Saturday, June 18, 2016

Break Every String -- Poetry by Joshua Michael Stewart

In his new book, Break Every String, Joshua Michael Stewart rides shotgun on a trip through the back roads of a small town called Everywhere.  Imagine him sitting there, unfolding an old, worn map of the region—so old that it feels like chamois—and featuring all the tired places encompassed there.  He may point to a lake, a school, abandoned wells, and homes stuffed with stories.  In his own measured pace, he’ll tell you about those places and why their significance goes far beyond the map could ever show.  This isn’t topography or simple street intersections, this map is a history of a person, a family, and pain.

Stewart doesn’t overshare. He’s subtle with his explanations, and doesn’t quite tell you the whole story. He leaves you with more questions than answers.  But the search, the listening, is the treasure of these poems. Epic stories are told, spanning several poems. And then there are simple phrases, stunning in what they reveal.

A blackbird in crosshairs, singing.

For example, the women of this town, this history.  They are tender, murderous, hateful, or simply invisible.  A brother is alluded to many times, Frank, and his story is told in broken shards that perfectly represents his jagged life.  Frank fights addiction, a broken family, a stint in jail—all working as parallels with the life of the man Stewart describes.  It’s not necessarily autobiographical, but rather a complex amalgamation of character studies.  You never quite know the whole story.

A large part of Stewart’s poems feature letters from mother to son, keeping him posted about the “other” brother. The inference is clear: the other son occupies her thoughts; the broken bird getting more attention than the one in flight with wings aloft.  The pain this inflicts is never mentioned only surmised.  And one that finds our narrator at a loss with his own worth.

            You haven’t had the blues
            Until your mother drunk-dials
            Your number at two o’clock
            In the afternoon and leaves
            A message for your brother
            Who’s been dead since 2007.

Coltrane and Brubeck serve as tonics in this town that maybe should be called Nowhere.  A place where Stewart asks, “What’s the narrative in a still life or a landscape?”

Some moments are universal but no less profound:

            When someone leaves
            Your life, you’re left with a story
            You’ll fetch from your minds library

            When sleep eludes you and you sit
            In the quiet of the kitchen, surrounded
            By the dark and empty rooms of self.

And at times, the contemplation takes a troubled, introspective turn:

            I’m not interested in last words,
            But in final thoughts. Do you love
            The most the one you think of last?

The most intense poem of the collection hits me hard each time I read it. I actually have it pinned to a wallI Wanted to Be a Blue Jay or Wear a Flowered Apron tears me up.  It’s almost the perfect poem, except that I don’t want to accept that the perfect poem has already been written. Much like Ginsberg’s Supermarket in California, it has so much dimension and depth that one could get lost in all the allusions and meanings, as well as get smacked by the simple reality of the words.  Take it straight or read something into it: in either case, it’s brilliant.
poet Joshua Michael Stewart
In it, the unknown narrator reflects on a previous suicide attempt, many years before.  He finds himself in the woods near his home,

            Blue jays flew in and out of the pines.
            I delighted at their squawking—thought of tenement 
            Airing laundry on fire escapes. 
            I wanted to climb the branches for the same reason.

But then, he remembers his father, the things that the flawed man did for the flawed son that were absolutely perfect.  And he waits to be found by that same man. One who he now shares a meal with, realizing what it must have been like for his father to set out the long-ago morning, looking for a son and not knowing what he would find.

            …he takes us back
            To that morning behind the shed, looking at me
            As if I’m a jig-saw puzzle and he’s lost the picture.
            I didn’t take into account that he’d blame himself,
            That, with or without death, guilt would haunt him.

            …nothing rests between us except for our folded 

Stewart’s poems reference jazz as a poultice to old-fashioned heartbreak.  Springsteen gets a nod as does many cultural references unique to rural places that time has left behind. Is it Everywhere? Is it Nowhere? That part of the map is rubbed out.  No matter, the reality is it's Anytown.

Special thanks to Hedgerow Books for the Review Copy.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

GUILTY OF GENOCIDE: Radovan Karadžić, The Butcher's Trail by Julian Borger

After five years of legal fighting, the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague has convicted Radovan Karadžić of 10 of the 11 war crimes he was charged with.  He got a 40 year sentence.

Wait. What?  Forty years? For the massacre of somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 men and boys in his efforts to ethnically cleanse the Balkans?  Sure, he'll die in prison. But even a token sentencing of 6,000 years of prison would feel more appropriate.

You won't find this on CNN today, or much of anywhere. The Guardian carried the article below, but it was one of the few outlets that did. The media has a short-term memory problem.

 The Guardian's article on Radovan Karadzic today (link)

Today is hugely significant, as it took five years and the research of thousands and testimony of hundreds to both catch him and convict him.  People who knew better than to forget the horrors he imposed on humankind kept the investigation moving forward.

The story of his manhunt is found in Julian Borger's new book, The Butcher's Trail: The Secret History of the Balkan Manhunt for Europe's Most-Wanted War Criminals.  Borger works for the Guardian as well, and lends his gravitas to the novel-like story of the investigation of three of the worst war criminals in our time.  Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Karadzic all participated in the brutality unforgotten by citizens of the the region.

Milosevic's lawyer was quoted in the book, "I thought [to] myself that Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic should all have committed suicide. They would have gone into history. Thousands of people died for them, and if you are sending people's children to their death, you should know how to leave yourself" (Borger 223).

A startling fact was relayed in the foreword: "Two civilians were killed for every three soldiers who died in battle. The whole conflict was characterized by random brutality.  Psychopaths were made masters of the life and death or their former neighbors" (Borger xxv).

From the Guardian, source beneath:----------------------------------

Number of dead or disappeared by ethnicity in the 1992-95 Bosnian war
Dead or disappeared, thousands

Other ethnicities

Guardian graphic | Source: Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo------------------------------

Milosevic died in his cell during the proceedings, and Mladic is yet to be tried.  

Borger's book is imminently readable, but the horrors it contains are hard to take. Most of the time  he focuses not on the actual violent acts but instead the spy chase to catch these men, the secret intelligence gathering, and the operatives who put themselves at risk to try and right the wrongs of Yugoslavia's past. It might make a good film were it not so horrifyingly true.
author Julian Borger

I remember one account (not from this book): these brutal men would order a family executed because one of their men had gone missing. Everyone was buried up to their necks in the ground in a small grouping, still alive. The dirt and mud were pressed around them: there was no escape.  How long they lived is unknown before their defenseless heads were attacked by animals and vermin. What kind of conversation does one have with their child in that situation, when death is imminent? How would they look into each other's eyes as the time passed?  Can a worse death be imagined?

Borger's book was just released in January and is one way to honor victims by not forgetting what happened these not-so-many years past.  So while CNN is talking Trump or Kardashian, the real news is the conviction of this hideous man. I didn't want to show his picture but it's the only one I could find where he looks scared. Scared is good.  This was when he was actually sentenced today. 

Special thanks to Jessica Greer of Other Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Those who follow my blog know that my heart is somewhat attached to this area of Europe. An excellent book about the history of Croatia was written by Tony Fabijancic in his book, Croatia: Travels in an Undiscovered Country. Fabijancic also wrote Bosnia: In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip. Both shed enlightenment on the loveliness of most ofthe people alternating with the horror of genocide committed by others.