It’s Just My Books I’m Burning!

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Djordjevic’s rhythms provide a strong scaffolding throughout this powerful, necessary volume. In Oranges and Snow we have an outstanding example of the literary enterprise.

Princeton University Press has an admirable poetry in translation series called Facing Pages, and continues to burnish its reputation as a literary citizen with Oranges and Snow, selected poems of Milan Djordjevic. Djordjevic’s work is, for the first time, rendered into English from the Serbian Charles Simic, former United States Poet Laureate, and the decision to print a bilingual edition is especially welcome here. It helps the ear meet the intent of the sound of these poems in a language not widely known. Simic, whose native tongue is Serbian, is clearly the right person for the task.

“Conceived as an encounter between two poets and two languages,” is a direct quote from a press release Princeton issued. Lifting a statement from a press release is a first for me, done in this case because it so neatly encapsulates the tasks and the gifts of what the press is doing, and its contribution to enriching the languages of all who read and write. When I see words in another language, including names in journals, I read aloud, often very slowly, and their music becomes part of me in ways I acknowledge but cannot fully comprehend.

Simic, in his eloquent introduction, declares that “The poet’s mission is not to save the world, but to save some human experiences from oblivion.” His own drive to do that, fueled in part by his forced travels in and from Eastern Europe as a child and young man, add weight to his encounter with Djordjevic’s work. “Overcoat ” is a typically devoted example :

Overcoat lies. On the floor.
Without a drop of blood on it.
Overcoat lies. Weary.
Crumpled, discarded and black.
—Overcoat! Overcoat! Overcoat!
—Dear Brother! Rise! Rise!

Kaput lezi. Na podu.
Bez kapi krvi u sebi.
—Kapute! Kapute! Kapute!
—Mili brate! Ustani! Ustani!

In both languages, the details hammer, the coat as a common vessel with a fraught past that makes it imperatively alive and riveting, like the entire volume. It is also impossible to read without recalling Simic’s note that much of Djordjevic’s work was written before an accident that required much rehabilitation and has left him confined to house and grounds. Djordjevic will never be trapped by any impediment.

In “Dusk” he attains and rejects calm :

I stand on the empty sidewalk, before shop windows.
The city shows me its dark side in its nakedness.
Purple-red reflections caught in the windows,
everything like your open wound and mine.

Stojim na praznam plocniku, pred izlozima.
Kao nogatu grad mi pokazuje svoju tamnu stranu.
Grimiznocrevene odsjaje uhvacene u prozorima,
sve ono sto je nalik na tvoju I moju zivu ranu.

Typing Serbian is a slow but utterly not tedious exercise in absorbing sight and sound. It is also incomplete because my keyboard lacks appropriate accents. Like many Djordjevic poems, “Dusk” is deeply chilling, and when, toward the end, he uses the words “angel” and “doom,” he is not being melodramatic. “Angel” in Serbian sounds much like the English word “angelus” , and the piece becomes, like so much fine poetry, a powerful prayer and an admonition against the worst that humanity provides.

He has faced excruciating choices with a questioning, complex grace, painfully explored in “Book Burning:’’

We are out of wood to heat the house,
and still the weather is cold.
I did something that did not make me happy.
My first book of poems,
ON BOTH SIDES OF THE SKIN,
yes, we brought the copies up from the cellar,
took them out of the packages they were wrapped in,
and threw them in the yellow tile stove
and the black metal one. I’m burning books
I wrote a long time ago and doing so remember
other burnings, the many cruel ones in history,
and especially the ones in the twentieth century.
To my books I add literary magazines.
Listen, people, it’s just my books I’m burning!
From the paper covered with words many ashes remain.
The stove heats up from the pages in flames.
We feel warmer and perhaps closer to spring,
the sun shining, balmy weather, clear skies.
Perhaps, we’ll be forgiven for this fire
by the stern judges whose forgiveness we seek?
Nevertheless, I ask myself, is there an excuse for this,
Will my conscience bother me because of what I have done?
Should one sacrifice in everything for higher things?
Perhaps, friends, freezing in a cold house
is not something one should resist in this way
and burn books, words, sentences, white paper
and get from them black and gray ashes and a little warmth.

The reflective tone is a major element in the success of each word, each line. It is heartbreaking and heartening at the same time, as a portrait of a situation forced upon individuals in many nations, and as a portrait of unflinching honesty.

Djordjevic finds solace in many acts, including a gift from his daughter, but even his solace is diluted and at the same time compounded, in parts of “Herbs From Tibet And The Himalayas” :

Medicinal herbs, wild grasses, out of which green juices
            flow like blood,
stalks of grass we chew or feed our animals,
the grasses of Walt Whitman, the grasses of childhood,
            sea grasses,
the fur of the earth that dug its claws in the soil.
Like the air shifting, light smoke dispersing.
What quivers and thickly sprouts and flourishes in dreams.
So like those we feed our souls with, dreams,
in which we are little stones on the water bottom.

Djordjevic’s rhythms provide a strong scaffolding throughout this powerful, necessary volume. In Oranges and Snow we have an outstanding example of the literary enterprise.

Postscript : I began writing this piece the week that all hope was lost for Borders. I suspect that neighborhood bookstores will benefit from this development. All independent bookstores battle on many fronts, and a book with a cover as appealing as Oranges and Snow is sure to make a difference when staff consider shelf space. I have reviewed too many first-rate collections that deserve better covers, and am always delighted to be a cheerleader for appealing design.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →