Book Review

Street Epistles by Faruk Šehić

Great poems from an EU Prize winner; the peripatetic blogger continues to splinter

I read most of these poems stood under the beating Provencal sun, wearing a suit that would – before the day was out – be split across the crotch from zip to whatever the bit that goes around the top of a pair of trousers where the belt goes is called. Sorry, that’s a weird sentence. I’ve had too much coffee. Or not enough. The heat is confusing, it was very hot when I was 1000km away in the South of France and now it’s very hot back in London. I’m sat in a room without a fan or air conditioning. I don’t own any shorts (because I live in London), so I’m baking, burning, boiling. I’m going to spend the evening cracking on with editing the next batch of #TotNTV, which is going to be a belter. (I hope).

Anyway, this is messier, looser, than it was meant to be.

I’m not in a good way atm, I have to move house, which is something I’m finding very difficult to deal with and I haven’t had any therapy for a few weeks due to (one week) being in Provence and (the other week) being too hungover and ashamed about being hungover to attend, which is fucking depressing. As too is ageing, as too is regret, as too is nothing in my life changing for the better, but plenty of things staying the same or – a circumstance I imagine will continue until death – changes where the change is inherently for the worse. My dog is hating the heat and I feel bad for him. I think he’s unwell, I think he’s in pain, but I can’t do anything about it. I took him to a beach yesterday and he was ecstatic, running around in the sand, smelling everything that came near him, running around with seaweed clamped in his little mouth, cooling himself off in the water from time to time. I am happiest when I watch my dog be happy. Or when I’m reading something phenomenal. Maybe both at the same time would be ideal – reading something amazing while my dog sprints around, panting ecstatically (“panting ecstatically” sounds like a phrase from [bad] erotica). I was kinda doing that a few days ago, as I stood in the sun and my pooch skipped about in the nearby shade, as I launched myself into Street Epistles, a glorious – though short – bilingual collection of poetry from Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić, translated by Vesna Stamenković.

Faruk Sehic Street Epistles

When I met Faruk Sehic – for #TotNTV – a couple of months ago, all that I’d read by him was Quiet Flows The Una, a wonderful, heart-breaking book about the Bosnian war of the 1990s (read my review of the book for Open Pen here). I loved it, in fact I loved it so much that my plan to travel around the Balkans meeting writers came, in many ways, out of the enthusiasm I felt for Šehic’s novel. After our interview, Šehić sent me a digital copy of this collection of his poetry, Street Epistles (or Ulične Poslanice).

Street Epistles was published in 2009 after Šehić won the Treci Trg Award, a prize given by the Belgrade Poetry & Book Festival, whose winners get their work published in a bilingual (in this case Serbo-Croat and English) edition. Street Epistles contains poems from two of Šehić’s previous publications, Hit depo (2003) and Transsarajevo (2006). His poems touch on similar subjects in a similar style to his novel, and the collection presented here is – especially to someone who’s already read and enjoyed his later, prose, work – a real treat.

I didn’t rush to read Street Epistles as soon as I received it for a stupid reason. I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, and it would tarnish my opinion of Šehić while I still had hours of interview footage of him to edit. This was a stupid fear, based on previous disappointments after reading poetry by novelists I love. My mistake was to misremember a rule: LOADS of great poets go on to write wonderful novels (Ben Lerner, Sylvia Plath, two quick examples), while many novelists write poor poetry (Malcolm Lowry, B. S. Johnson, two quick examples that gave me great personal pain). Šehić was an award-winning poet turned novelist, so I should have had no fear. His poetry came first, and his poetic, evocative, prose (as translated by Will Firth) is conspicuously strong. Why should I have feared a disappointment? Because I’m a fucking moron, that’s why.

Right, this post is already out of hand. Time for me to describe why Street Epistles is so bloody good.

Šehić was a soldier-poet, a young undergraduate fighting in the Bosnian war, writing poems from the edges of battlegrounds. The poetry in this collection, all of it over a decade old now in #2017, is conspicuously energetic. It most reminded me of the poetry of the Beat Generation. There is sex and drugs, but more importantly than that there is a clarity of tone, an honesty and a visceral stream that is not hidden behind pretence. There is metaphor here, but it is subtle and straightforward, these are not “difficult” poems, and for me that is always a good thing. Take this verse, from ‘On The Terrace At “Dva Ribara”‘, for example:

our heads are in the clouds
of tobacco smoke
we lean back
in our plastic chairs
when the conversation dies down
the words disperse
to quantum dust

It is evocative of lived experience, of hedonism and physicality, but the allusion towards scientific language in that final line adds a tone of something more complex, something wider, setting an individual’s life into a larger, and potentially fictionalised, universe. Šehić regularly alludes to science fiction and fantasy, such as in this section from ‘The Older I Get The More I Believe In Zodiac’, a piece about ageing:

Superman is retired
he limps on his left leg
he holds his arms up in the air when he walks
that’s his professional deformation
from all the flying

This combination of bodily decline and a pop-culture reference is quite typical Šehić, this is very much something he excels at. Locating his works in an already fictionalised world  or, more accurately, in a real world that contains the existence of an already-fictional world. Shared knowledge of fictionality is a key part of how we interact as a species, as a society, which is something Šehić spoke about at length in our interview.

Elsewhere in Street Epistles, he laments and satirises the role of the poet in ‘Death to Poets!’ and includes great lines and images and ideas throughout, such as:

the glass egg
of a street lamp
                              (from ‘Epistle of Light’)

crushed with drink
                              (from ‘Blues’)

factories are monuments to past labors [sic]
used for shooting music videos
and throwing fancy rave parties.
                              (from ‘Blues’)

poetry
is a carcass for high-tech vultures
(from ‘Passing By The Markale I Stopped For A Moment’)

if you want to get to know a town
first visit it’s 
[sic] graveyard.
                              (from ‘Mirogoj’)

There are poems here about depression, about addiction, about apathy and about pain. There are poems about poverty, about sexuality, about nature, about mortality, ageing and about death. But, of course, there are a few that touch directly on themes of war, especially the poet’s own experience. I’m going to close this post with the text of an entire poem, because I thought it was powerful, and I feel that it summarises what I thought was strong and successful within this collection.

Šehić’s poems cover an array of human experiences, and they do so with clarity, with vision and with knowing. This is a great collection, and it’s a real treat for the non-Serbo-Croat reader that more of Šehić’s work is available in English. You can buy the book online here for the OBSCENELY cheap price of roughly £2, or you can do what I did and go to Sarajevo and meet Šehić and maybe get a copy for free. It’s up to you, but it’s definitely worth a read.

WAR GAME

on the top of the highest tower
of the Old town
a sharpshooter
has his nest
the distance between
him and the place
where we
are crossing
is about fifty
meters in a straight
line
if for a moment
you forget
that you need to run fast
bullets warn you
and if they don’t
it means you’re dead.

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