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Translation of Two Poems by Bosnian Poet Amir Brka:
"What Do I Write?" and "Antichrist in Language"

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Laurel Seely
University of California at Santa Cruz

WHAT DO I WRITE?1
by Amir Brka

"Do you still write poetry?"
a friend of mine asks me,
a man who is on my side no matter what,
a friend since childhood,
so I am completely honest.

I write, I say.
But--is it poetry that I write...?
for my relationship
with life and the world
has been stripped bare:
it holds nothing
that could be adorned
with poetry,
especially not metaphor;
things are acutely,
painfully direct,
without distortion.2

Then again, on the other hand, I think
how in this directness
I seize hold of, in fact, the tiniest thing,
and that outside the space
that the spotlight
illuminates in its minutia,
all the rest remains
unreachable, in darkness
(so, then:
immediately, ineluctably,
metaphor steals upon me!).

And therefore--
what I see
is disturbing
in its loneliness.3

ŠTA PIŠEM?

“Pišeš li još uvijek poeziju?”,
pita me prijatelj,
čovjek što mi je bezuslovno sklon,
iz djetinjstva drug,
pa iskren sam sasvim.

Pišem, velim.
Ali—da li poeziju pišem…?
jer spram života i svijeta
dospio sam do odnosa
koji sasvim ogoljen je:
nema tu ničega
što bi se pjesnički
ukrasiti moglo,
metaforā pogotovu;
stvari su vrlo,
bolno direktne,
uvijanja nema.

Drugi put, opet, mislim
kako u toj izravnosti
zahvacam, zapravo, najmanje,
a da izvan mjesta
što ga snop svjetla
precizno raskriljuje
nedosegnuto, u tami,
ostalō ostaje sve
(dakle, eto:
odmah se, valjda neminovno,
prikrada metafora!).

I stoga—
ono što vidim
potresnim da se čini
u svojoj samoći.




ANTICHRIST IN LANGUAGE
by Amir Brka

Trying to reach the edge,4

speaking like that:
and death,
and the grave,
and disintegration,
and the Devil...

Trying to be the Antichrist in language,
dreaming of that.

And what then,
what may come,
what will come,
what could possibly come?

For if everything is in language,
if, then,
language is the ultimate measure--
it doesn't mean that,5
and nobody can force you
to be humble.

Nothing prevents you
from saying everything.

And look,
a logical strategy:
so then we should be quiet,

for within everything,
in fact,
nothingness crouches.6

ANTIKRIST U JEZIKU

Pokušati biti krajnji,

govoriti tako:
i smrt,
i grob,
i raspad,
i Vrag...

U jeziku Antikrist,
Tako sniti.

I šta će onda,
šta li će,
šta će,
šta može uopće biti?

Jer ako sve u jeziku je,
ako je, dakle,
jezik mjera--
ne znači to,
i niko te na skromnost
ne tjera.

Ništa te ne priječi
Sve reći.

I gle,
rezon logičan:
pa onda šutjeti treba,

jer iz svega,
zapravo,
ništa vreba.




Notes on the Text

Amir Brka was born in 1963 in Tešanj, a small town in northern Bosnia. He graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo and is Vice President of the Bosnia and Hercegovina Writers Association. He currently resides in Tešanj. Brka has published four books of poetry, one collection of novellas, and five works on the cultural history of Bosnia and Hercegovina. His book Monograph of a Town was selected by the Writers Association as the best book published in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 2001. "What Do I Write?" and "Antichrist in Language" are from Brka's collection Antichrist in Language (1999) and are translated by permission of the author.7 This is the first time Brka's work has been translated for American readers.

Brka belongs to a generation of young Bosnian writers struggling with the aftermath of the recent genocide and diminishing of multiculturalism in their country. From 1992 to 1995, Serbs massacred approximately 200,000 Bosnian Muslims and incarcerated tens of thousands more in prison and rape camps. In 1995, the international community forced an end to the conflict through the Dayton Accord, which left nearly half of Bosnian territory in the hands of the Serb aggressors and the majority of war criminals unpunished. Today the Bosnian people are trying to recover from the traumas of war and to rebuild their country, all while being discouraged by the international community from speaking publicly of what was perpetrated against them; Bosnian Muslims have been told that to remember is tantamount to nationalism, which is one step away from a renewal of violence. Bosnian writers must navigate a linguistic environment fraught with official lies, disjunctures between language and memory, and self-imposed silences. Brka's Antichrist in Language is dedicated to his recently deceased father. In "What Do I Write?" and "Antichrist in Language," Brka explores the challenges of writing poetry when confronted by the loss both of his father and of the country in which he grew up.

"What Do I Write?" depicts the double bind of a poet who has experienced the unspeakable: the limitations of using language to represent the world, and the paradoxical inability of the human imagination to grasp the world without language. The poet's relationship with the world has been "stripped bare" and can no longer tolerate the dissimulation of metaphor; the imagination has been confronted with horrors that defy the comforting interpretive frameworks that metaphor provides. In the absence of grand metaphors (of history, perhaps, or of human nature), the poet can only bring himself to focus on the physical particularity of the concrete things of this world. His perception is reduced to fragmented, disconnected units that elude integration into a larger whole.

In Visions from San Francisco Bay, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes that, despite the evils humanity has witnessed,

We are unable to live nakedly. We must constantly wrap ourselves in a cocoon of mental constructs, our changing styles of philosophy, poetry, art. We invest meaning in that which is opposed to meaning: that ceaseless labor, that spinning is the most purely human of our activities.

Similarly, in "What Do I Write?," the poet senses metaphor sneaking up on him in the peripheries of his vision; he is unable to depict the harsh flatness of his relationship with the things of this world without describing his vision as a "spotlight." Despite his despair at the inadequacy of language to faithfully represent what he has experienced, he does not succeed at expelling metaphor. As a poet, metaphor is central to his perception of the world, and yet it defies the control of his craft, it lurks in darkness. And the poet no longer has faith in the beautiful trappings with which metaphor softens our perception of the world and reconciles us to its cruelties.

"Antichrist in Language" offers a complementary vision of the relationship between language and representation in the aftermath of catastrophe. The poet starts out with grandiose dreams of the commensurability of language to even the extremes of human experience. Certainly, language can depict evil; after all, we have words like "death" and "grave," "disintegration" and "Devil." Language accommodates the most sweeping poetic ambitions, for the poet is free to say anything and everything. Yet the poet once again butts up against the limitations of language; he approaches the edge but cannot cross over to a space in which language can fully encompass human experience. And the seeming freedom of language actually makes a mockery of the poet's aspirations, for if words contain everything, then they actually harbor the nothingness onto which the poet seeks to inscribe himself. If there is no inside and no outside of language, if there is no presence and no absence, then the poet is playing with empty signifiers that ultimately annihilate what he seeks to depict.

In "What Do I Write?," metaphor creeps up on the poet from the nothingness that lies outside of words. In "Antichrist in Language," nothingness crouches to attack the poet from the very heart of language. In both cases, the poet believes that he has settled on a fixed relationship with language, only to be ambushed by the very entity he thought he had expelled. Language, rather than an obedient medium of representation, has become the problematic subject of representation--threadbare, illusory, roguish--and has usurped the space that memory and experience should occupy. These two poems read in tandem testify to the rupture in the relationship between language and the world caused by an evil that defies representation. They raise a crucial question: how can a poet continue to write poetry after he has lost faith in the power of words?

Notes

1 The Bosnian Šta pišem? contains an ambiguity that cannot be rendered in English. It can be translated either as "What do I write?" or "What am I writing (right now)?"
2 In the original: uvijanje, a difficult word to translate. It conveys the sense of a twisting inwards.
3 The syntax of this stanza is archaic in the Bosnian, giving it a texture and beauty that is not captured in the English.
4 Literally: "To try to be the furthest one."
5 It is unclear in the Bosnian as well what "that" refers to.
6 In the Bosnian, the verb vrebati has the sense of "to lie in ambush," as of a wild animal or a soldier.
7 Brka, Amir. Antikrist u jeziku. (Tešanj, Bosnia: Centar za kulturu I obrazovanje Tešanj, 1999).

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