Nine Alexandrias

By Semezdin Mehmedinovic, translated from Bosnian by Ammiel Alcalay Pocket Poets Series, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2003; paper, $9.95 The truths of the Bosnian atrocities of the early 1990s are being litigated now, many years later, as Slobodan Milosevic finally stands trial for war crimes. But no one can take back the horrors of medieval-style sieges on suburbs and cities alike, the mass killings of innocent civilians, the regressive, Third World conditions of wartime, even as they are repeated in real time in the Middle East.

The writer Semezdin Mehmedinovic, a Bosnian refugee now living in Alexandria, Va., with his wife and son, is one of many artist-dissidents who finally took their opportunity to flee ravaged Bosnia, fearing for their lives as provocateurs of truth. Mehmedinovic’s recent book of poems, Nine Alexandrias, takes on more subtle subject matter. Mehmedinovic is best known for his searing, disturbing and yet ironic Sarajevo Blues, which accounted the Bosnian war from the perspective of one who chose to ride it out and lived with the constant, all-penetrating aura of death.

Nearly seven years later, living a comparatively bucolic existence in the United States, Mehmedinovic still struggles with the meanings of things. Taking a train ride across country shortly after Sept. 11, Mehmedinovic notes the ironies of life here and its dark undersides, all the more insidious in this country: “They say Billy the Kid liked passing through town / to raise hell, but in time mythic devotion to the / Wild youngster turned to fame. / If we agree that terror can be defined as the means / You use to enter into a pact with fame and glory, / Then you’ll see a sign of the times appear as clearly / As the dulling clatter of the tracks before us [sic].”

Mehmedinovic’s prose is not self-righteous or sentimental; instead, it’s direct and makes its points with observation and attendant remarks. In “8 Things About Cadillac” he offers, “I never saw Cadillac in a war zone. / They don’t come where the light’s gone out. / You only find them where immediate / Fear’s eliminated.” And later, “I’m not a painter, but I think / American mysticism might just be found / In the hyper-real pictures of this world.”

Semezdin Mehmedinovic must have a hard time believing in God. Having witnessed the horrors of Bosnia, it’s clear that any notion of God as a supremely powerful, all-loving entity would be a difficult one to hang onto. And yet, Mehmedinovic still acknowledges a wisp of belief, if only to suggest that God is not what, or who, we think: “I’m going through Arizona at night, like a crook: / I came to America — the three months / Spent in Phoenix I’ll remember by the sun. / I visited Arcosanti then, an / Architectural attempt to put the / Cosmos on a human scale. / And now, watching a kid / Trying to settle into an uncomfortable seat, I figure God exists, / At least while my son sleeps in Arizona.”

Nine Alexandrias, his fourth book of poems, was first published in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2002, while he was in exile in the U.S. Translator Ammiel Alcalay, a poet in his own right, brings its eloquent truths to us as an activist for the truth. As Alcalay writes in the book’s introduction, “Nine Alexandrias transports us to an America we haven’t yet known but must be prepared to recognize,” referring to post-Sept. 11 life here. “It is a haunted place, permeated by the specter of home-grown and exported atrocities that, somehow, seem to be kept in check by the narrator’s own knowledge of what he keeps from us.”

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