20 / 20. POEMS ON LOVE WAR & EXILE

Mario Suško & Renée Sigel.

20/20 Cover image; Omo Valley, Ethiopia Steve McCurry, with permission.

A Poetry Co-collection on Love, War and Exile

Two poets brought together very different experiences of war, exile and alienation, join forces to co-author this collection of poems, taking the reader through private lives of memories, loss, the brutality of witneess into the alienation of exile and rediscovery. Mario Suško was born Born December 17, 1941, in Sarajevo, (Yugoslavia) and was witness to the brutal war that followed the decline of Communism and the declaration of independence by Croatia from the then Yugoslavia in 1991. The conflict unfolded amid the Bosnia-Herzegovina war and lasted until 1995. During this time, Suško and his family endured hardships and chilling confrontations, which he details without sentiment in his writing. In his selection of 20 poems, the reader is invited into his memories of childhood alongside the recounting of sniper fire and living in a bombed out apartment, before he was able to leave for the United States.

LIFE

Grandmother and I shared a small crammed room.

I slept on the sofa, she, in a high white bed.

She died when I was thirteen years old.

It was a cold gray January afternoon,

the kind that made your nostrils glue together

and the eyes burn from the coal smoke

belched by asthmatic chimneys in the street.

I came back from school and found my aunt

sitting on a rickety chair in the hall.

She pressed my stiff hands against her cheeks,

whispering, You’ll be alone tonight, my dear,

but I thought only of her soft velvet skin.

She took me into the room and to the bed

where my grandmother lay in her long blue dress,

with a small bouquet of satin violets on the pillow

and two wavering candles on the marble top table.

The curtains were drawn, the wall mirror covered.

It was grandma’s shoes that kept me transfixed,

pointed black caps sticking up like crows’ beaks,

and when my aunt went to close the cupboard door

which always squeaked open mysteriously on its own

I spat silently three times to chase away bad luck.

The cupboard was a giant magic hat, things inside,

never seen, like a gold rabbit foot she smuggled

through the German checkpoint, an endless source

of her night stories. After each she’d kiss me

and say softly, Adesso dormi e fai un bel sogno.

My mother was to arrive by a late train, so I

had to sleep at my place. I stood guard, the major

in the third room, requisitioned for war veterans

by the commissariat, listening to patriotic airs.

I pretended to be asleep when mother tiptoed in.

I tried to remember every song my grandmother sang

to me in Italian, about her homeland, lost love,

and that morning I awoke in the frigid room, alone,

with a shameful erection. I propped myself up,

looking at her waxed face and saw her wink at me.

Two days later I raided the cupboard, digging

out a pistol lighter, cancelled banknotes, letters,

sepia photos of sailing ships, a cracked telescope,

an old broken compass; I got so angry I ran down

to the shed in the yard, dragged out my treasure,

a wobbly corroding bike with no brakes, and rode it

around the oak tree until I was blinded by tea


CHECKPOINT

at the checkpoint made of tree

trunks and barrels filled with sand,

a group of pale bus riders standing

in a meandering line depends

on one man whose belly will

soon have his blouse buttons burst.

am I a Jew, a Muslim, a Catholic:

which one does he want to hate more

today: will my name on the soiled piece

of paper confuse him or make him

pull me out by my shirt sleeve

as if I were a disposable part

of the human race, deemed perhaps

to be worthy of living or dying,

as my uncle used to say, by the look

of my penis: am I saved or doomed

if he suddenly remembers, or I do,

that we went to the same high school:

as I try to keep my sternomastoids

from twitching, my mind from being forced

to accept that someone who has no power

over life is a bigger coward than someone

who does, he positions himself before me,

his sourish breath becoming my breath:

Do you know if Maria’s still there:

his words burn on my face like amber:

there, meaning in the city: and I feel

cold sweat run down my spine: am I

done for if I say yes, or if I say no,

pretend I did or did not recognize him:

but he just grins and hands me

back my papers, moving to a young woman

next to me and motioning with his hand

for her to step out, still glancing at me,

while I rock back and forth, staring

past him, past my life, at the jagged line

of skeleton trees on the mountain ridge

where the dying daylight still lingers.

In stark contrast, yet no less violent, are the experiences shared in Renée Sigel’s writing about her experiences of conflict during the oppressive, violent years that sought to bring an end to Apartheid. Both private and public conflict shape her poems and offer testimony to a life abducted by dyfunction, addiction and political depravity.

ROPE

Is the moment muscle declines

into heartache        of paint, eating away

any visceral breath of dank vermillion

is where we fathom       the rope,

or at a    convergence of eyes,   sunk to the view?

To morsel a different life    against the brush,

is it          the thing to tell you

who you are        because you love:

Or did de Beauvoir wrap these wounds

for a summer      school of it ?

Is how     we bind the rope, a bruising blue

that sleeps on irreverent canvas stretched

as it tills        breasts to a deeper scent of light? 

Come to the end of the rope of      someone,

would you find     an edge of Growl,

like a battle of heroes            grown from your soil?

Or are we, with adulterous surge,           spread like

a gusted headsail,       raw and grazed with salt

in its gaunt     naked truth, only to be reigned

                        the egregious twine of grief,  become our earthquake      weather


THE SLOW WOMEN

The slow women of vast Sunday

afternoons sit knitting hedgerows;

unfathomable currents against frigid wisdom.

Stitched in brutal delicacy of small comforts;

the hypnotic rounding of knots, encircle corners

held to ransom.

Sniper.

Poems of wool to the gashing wound;

a thesaurus of rooms blown to hell.

Wombs gutted, requisitioned for war.

Ululations.

Mouths guttural;

blows spilling saliva

into the dust where rivers breed flies for

the silt of rotting meat;

Requiem.

Drones copulate overhead.

Young Sycamores along narrow straits blush

to a long bluegrey drape of bones;

                        Matters of prayer

        get a beating each sunrise from the slow

women;

dark hands, their ethereal symmetry along the abyss.

No reflection or shadow.

Just the howl of random bags filled with God.

No bodies to be bitten or stolen from forgotten

patent-leather childhoods.

Despair

the only dark crime to complete this precarious

squat of imperative uncertainty.

The gall of men who’d drink your dignity

 and blood for a year strokes every encounter

with the stare of boredom ready to detonate

red and awkward mouths. The indelible

smell

of hell. Unmarked graves dusted with

inedible sherbet.

Flightless.

The slow women drape the sun in charred skirts.

A wedding cake adorned in its frill.

Torn shawls.

Beauty thickens despite death folded at the

knees.

Slowly they congregate, siding with their own lives, to set

free their children from bone-riddled ground.


This collection drawn from insight, hindsight and the realities of life and love alienated by war and exile, offer testimony and a stark truth; no one is immune to having their lives turned upside down by political ideology, yet together, these poems poignantly illustrate that neither terror or tyranny deny the human spirit.


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