new Sarajevo reality, patiently noting his discoveries in a combination of poems, prose fragments, and brief essays. The genre distinctions were collapsed because they couldn't really matter—everything was shattered into fragments, and those fragments had to be put together by any means necessary. At the epicenter of it all is a poet's consciousness, for only a poet—and a poet of Semezdin's caliber—could handle the fragmentary detail and the immensity of what was happening.

The precision of the detail, coupled with the awareness of what it all means, is everywhere in Sarajevo Blues. In "Animals," Semezdin writes:

I do not know how much longer I can bear a life like this. I get thrills every time, when at the thundering [of the artillery] outside, the cat snaps out of sleep and then, on my chest, I feel the slow unsheathing of her claws.

The sensory exactness of moments like this brought the siege home for me, quite literally, and made me comprehend what it was like to exist in Sarajevo. But Sarajevo Blues was not just bearing witness—although that would be admirably sufficient—it was also exposing the flimsy ways in which "our" reality ("we" being the unbesieged) is assembled to be comforting and bearable. For in the end, the central fact of every life is death, a fact that "we" choose to ignore for as long as possible. The purpose of "our" reality is to cover up the fact of death, and one of the things writers and poets can—and should—do is to unpack the lies of reality, beginning with the lie of life eternal in the present. What Semezdin did in Sarajevo Blues, with the heart and mind of a superb poet, was to recognize that the collapse of reality in Sarajevo was directly related to the ubiquity of death, which makes the city different from any other place on earth only in degree but not in kind. Nowhere is that more clear than in the poem called "Corpse":
We slowed down at the bridge
to watch dogs by the Miljacka
tearing apart a human corpse
then we went on

nothing in me has changed

I listened to the snow bursting under the tires
like teeth crunching an apple
and I felt a wild desire to laugh
at you
because you call this place hell
and you flee from here convinced
that death beyond Sarajevo does not exist

Reading Sarajevo Blues, I not only understood what it meant to live in Sarajevo under siege—I understood what it meant to live.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Aleksandar Hemon is the author of a book of stories, The Question of Bruno (2000), and a novel, Nowhere Man (2002), both from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. He is a recipient of a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Sarajevo Blues

  • Aleksandar Hemon is the author of a book of stories, The Question of Bruno (2000), and a novel, Nowhere Man (2002), both from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. He is a recipient of a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship.

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